Primate Conservation in the Pearl of Africa

A group of baboons at Kibale National Park make behavioral observation easy.

My sophomore year of undergrad at Cornell, I applied on a whim to Hunter College’s winter break study abroad program with Dr. Jessica Rothman, a primatologist in the Anthropology Department at Hunter. I have been passionate about wildlife since childhood.  Even as a toddler, I would stare unblinkingly at my safari motion lamp, watching the elephants, giraffes, and lions strut in an endless loop and dreaming of the day that I would see them for myself. When I was admitted into the program, my dream was coming true. 

Tito, a habituated chimpanzee in Kibale National Park, takes advantage of a photo op.

It’s no secret that there is a danger in setting high expectations. In the weeks leading up to my 2018 trip to Uganda, I had ample time to question whether my study abroad experience could possibly live up to my hopes. And I can’t count the number of times I screamed at the television in horror in the week before my trip, as the Weather Channel heralded the arrival of Winter Storm Grayson, the bomb cyclone that slammed the East Coast two days before my departure from JFK Airport. Pre-trip jitters aside, I can say with tremendous gratitude that this trip managed to exceed my already sky high expectations. This experience lent me an educated view of the nuanced complexities of conservation. 

 The course, Tropical Forest Conservation, was primarily geared towards field research, so we spent time learning how to identify flora and fauna in the forest, how to track primates as they moved throughout the forest, and how to best observe them in Kibale National Park. This first leg of the trip allowed me to see a range of species in their natural habitats and to see for myself the ecological diversity present in the park that makes its protection essential. I also gained a better understanding of the unique opportunities and challenges associated with field work. 

The second leg of the trip in Queen Elizabeth Park consisted of game drives, during which we saw lions, elephants, warthogs, hippos, African buffalo, and more. Seeing these species for myself was definitely among my favorite parts of the trip. However, throughout the course, we also heard lectures from various conservation workers in Uganda, from researchers to members of the Uganda Wildlife Authority. I had the chance to hear firsthand about some of the challenges of conservation and to understand the complexities of achieving lasting change. Before this course, I saw the challenges to conservation as being quite simple. I imagined those who would seek to harm animals as movie-style villains, all but swathed in black capes. The narrative is certainly riddled with villainy, but I now know just how many complicating factors there are. Many people in Uganda have complex relationships with their native wildlife because the animals are inadvertently hindering their way of life. A single elephant can consume in one night the crops that would feed a family for a year. Wild animals can at times pose a threat to the livelihoods of local people, so asking them to help conserve their wildlife is more complicated than I had initially thought.

Elephants at Queen Elizabeth National Park enjoy a dip.

I was so intrigued by the challenges to conservation that months after my trip, I interviewed Dr. Colin Chapman, a professor in the Anthropology Department at McGill University, Canada Research Chair in Primate Ecology and Conservation, and the head of the Kibale Monkey Project in Uganda about his conservation and humanitarian work. Dr. Chapman’s extensive research work around the globe has lent him a unique perspective on how to best promote an interest in conservation. He told me that “Almost everywhere the local people want to conserve. There’s a real pride in their forests and their animals. When they don’t conserve, it’s mostly because they feel they don’t have a choice. If you have to cut down a tree to send your children to school, what’s your choice? I think that’s the thing that I’ve found around the world and I find it really positive. If we can provide things that make life a little bit easier, it’s basically going to mean that there’s a big will to conserve.” My own experience in Uganda led me to similar conclusions. Dr. Chapman’s efforts to improve park-people interactions have already yielded positive results. (For more information, I recommend visiting Dr. Chapman’s website: http://www.chapmancolin.com/ ). 

The issues surrounding conservation are so multi-faceted, they will require an equally complex approach to solving them. My trip to Uganda and the conversations that ensued were a tremendous learning experience for me. Through my different conservation and wildlife medicine related experiences, I have met so many different people with different backgrounds, opinions, and skill sets. What unifies them is a passion for conservation and a drive to support animal populations and their environment, and, in doing so, better the human experience. 

 


Colleen Sorge, class of 2024, is a Cornell DVM student from Long Island, NY. She obtained her undergraduate degree in Animal Science from Cornell University in 2020. She has a wide range of interests within the veterinary field, including both small animal and wildlife medicine. 

 

Dinner lecture: “Let’s drink to conservation – how coffee can help people and the planet”

What: Tropical Biology and Conservation will host Dr. Amanda Rodewald, the Director of Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Garvin Professor in Natural Resources who has worked extensively with bird and biodiversity conservation in Latin American agroecosystems.

Pizza and beverages provided from 5:00-5:15 PM, the talk begins at 5:15 PM and a discussion follows.

When: April 11, 5pm

Where: Emerson Hall, room 135

Lunch Lecture: Linking migratory bird conservation with agroforestry and coffee cultivation in Latin America

What: Ruth Bennett will be presenting a seminar entitled “Linking migratory bird conservation with agroforestry and coffee cultivation in Latin America.”  This is co-sponsored by IP-CALS and Tropical Biology and Conservation.

When: Wednesday, March 28, 12:20-1:20 pm

Where: Emerson Hall 135

Event: Tropical Biology and Conservation meeting

 

There will be two talks; Gerardo Soto will be presenting his research titled “Defining Forest Health to Help Conservation Planning in Chile” and Ted Lawrence will be presenting a talk titled: “Linking Economic Globalization to Changes in Maya Forest Landscapes of Yucatan, Mexico.”.  Pizza and beverages will be provided and please bring your own tupperware and utensils.

Tropical Biology and Conservation will also be discussing some of the upcoming activities for the rest of the semester.

When: Wednesday, February 21, 5:00-6:00 pm

Where: Emerson Hall, room 135

Tropical Biology and Conservation Symposium, Call for Abstracts

The first annual Tropical Biology & Conservation Lightning Symposium, hosted by the TBC Graduate Student Association, will take place on Saturday, October 21st at 10 AM. This symposium will provide the first campus-wide opportunity to engage with and learn from a large, interdisciplinary group conducting research and projects in the tropics.

TBC-GSA is calling for abstract submissions of original research, new ideas, and project experiences that fall under the major theme of tropical and conservation sciences. All talks will be 5 minutes long and presented in lightning rounds.  Lightning talks are short-form talks, which are unlike traditional conference presentations, panels, or lectures. Each speaker gets five minutes and must use a limited number of PowerPoint slides. The main goal is to spark new conversations and collaborations across disciplines with fast-paced presentations. It’s a great opportunity to learn about the work of a large number of colleagues across campus with similar interests in a relatively short period of time.

TBC is seeking talks from graduate student, postdocs, professors, project staff, and advanced undergraduates.

To participate, please submit a brief abstract (title and 50-word description) to tbcsymp@gmail.com by Saturday, October 7th. Also please identify the thematic area that most closely represents your presentation from the following list:

Thematic areas:
Tropical Biology & Ecology
Conservation Sciences
Anthropology
Ethnobiology
One Health
Sustainability & Biodiversity
Indigenous Studies

If you have any questions, please contact us at tbcsymp@gmail.com.