Having previously written a piece for the BEES Research Blog in 2011 on her work placement/research for her 4th year project, Aileen Sweeney now updates us on her current research in Zambia.
My name is Aileen Sweeney and I am now a graduate in Zoology from the School of BEES. My final year project was based on infant vervet monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) behaviour in a rehabilitation centre and I hope to focus my career on primatology. I decided to take a year out before pursuing post graduate studies to gain more experience in the field, and I was lucky enough to be offered the job of Camp Manager/Researcher at Kasanka Baboon Research Project in Kasanka National Park, Zambia. Kasanka is the only privately-owned National Park in Zambia (it is run by The Kasanka Trust) and I will be here for a year.
The project was founded in 2010 by doctoral candidate Anna Weyher and is the first ever study of Kinda baboons (Papio cynocephalus kindae). Kindas are currently classified as a subspecies of yellow baboon (P. cynocephalus); however the project considers them to be a distinct species. They range throughout Angola, southern Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Zambia. They differ from yellow baboons in morphology, and also differ from all baboons in the colouration of infants. All other baboon species (Papio spp.) give birth to black infants, while Kindas can have black infants, white infants, grey infants or even mixed-coloured infants (black/white or black/grey). It’s not yet entirely clear why this occurs, but presumably it’s down to genetics. In the past white infants were mistaken for albinos, but they change colour (to brown) around 3 months of age just like all other infants so this is not the case. While Kinda baboons have been described morphologically and genetically, there is currently no other literature available on their biology…which is where we come in.
I am based within the National Park at Kinda Camp, which is a low-impact but permanent camp purposely built for the project. When I first arrived, Liz, the previous Camp Manager, and I had an overlap period of 2 months during which I received training in the project’s methodologies.
We have no running water here at Kinda Camp; instead there’s a barrel above a sink which needs to be re-filled with water collected from a stream, and we also heat water for our showers over a fire. We also have no electricity, but we do have a solar panel which gives us a light in each of the three main “huts” (the kitchen, the dining room/office and the lab) as well as one charging socket used for charging all our equipment (as well as the phones of every scout/camp attendant in the vicinity it seems!). We have no fridge, so fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as dairy products, are a real treat when we do the monthly shopping in the capital Lusaka (an 8 hour bus journey away). We do have a small garden though where we’re attempting to grow a variety of vegetables. I live in a safari tent which is basic, but is actually bigger than my bedroom at home! It’s amazing how little one can actually live with; my life at home seems so wasteful now even though I always considered myself to be an economical person.
The camp is unfenced (as is the Park) so we get many visitors of the 2-legged, 4-legged, 6-legged, 8-legged and unfortunately even no-legged type! The study group passes through quite often, as do the vervet monkeys. We get antelope species such as puku (Kobus vardoni), sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekei) and bush duikers (Sylvicapra grimmia) near camp. I found a leopard (Panthera pardus) paw print just outside camp in my first week! We also have elephants (Loxodonta africana) passing through; when this happens, it is both exhilarating and terrifying! In fact, a herd of about 15 individuals passed by on the road outside our camp only a few days ago.
On one of my first nights alone at camp (while Liz was on holidays back in October) I was woken in the middle of the night by an elephant right outside my tent. They move so silently that I couldn’t hear it moving, but I could hear it breathing. It smelt the tent (or, more likely, me!) and even touched it a few times. I’ve never lay so still in my entire life! It eventually moved off after about 15 minutes, and once again I couldn’t hear it move except for the occasional twig snapping. A fun story to tell now, but at the time…!
My work each month is divided into two blocks of 10 days research, as well as approximately 5 days community work. This involves the running of the local Girl’s Science, Maths & Conservation Club, and teaching in the local school. I also have 5 days off (mostly used for catching up on data input though!). I wake up at 5am each morning in order to be out with the baboons by 5.30am. I go out with an armed scout in case we have any encounters with elephants, leopards, the baboons themselves or even poachers. 8 out of 10 days we follow them from 5.30am-10.30am and again from 3pm-6.30pm, and then 2 days are all-day follows (5.30am-6.30pm). We collect a range of data on them including; behavioural data (which is the primary focus of the study), feeding ecology, the distance and direction of their movements, sleeping sites, relationships/hierarchy within the troop, births/deaths and immigrations/emigrations.
We also collect faecal samples for genetic, hormonal and parasitic analysis, and I complete the primary hormone extraction in our little lab at camp. Finally, we have also now started with a phenology study which involves collecting data from random transects within their home range (approximately 6km²) to establish the abundance and availability of tree species as well as food.
It’s impossible for me not to mention the bats of Kasanka; each year from late October-late December, Kasanka hosts what is believed to be the world’s largest mammal migration (surpassing even the legendary Wildebeest migration in East Africa). Estimations vary, but it is believed between 8-10 million Straw-coloured fruits bats (Eidolon helvum) congregate here within one patch of Mushitu forest from all over central Africa. This leads to the sky each dawn and dusk literally becoming completely filled with bats.
It’s impossible to fully describe this experience with words or photos or even footage; it’s truly spectacular and something you need to witness in person, so if you ever have a chance to come and see- do it! Luckily for me, the patch of forest they roost in is only about 1km from camp and so the bats have basically been my neighbours for the last 2 months, although nearly all have left again now.
This job certainly isn’t for everyone; waking up before dawn to follow the baboons in temperatures that usually reach >30°C while wearing wellies and carrying a heavy backpack; using a torch at night and having every insect in the vicinity attracted to it; having a cold shower if it’s raining and you can’t start a fire; having no fridge so no cold water when you get back to camp overheating as well as no way to store perishable foods; and of course enduring almost constant insect bites (I’ve already been ill with malaria despite religiously taking anti-malarial medication since I arrived!). It’s fairly tough going at times, but I absolute love it and already feel that finishing in 9 months is too soon!
I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to be part of the project. It’s so motivating and exciting to know that the data you’re collecting is leading to completely new information on a previously unstudied (sub)species. I look forward to the future when (hopefully) Kinda baboons will be promoted to species level, and to the time when Anna’s findings from this project are published!
To see more of Aileen’s spectacular photographs, see the BEES Facebook page.
Aileen’s work was recently featured in the Irish Examiner newspaper. See here.
The Kasanka Baboon Research Project is registered as a non-profit organisation in Zambia and research is carried out with full support from the Kasanka Trust and ZAWA (Zambian Wildlife Authority).
For more information please see any of the following:
Project Website: www.kasankababoonproject.com
Project Blog: www.kasankababoonproject.blogspot.com
Aileen’s Blog: www.irishkoala.blogspot.ie