Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Fulbright Research Connects Primates and People

 Living in a remote rainforest camp, spending days sifting through monkey feces may seem daunting for some, but for Fulbright scholar Sagan Friant, it’s beginning to feel normal.

Friant, a PhD student of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, returned to the wilderness of Cross River State for the fourth time this March to embark on a 9-month research project with the Center for Education, Research and Conservation of Primates and Nature (CERCOPAN), a non-governmental organization focusing on the conservation and rehabilitation of primates.Friant is researching how changes in the environment impact wildlife health, and how, in turn, this affects human health and the relationships between wildlife and nearby human communities.

Along with two Nigerian research assistants, she spent the last four months at CERCOPAN’s camp, analyzing many different aspects of the camp’s primates, mainly red-capped mangabey’s – including their feces, which she said contain valuable biological information like parasites, bacteria and stress hormones.
The camp, located about 90km northwest of Calabar, is accessible only by a 90-minute motorbike ride through rivers, hills, mud and bush, and is out of reach of mobile phone reception. Friant said the nearest village receives shipments of fresh food only once per week.

“Every day looks exactly like the other one,” she said, describing life at camp. “You’d think it would be boring.” Instead, however, Friant finds living and working with her two Nigerian research assistants, along with her interactions with the nearby village, have been some of the most rewarding aspects of her experience so far.

Friant has formerly volunteered with CERCOPAN, but this is her first time working with Nigerian research assistants. During her previous experiences in Nigeria, she worked and lived with other expatriates, but this time, she is embracing a more Nigerian lifestyle. “I told them I’m eating what you’re eating.” Friant has sampled local dishes, like afang soup, which is made with the leaves grown in the forest surrounding the camp, and periwinkle, a snail species found in nearby streams.

She described her Nigerian research partners as enthusiastic and willing to learn. "They are what keep me happy at camp," she said.

The next stage of Friant’s research involves even more community interaction. She departed in early August to spend the next two months in a rural village in Cross River State. There, she will survey community members on local hunting practices, gauging their knowledge of the risks associated with eating bushmeat (which is often monkey) and assessing their relationship to the primates and forest around them.

According to Friant, many such rural communities rely on hunting bushmeat, which in turn puts pressure on the primate population and exposes villagers to diseases that originate in primates but can be transferred to the human population. Some villagers she spoke with in the past told her they did not realize humans could get diseases from eating monkeys – they told her they thought this claim was an idle threat told to make them stop hunting. Friant hopes to further educate rural communities about sustainable ways to use and benefit from the rainforest around them.

“Ultimately, it’s their forest,” she said. "You can’t really study wildlife outside of humans."
As part of her research, Friant will also host workshops and give lectures at the University of Calabar.
These educational interactions with Nigerians – including the experiences she is having with her research assistants, and those who live closest to the rainforest of Cross River State – are some of the most rewarding aspects of her time in Nigeria.

"I can go and publish my research, but training people who can actually do something with the experience is what makes being here so worth it," she said.


  1. That is interesting. i need a link to this site

  2. Sagan,
    I love the fact that you are working, living and learning from the Nigerian residents. What an extraordinary opportunity -I am looking forward to seeing pictures, hearing more about your experiences and learning from you. Keep it up.
    Andrea (Elissa's mom)