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Field work, life’s work
Side shot of a Kinda baboon with mouth wide.

Field work, life’s work

Anna Weyher ’21PhD decodes the social structure of Kinda baboons and empowers women in the local community

Anna Weyher ’21PhD, a UMass doctoral student in anthropology, watches from a discreet distance as a young baboon swings on a low-hanging vine in Zambia’s Kasanka National Park. “He’s changing so fast,” says her companion, Zambian wildlife scout Marley Katinta.

“They grow up too fast,” Weyher responds ruefully, like a parent wishing she could keep her child from venturing into the outside world for just a little while longer.

Weyher and Katinta are observing Kinda baboons that live in Kasanka’s mixed forest-woodland-grassland habitat. Formerly classified as a subspecies of the yellow baboon, the Kinda baboon has recently been recognized as an entirely separate species.

Male baboon interacting with a baby baboon

A beta male named Jojo interacts with an infant

The founder and director of the Kasanka Baboon Project, Weyher is the first to study the Kinda baboon. Conducting field research in Kasanka for more than a decade, she has gained valuable insights into the Kindas’ social structure and behavior, which are dramatically different from those of other baboon species.

Typically, baboons have a reputation for being noisy, aggressive opportunists. Males hold alpha rank for short periods and often resort to infanticide so a female will stop nursing and become ready to mate again. In contrast, male Kindas maintain their rank for multiple years, and there is little fighting for access to females. Instead, they develop long-term relationships with females and interact with infants much more. “What we're seeing in the Kindas is that males are instead staying with the same females over multiple births and reproductive cycles,” Weyher says. “The males are spending more time with the females in all reproductive states, kind of ‘helping’ with the infant, doing a lot of the grooming and protection and things like that. These relationships last for a long, long time.”

Field worker crouched in grass with rifle above a spate of mushrooms

Marley Katinta, long-time Field Team member for the project

A bat-baboon connection

In 2010, with the support of a Fulbright grant, Weyher set up a long-term field site at Kasanka National Park—an approximately 150-square-mile refuge in Zambia’s Central Province. Establishing and maintaining a field site in Africa on her own while pursuing graduate studies in the United States was no easy task. But when Weyher transitioned to UMass for her PhD, it turned out to be an ideal fit. “It’s been the most accepting, rewarding, motivating place,” says Weyher. “UMass has just kind of tied everything together, and I feel such support.”

Weyher’s advisor, Jason Kamilar, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Comparative Primatology Lab, has known her since before she started the Kasanka Baboon Project. Recently, Kamilar and three other researchers have joined Weyher as co-directors of the project, and two of Kamilar’s other graduate students are planning research at the field site. The expanded scope will open up new avenues of study. For example, Kasanka National Park is home to the largest known mammal migration on the planet, as roughly 10 million straw-colored fruit bats spend part of each year in the forest near where the Kinda baboons live. “No one's really studied the potential interactions between the bats and the other animals that live at the park year-round,” says Kamilar. “We're interested in looking at how these fruit bats affect the resident mammal species—the bats that live at Kasanka year-round, the baboons, maybe the other primates.”


Young Kinda baboon crouching in tree

Kinda baboon, Kasanka National Park, Zambia (photo: Robert Barnes)

Weyher’s research on the Kindas also has broader implications. “People use baboons as a model for early humans or human ancestors,” explains Kamilar. Weyher’s discoveries indicate that in terms of social structure and behavior, Kindas more closely resemble ancient humans than they do other baboons. Their home may be more similar, too. Once thought to have spread from a forest habitat into more open grasslands, our early ancestors are now believed to have lived in a more complex landscape with mixed forest, woodland, and savanna—an environment that closely resembles Kasanka’s. “Kinda baboons probably live in a habitat that's much more like that of our early human ancestors than that of yellow baboons and other types of baboons that people have studied in the past,” says Kamilar. “In a lot of ways, the Kinda baboons in the environment at Kasanka much better represent what our ancestors were probably doing.”

More than data—digging in

Over the years, Weyher has established strong relationships with communities around Kasanka. She employs local scouts, including Marley Katinta, who has been working with the baboon project since 2012. He knows all the baboons, even from a distance, and keeps the data collection going when Weyher is away.

For identification, Weyher and her team name the baboons after musicians. The baboon troop includes, among others, adult males Simon and Garfunkel, and adult females Madonna, Aretha, and Ella. To make it easier to trace genealogy, it’s common for primate researchers to give mothers and their babies names that begin with the same letter—Ella’s offspring include Elvis, Elton, and Eminem.

Baboon with mouth open calling to others

Kinda calling (photo: Gregoire Dubois)

Poaching is a big problem in the park, and initially Weyher was concerned that habituating the baboons to humans would put them at greater risk, but the research project actually seems to provide protection for the baboons. “We have boots on the ground every day,” Weyher explains. “We've been told by the ecologists and people doing studies that they can see a difference since we’ve been there. ... We’re kind of like our own little anti-poaching unit.”

Weyher has also noticed a change in the attitudes of local people as they have absorbed some of the scouts’ enthusiasm for the baboons. The scouts “talk about their personalities and how different and interesting they are, and I think that the community has started to understand how similar we are to them, which has been a big step forward,” Weyher says.

It needs to benefit local people as well as wildlife.

Beyond baboons

From the start, Weyher has been committed to making community work a key part of her project. “For me, it wasn't just about going in and getting some data and leaving,” she explains. For a scientific research project to be sustainable, it needs to benefit local people as well as wildlife. Weyher specifically wanted to find ways to empower local women. She started a weekly math and science club for girls to help create an educational community and provide opportunities for hands-on learning. She also established a weekly after-school conservation club—open to everyone—and has raised funds for scientific equipment and books for schools.

Woman standing in center of a crowd with hands clasped

Weyher thanks the Kafinda school (photo: Bastiaan Boon)

While school is free through grade seven in Zambia, high school is not. Since there are no high schools near Kasanka, only students whose parents can afford to pay for room, board, and travel—as well as tuition and other school-related expenses—are able to continue their education. Zambian parents with limited resources often prioritize boys, so in order to give young women the same opportunities, Weyher established the Sarah Darlene Hogle Scholarship Fund in honor of a close friend who passed away. “Studies show that the higher the education of the mom, the higher the education of the kids, and women put a lot more back into their community than men do in general,” she says. It currently costs about $1,000 U.S. to send a girl through high school in Zambia.


Group of students in a classroom smiling

Eager students in a classroom at Kafinda school

So far, three girls from the local community have received scholarships and completed high school. With additional financial support from Weyher, the first recipient, Leah Mwamba, has also gone on to graduate from nursing school. “She was so shy at first but really, really bright, and she's just blossomed into the most amazing, smart, go-getter woman,” says Weyher. Together, Weyher and Mwamba have developed a new project to help village women gain more economic freedom by making cloth doormats out of used clothing and selling them in the local market. Although the seed money comes from the Kasanka Baboon Project, the hope is for the project to become self-sustaining.

Recently, Weyher was also pleased to be able to hire the national park’s first female scout to work with the baboon project. Weyher hopes to continue both the research and the community work at Kasanka for a long time. “Some of the most amazing projects on baboons have been going on for 40-plus years,” she says, “and now the data that they have and the questions that they can answer about human health and stress, and environmental changes, and all of these things over multiple generations, is where you really learn.”

Watch the Guardians of the Wild episode from the Smithsonian Channel which is devoted to Weyher’s work:

A Biologist Studies a New Species of Baboon