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.
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.
It needs to benefit local people as well as wildlife.
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.
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: