Ten years after anthropologist Anna Weyher started the Kasanka Baboon Project in Zambia, the program has become much more than a groundbreaking primate research program. Not only has the project led to revelatory observations about Kinda baboons, but it has also provided educational opportunities to young women in the villages near the 150-square mile Kasanka National Park and an increased awareness of the native wildlife and ecosystem among the members of the surrounding communities.
Until the launch of the project in 2010, when Weyher received a Fulbright Scholarship while earning her Master’s degree at Washington University in St. Louis, the behavior of the Kinda baboon (Papio kindae) had not been studied in the wild. Kinda baboons, smaller and more slender than other baboons, live in Angola and southern Democratic Republic of Congo, in addition to Zambia. Through the project, Weyher, now a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has helped catalog a number of previously unknown details about the docile Kindas. Her published findings from the last decade include discoveries regarding the primates’ sexual selection, male-female grooming patterns, dominance and migration among males, seasonal variation in diet and ranging patterns and paternity and friendships.
“Typically, male baboons mostly pay attention to females when they’re sexually receptive and it’s the females that are really bonded together, spending a lot of time grooming and socializing with other females and their infants,” Weyher says. “When females are born into a group they inherit the rank of their mother and they stay within that group throughout their lives, and when males reach sexual maturity they leave to join another group.
“What we’ve seen with Kindas is kind of a complete opposite – the rank system in males is a little bit more fluid. When males join our group they come in from the bottom and kind of queue up; they make friends with the lowest ranking females and males are doing the majority of the grooming with females. And all of this is really fascinating: these male Kindas are staying in relationships with these females for multiple years all through all reproductive cycles the males are doing the majority of the grooming, we’re seeing much more female mate choice and there is a lot of reduced aggression between males. The males spend all this time grooming and they hold infants and it's almost like a different mating strategy – sort of playing the long game.”
Over the past decade, Weyher has been able to track the generational growth of the Kinda communities she’s studied through DNA sampling. “In the last few years several females that were born into the group before the project started have matured and are now having their own infants, so that’s pretty spectacular,” she says.
Weyher says that poaching and habitat loss are a significant problem in Zambia, and an extreme threat to the wildlife, including the Kindas. The Kasanka Baboon Project is the only permanent research project in the park, and since the onset of the project, Weyher and her colleagues have been helping park officials with their anti-poaching efforts by walking through the vulnerable habitat daily. Research conducted by the park shows that the presence of the project’s camp has helped push the poachers out of the central area, and data has shown fewer snares and gunshots have been reported in the area since the project started in 2010.
“Baboons in this part of Zambia are poached for meat, witchcraft and traditional medicines, so by creating a kind of community aspect to what we do and with our scouts’ constant boots on the ground we’ve been able to play a role in the regional anti-poaching efforts.”
Weyher has used the project to create a lasting impact in the local community surrounding the Kasanka National Park, as well.
“I come from a family of strong women,” she says, “seeing the support my mom and my grandmother provided and being involved in organizations where women help women, so a main goal from this project was I wanted to start a scholarship program for girls to be able to go to high school and beyond.”
In 2012, Weyher established the Sarah Darlene Hogle Scholarship Fund in memory of her friend who died in 2005. The scholarship provides funding to send female students from the area to complete grades 10-12. On average it costs about $700 per year to send a student to high school in Zambia, which includes room and board, tuition, uniforms, books and school supplies, and transportation to and from boarding school during holiday breaks. To date, the scholarship has helped five young women complete their secondary education.
Weyher has also used the project to launch the Girls Science Club, which meets twice weekly at the Kasanka Conservation Centre to improve local girls’ science, math and English skills, while teaching them about conservation and providing life skills, such as first aid and computer ability.
Additionally, the project has raised funds to purchase needed science equipment and textbooks for the local basic schools, and visits the schools to give presentations on Kinda baboons, the project’s research and wildlife conservation.
Now a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, the project relies on donations to support its research and educational outreach.
“There have been years when I've only been able to fund the project from fundraising,” Weyher says. “We’ve done fundraising events and some crowdfunding before, and every little bit we receive from donations helps.
While Weyher remains in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic, the on-site project manager and scout follow the baboons 20 days per month to continue to collect data. The project manager also spends at least five days a month actively running the project’s community endeavors.
Weyher is optimistic about the project’s future, post-pandemic, though. “Finally in the last like six-plus months I’ve asked some other people to join me,” she says. “Now a PhD student who did her work with me in 2017 has joined on, and my advisor at UMass, Jason Kamilar, and a couple other colleagues will hopefully help with writing grants, as well, so the hope is that we’ll be a long-term site for a really long time.”
More information about Weyher and the Kasanka Baboon Project, and a link to donate to then project, can be found at kasankababoonproject.com. “Zambia’s Peaceful Primates,” a 2018 episode of the Smithsonian Channel program “Guardians of the Wild” focusing on Weyher and the project, can be viewed on the Smithsonian Channel’s website.