When envisioning a primatologist, most people conjure up the amusing image of Jane Goodall somewhere in eastern Africa with an endearing chimpanzee on her shoulder. The reality of conducting primatology research, as experienced by Fordham’s Reiko Matsuda Goodwin, Ph.D., is often much more demanding. This past December, she and a team of fellow primate researchers traveled to Comoé, a national park located in the northeastern part of Côte d’Ivoire. The purpose of their research was primarily to discover the population numbers of two different endangered species of monkeys: the white-thighed colobus and the white-naped mangabey. According to Dr. Matsuda Goodwin, the general consensus in primatology was that these species in recent years had suffered greatly under conditions such as habitat destruction and fragmentation, forest fires, and hunting.
Unlike Jane Goodall, the modern-day primatologist like Dr. Matsuda Goodwin refrains from interacting too closely with her animal subjects of study. Thus, the main instruments of her research in Comoé were 30 cameras hoisted into various trees located by Dr. Matsuda Goodwin and her team as gathering places for the monkeys. The skills of a professional arborist, or tree climber, Alec Baxt, were needed to assist with these maneuvers. Dr. Matsuda Goodwin considers herself “lucky” to have been able to found him- tree climbing is a “very physically demanding kind of work” and the gear alone “can weigh up to 40 pounds.” The cameras themselves also proved problematic because their memory cards became full with pictures and videos so quickly that they had to be changed repeatedly. In the three weeks he was with the team, Baxt luckily also trained two local people as assistants to help with this issue. Dr. Matsuda Goodwin hypothesizes “this (wa)s the first time a Westerner taught this climbing technique to (locals) using the professional gear.”
The technicalities of conducting research in such a remote place as Comoé were also difficult. She describes Comoé as surrounded by thick gallery forests and crisscrossed by deep ravines that fill with water during the rainy season. These deep ravines provided great difficulty to Matsuda Goodwin and her team who were in the business of laying out transects, or “specific lengths of linear trails on which (they would) walk slowly at about 1 km/hr speed” to try and observe the monkeys from a distance. They lay out a total of 30 transects totally over 60 km. “Sometimes,” she says, “it takes two hours to walk just one kilometer (on a transect). It’s physically extremely demanding.” Comoé’s wildlife also made things difficult for Matsuda Goodwin and her team. She notes she was “quite amazed by the abundance of tsetse flies.” While she had known previously that the park was notorious for its prosperous tsetse fly population, she was unprepared for hundreds of tsetse fly bites on her hands that she accrued daily in the nearly hour long walk from the research station to the study sites. This already demanding method of research was thus exacerbated by the difficulty of the environment.
All Dr. Matsuda Goodwin’s efforts paid off, however, in the form of her very successful and surprising research findings. Going in, she, like most of the primatology community, had low expectations for the population numbers of both monkey species. Through her observations, however, she soon discovered that the white-naped mangabey is surprisingly “quite abundant.” She found the white-thighed colobus, on the other hand, to be very rare. This enlightening work has been received well by her fellow primatologists. In the future, she’s set to appear at conferences abroad, most notably in Ecuador where she will present at the next International Primatological Society meeting. She plans to continue her research and return to Comoé in May to sample the rest of the park and uncover more information about the status of these two monkey species.
Perhaps what is most important to Dr. Matsuda Goodwin and the future of her work is the effect her research has had on the local Côte d’Ivoire community. “Primatology,” she claims “for a very long time, was very much dominated by people like us who come and just take the knowledge.” A big part of what drives her in her research is engagement with local communities and encouraging participation in research from those outside academia. In the spirit of this idea, she and her team have set up a strong relationship between themselves and the Comoé park officials. She claims “(their) findings are really important in terms of making conservation recommendations” and thus has been providing the park officials with valuable research data on monkey population numbers and living areas for conservation efforts. Additionally, she still communicates daily with the two climbers Baxt trained when he was last in Comoé and continues to receive many pictures of the monkeys from the cameras they set up last year. Dr. Matsuda Goodwin says this collaboration with the local people will continue into this May when she returns to Comoé.