Conservation & Research

 

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The Project

SPAC’s approach to conservation and research is focused on helping communities to appreciate the value of their resources and to empower community members to become protectors of their own families as well as of the rainforest and its animals.

 

Through an interdisciplinary research network, the SPAC research team, under the leadership of Dr Magdalena Bermejo, has established the SPAC Field Station Network (SFSN) involving various universities cooperating and contributing to conservation research in Africa.

 

Where We Operate

With its wide range of landscapes, the Northern Congo is home to a globally significant population of Western Lowland Gorillas, Chimpanzees and Forest Elephants.

 

Research and wildlife conservation institutions have been established in ODZALA National Park and its periphery where the in-house research team, comprised of Dr Magda Bermejo and Mr German Illera lead the studies of primates in their natural habitat. SPAC has been funding their research over the last six years and their team is supported by 15  international collaborators from four core selected institutions of excellence, as well as seven main scientists.

 

The NGAGA Research Station Network is one of the few places where large-scale studies of high-density gorilla populations is still possible and one of Africa’s most eminent gorilla research and trekking destinations.

 

How We Operate

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the Western Lowland Gorilla as a critically endangered species. These gorillas have suffered exceptionally high levels of mortality caused by hunting, poaching, and diseases like Ebola. In some remote areas, more than 90% of the population has died over the past 10 years.

  

The ODZALA research team was the first to study the behaviour of western lowland gorillas and investigate their recovery capacity following demographic crashes. Working from the NGAGA Research Station, the research team uses three primary empirical approaches to collect data. Firstly, data is gathered from observing three groups of gorillas that have been habituated to human presence. Approximately 60 gorillas that make up these three social groups have been sampled intensively since 2009 (including bouts of daily, weekly, and monthly sampling), which has provided high-resolution data on their movements. Secondly, a total of 40 automated camera traps are used to identify and study different social units (more than 40 groups of gorillas). Finally, non-invasive sampling methods are used to characterise the genetic variation of the gorillas.

 

In addition to the three habituated groups, this unique study of western lowland gorillas has been gathering sample data on an annual basis of between 35 and 38 neighbouring groups (approximately 350 to 400 gorillas) that form the study area social network.  The research station has not only collected static, spatial data but also roughly 12 years of time-series data for reconstructing the dynamics of gorilla dispersal and pathogen transmission within groups, within a local social network, and on a landscape scale. Another important project, undertaken in collaboration with the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at University Pompeu Fabra, is the first global study that aims to characterise global genomic variation in gorillas.  This will allow the researchers to describe geographic variation and local patterns, connectivity among and within Natural Parks, and characterisation of unknown samples from illegal trafficking.  

 

A unique methodological focus of SPAC and the Field Station Network is developing novel visualization methods for the presentation and analysis of complex network data. The idea of a research network was the result of previous fruitful individual research contacts both between and within universities. However, the research network goes well beyond these individual connections by forming a wide, interdisciplinary network with new links around a specific shared research topic. The multi- and interdisciplinary network will provide a unique collaborative research environment for exploring cooperation and collective thinking in conservation research, which will ultimately lead to richer data and a better understanding of the gorillas and their natural habitat.

 

Milestones

Through the work of SPAC and the Field Station Network research team, the region has become one of Africa’s most important gorilla research destinations where scientists are able to test new, tourism-focused research products for conservation.

 

The studies undertaken in the Field Station Network have unveiled a very dynamic social system in western lowland gorilla populations with entire groups meeting and interacting, frequent exchanges between groups, and groups that have demonstrated varied composition over a period of a few days, indicating limited cohesiveness. This ground-breaking research has shown, for the first time, that a multi-level society exists within gorilla populations in this area. The presence of increasingly higher levels of social structure and the presence of cooperation within these levels will be investigated to determine the full extent to which human social complexity is shared with gorilla populations.

Further insights have come from using large scale camera trapping, where the research results suggest territoriality demonstrated by defending core regions of home ranges against neighbours as well as mirror patterns common across human evolution.  There are also core areas of resident dominance and larger zones of mutual tolerance with strong defensive responses from more dominant groups. This implies western lowland gorillas may be a key system for understanding how humans have evolved the capacity for extreme territorial-based violence and warfare, whilst also engaging in the strong affiliative inter-group relationships necessary for large scale cooperation.

 

The Research Station has also provided a unique opportunity to assess the effects of gorilla tourism on broader gorilla conservation efforts in Congo and beyond. In addition, the Field Station Network has developed a framework for automatic monitoring in biodiversity research, the result of the collaboration between computer scientists and ecologists that has opened up new areas of research for both disciplines.