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From student to research assistant to Ph.D.: Studying gorilla well-being

At the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, our mission of learning as much as we can about gorillas is carried out by many researchers, including our own staff and many up-and-coming young scientists. We are always especially proud to see those who start out as students with us progress into professional researchers and furthering their education as well.

Eric Ndayishimiye is one of our latest leading examples of this pathway toward creating the next generation of scientists and conservationists, as he is now in the field conducting research for his doctoral dissertation.

Eric first came to the Fossey Fund as an undergraduate student in 2010 and then became a key part of our staff as a research assistant and data officer. Once he finishes his dissertation, he will become the second member of our Rwandan staff to earn his Ph.D., following the lead of Dr. Deogratias Tuyisingize, who took a similar path and is now our biodiversity program manager.

Studying male gorillas

Eric’s doctoral research focus is on physiological responses to social stressors in male mountain gorillas, which he says traces back to some of his early work at the Fossey Fund. His initial focus was on how the physical characteristics of adult male gorillas are linked to reproductive success. Given the vital role gorilla males play as protectors of their families, it is important to learn about all the factors that may affect them, especially stress.

Eric’s current research involves a multidisciplinary approach, combining meticulous fieldwork and detailed laboratory analysis, including documenting the gorillas’ interactions and social hierarchies through patterns of dominance and competition. Back in the lab, he analyzes urine and fecal samples collected non-invasively to understand how social stress affects the gorillas, using biomarkers to assess their stress responses and immune function.

 

Eric’s doctoral research focus is on physiological responses to social stressors in male mountain gorillas.

 

“I am very excited about this study because it introduces a novel, non-invasive method to measure immune activation in mountain gorillas,” Eric explains. “It’s the first of its kind for our gorilla populations and has immense potential to enhance our conservation strategies by providing direct insights into their overall well being.”

International recognition

Eric’s innovative research is already being recognized widely – he was recently granted several prestigious competitive awards, including from the International Primatological Society and from the Leakey Foundation, which also funded Dian Fossey’s initial work starting in the 1960s! He also just became the first-ever recipient of the Sebastían Ramírez Amaya Award for Fieldwork in Primatology.

Last year, Eric’s master’s thesis study was published in the International Journal of Primatology. For that research he focused on the golden monkeys that live in the forest with gorillas. “This accomplishment not only honed my research skills but also significantly boosted my confidence in conducting independent research that contributes to wildlife conservation and for embarking on my Ph.D. journey with Nottingham Trent University,” Eric says.

Eric’s innovative research is already being recognized widely.

Inspiring future researchers

Eric’s journey and work are important not only in advancing our understanding of gorilla biology and behavior but also for encouraging future scientists and conservationists.

“Seeing African scientists like Eric take leading roles in wildlife research is inspiring and a major part of our mission,” says Felix Ndagijimana, the Fossey Fund’s director in Rwanda. “We are proud to be able to help provide the necessary resources and support to nurture their careers, from students to professional researchers and conservationists.”

“The support and mentorship I have received from the Fossey Fund have been instrumental in reaching this milestone in my career,” Eric says. “The skills and opportunities provided by the Fossey Fund have profoundly shaped my scientific perspective and equipped me with the essential tools to make a significant impact on conservation efforts. I look forward to bringing this expertise to my home country and helping my fellow young researchers and earlier-career students in the future.”