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Fossey Fund and Partners Join Forces to Support Rwanda’s Newest Scientists

When Rwandan Elie Sinayitutse decided to study biology, he probably wasn’t thinking much about poop. But as it turns out, mountain gorilla excrement is a rich source of information for scientists about gorilla health and habits. So when we selected Elie to do his senior thesis research with us, he set out to gather information on scat to help scientists understand how parasites can contaminate gorilla habitat and pass from one gorilla to another.

Fossey Fund board member Kristen Lukas with academic and professional interns Nelly, Laban, Jean and Marie at Karisoke. Laban, Jean and Marie have since joined our staff.

“I tracked gorilla groups and weighed nearly 400 poop samples dropped on gorilla trails and night nests for six straight weeks,” says Elie. “Combined, the 604 gorillas of the Virungas are estimated to expel about 1.35 tons of poop per day, and some days it felt like I weighed it all! But I learned so much about the process of data collection and analysis, and how disease can be transmitted between gorillas that share habitat.”

His hard work paid off recently when his senior thesis research—called a “memoir” in Rwanda—was published in the journal Primates.

Elie’s success is just the kind of outcome the Fossey Fund and its partners hope to see from our investment in supporting early career African scientists. Currently, Africans are highly underrepresented in studies of their own biodiversity—by some analyses, only about 2% of published studies on African wildlife are led by Africans. Training future conservationists is one of the Fossey Fund’s four main pillars and aims to address this inequity. In particular, our support of students doing their senior thesis work provides the opportunity for intensive mentorship from the Fossey Fund and our partner institutions with the eventual goal of publishing their work, as Elie did.

UR student Elie Sinayitutse presents his research findings at Karisoke.

Our support of students during their senior year research is done through a partnership with the University of Rwanda, the Rwanda Development Board and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. It is the capstone of our work with the University of Rwanda to help train the next generation of African conservationists. Since 2003, we have worked with UR to provide instruction for biology students in their second, third and fourth years of university. During their second and third years, we provide both course and field work opportunities for students to expand their knowledge base—more than 3,100 undergraduate biology students have participated to date. Then, during their final year, up to a dozen students receive intense one-on-one training and support as they complete their memoirs. Almost 90% of the students who conduct their memoirs with us go on to careers in science and conservation, and one former participant, Deo Tuyisingize, now leads the Fossey Fund’s training programs with UR and other Rwandan universities.

We recently analyzed the overall success of this program and published the results of our study in the American Journal of Primatology. “We found that the program was measurably successful at creating opportunities for young Rwandan conservation scientists to grow and advance in their chosen field and contribute to conservation in Rwanda and the region,” says Dr. Winnie Eckardt, lead author of the paper and the Fossey Fund’s research manager.

In the past 17 years, we have supported 133 students to conduct their senior thesis researching a whole host of topics. Almost half of the participants (48%) conducted their memoir research on gorillas and golden monkeys. The remaining projects addressed various topics in plant and animal ecology, including socio-economic aspects of conservation and land use around Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

Elie Sinayitutse collecting gorilla poop from nest sites.

“We can really see this program helping to build conservation capacity in our country,” says Felix Ndagijimana, the Fossey Fund’s director of Rwanda programs and the Karisoke Research Center. “It is wonderful to see so many students who have studied at Karisoke now working in scientific and conservation fields throughout Rwanda.”

Kristen Lukas, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s director of conservation and science and a Fossey Fund board member, says the zoo has participated in the program since 2014. “We are thrilled we can lend our expertise to help train these incredibly talented students and emerging scientists,” she says. “We learn so much from their experiences and thoroughly enjoy watching them grow as professionals. I enjoy getting to know students individually and sharing how much all of us at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo care about and are invested in their success.”

Like Elie, student Marie Fidele Tuyisenge recently published her memoir thesis. She developed an environmentally-friendly protocol for studying the diet of mammalian herbivores, in particular those that are not habituated to human presence, which was recently published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. Marie Fidele is now employed as a biodiversity research assistant at the Fossey Fund’s Karisoke Research Center.

Marie Fidele Tuyisenge measures plants at our new Ellen Campus.

Student Alphonse Nyandwi was a co-author on a study of how and when stinging nettles may have evolved to protect themselves from herbivores. He used Volcanoes National Park, home to several large herbivores including mountain gorillas, as a modern analog to a fossil site in North America. The study, which was published in the American Journal of Botany, was co-supervised by paleobotanists from Georgia College & State University and Arizona State University. Alphonse says of the experience: “I met world-class scientists who taught me science, critical thinking and interpersonal relations. I am truly grateful for their inspiration and training in field techniques, analysis, scientific writing and public presentations.” Alphonse has since gone on to begin work on his master’s degree.

“This program is helping today’s high-performing students to become tomorrow’s conservation leaders, and we love to see their work getting the recognition it deserves through publication in international scientific journals,” says Dr. Tara Stoinski, president, CEO and chief scientific officer of the Fossey Fund. “They are students today, but tomorrow they will be our colleagues and conservation partners.”

Elie is now a bird researcher, studying avian diversity in Rwanda’s wetlands with the Center of Excellence for Biodiversity and Natural Resources. He says of his experience with the Memoir Program, “I learned so much about the process of data collection and analysis, and how disease can be transmitted between gorillas that share habitat. I’m really grateful for the experience and excited to see my research in publication.