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Primatology in practice

Two Drake students will spend summer in Rwanda conducting research with the Great Ape Trust, a scientific research facility in southeast Des Moines dedicated to understanding the origins and future of culture, language, tools and intelligence


A 3,665 acre swath of forest  8,000 miles from Des Moines, Iowa, will serve as a significant change of scenery for two Drake University students this summer. Johanna Desprez and Carol Kim will work with the Great Ape Trust conducting research in the Gishwati Forest in Rwanda. The students departed June 4 and will return from the research trip on August 9.

Kim is a senior environmental science and policy major who is involved in Drake’s primate studies program. Desprez, of St. Paul, Minn., is a senior biology major also involved in the primate studies program.

The students’ research will aid scientists from the trust working in Rwanda to ultimately build a corridor between the Gishwati Forest and Nyungwe and Mukura national parks. The corridor provides animals an avenue of travel among the three protected areas. More room to travel means more potential mates for the animals, another route of escape in case of natural disaster, more food resources and, in the end, a better chance of survival. Drake students already worked with scientists to plan different routing options for the corridor, which were presented to Rwanda’s minister of environment and lands in May.

“I decided to take an Intro to Primatology class just because I had room in my curriculum,” Kim says. “It wasn’t easy, but it was worth studying. Then I signed up for more classes; I wanted to do anything I could to get involved with it. “

Kim’s participation in Drake’s primate studies program connected her with the Great Ape Trust, a scientific research facility dedicated to the understanding and preservation of endangered great apes. The director of conservation at the trust, Ben Beck, recommended Kim for the project after meeting and keeping in touch with her following a series of lectures he gave to Drake students.

“All undergraduate students should have the opportunity to experience other cultures,” Beck says. “International competencies are essential for virtually any career in the 21st century.”

Valuable experience benefits ecosystem, Rwandans and Drake students

Gishwati Forest

“We will be conducting vegetation research in the Kinyenkanda area and Gishwati Forest to identify and measure growth of tree species to document auto-reforestation,” says Kim. “In addition, we are going to do an experimental study with tree clippings in various landscapes and will assist observations of wild chimpanzees in the Gishwati Forest. A lot of people don’t know chimps and monkeys have a lot to do with seed dispersal, which affects what kind of trees come in.”

The Great Ape Trust’s interest in the Gishwati Forest originated in an agreement between the trust’s founder, Ted Townsend, and Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, to found a national conservation park in Rwanda to benefit the global climate, improve the livelihoods of Rwandans and help save apes.

Beck says the Great Ape Trust sought collaborations with Drake University’s department of environmental science and policy for help with reforestation research.

“One of the pieces to the conservation corridor puzzle in western Rwanda is how to reforest miles and miles of timber with native species,” says Keith Summerville, associate professor of environmental science at Drake.  “Johanna’s work will provide us with the preliminary data to understand how trees naturally regrow from cut stumps and the seed bank and how we might be able to grow and plant thousands of trees at a low net cost.”

Drake students created a database of trees native to the montane rainforests of western Rwanda, which will help select species for reforestation programs.

So her upcoming research trip to Rwanda is an unforseen highlight of her college experience.

“I did not expect this when I came to Drake, but I’m loving it,” she says.

Read more about Drake’s partnership with the Great Ape Trust.