A team of Indiana University researchers is hoping a crowd-funding campaign will raise enough money for a trip to Africa to study disease transmission between humans and wild primates. Associate professor of anthropology Michael Muehlenbein says the success rate of securing funding for biological anthropology projects is “abysmal.” He says the crowd-funding effort will allow people to take ownership in the research by donating and receive perks ranging from project updates to gifts from South Africa.

August 8, 2013

News Release

Bloomington, Ind. — Funding for scientific research can take years to acquire, with researchers negotiating their way through a labyrinth of submissions, reviews, edits and resubmissions. But one group of young researchers at Indiana University is taking its funding request to the public by using a crowd-funding website designed specifically for supporting new science.

Disease transmission and interactions between Chacma baboons and South African ecotourists and residents are the focus of new research that a group of IU students hopes to fund through the scientific research crowd-funding site Microryza. The team needs to raise $7,500 for round-trip airfare.

The four IU Bloomington anthropology students, all studying in the Evolutionary Physiology and Ecology Lab of evolutionary anthropologist Michael Muehlenbein, want to continue their study of ecotourism and its relationship to disease transmission between humans and primates by funding a trip to South Africa — the population center for the Chacma baboon. They plan on using Microryza, a crowd-funding platform for research where individuals pool their money until a funding goal is met.

The goal for Ph.D. students Colleen Friedly, Sean Prall and Eric Shattuck and undergraduate researcher Emilee Larson is to raise $7,500 to pay for round-trip plane tickets to South Africa for themselves and Muehlenbein. Once there, they will spend about two weeks at the leading South African tourism site Cape Point surveying an estimated 1,000 tourists about their travel health knowledge, attitudes and practices, health status, opinions on ecotourism, and motivations for primate tourism.

“This research is an excellent training opportunity for students interested in public health, conservation and anthropology,” Muehlenbein said. “Our results will be published in scientific journals and presented at professional meetings and elsewhere, with another intention being to use the data to help draft policy statements to improve primate conservation in South Africa.”

Chacma baboons are one of the largest monkeys, with males reaching up to nearly 100 pounds, and in South Africa's Southern Cape Peninsula they are increasingly interacting with humans. Muehlenbein, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Anthropology whose work on ecotourism-related human-primate interactions has taken him to Borneo and Japan, said the Cape Peninsula is a perfect site for the research because it receives nearly 2 million international visitors each year.

“Wildlife viewing is the most popular activity at Cape Point, and we know from other research that about 475 Chacma baboons are presently found in the area,” he added. “We also know there is considerable contact among human visitors, Cape residents and monkey populations, which means plenty of opportunity for disease transmission from humans to these baboons through both direct transmission — touching animals, handling food, or animal bites — and indirect transmission like animals eating our garbage and waste, and even respiratory transmission.”

Many wild primate populations have been decimated by diseases transmitted by humans, and many pathogens are transmitted from wild primates to humans, including immunodeficiency viruses and malaria. By conducting surveys of tourists at the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, the team hopes to better understand tourist health status, motivations regarding environmental behaviors, their knowledge of environmental problems, their willingness to take risks and their affinity for wildlife. Each of these factors can influence disease transmission, Muehlenbein said.

Members of Muehlenbein's lab have also established the Primate Tourism Alliance and hope to conduct similar surveys in Southeast Asia, Central America and the Caribbean over the next two years.

Source: Indiana University

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