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Searching a Nigerian forest for answers to emerging health challenges

October 21, 2014

Sagan Friant’s latest research discovery in Nigeria was no fluke. Except that it was.

While studying a population of red-capped mangabeys in the rainforest, Friant discovered a lung fluke, a small parasitic worm, in the monkeys.  She learned that the lung fluke, which can cause serious illness in both monkeys and people, comes from eating infected crabs. Friant hopes to use this information to deter its spread in both primate and human populations.

Friant, a doctoral student in Environment and Resources at UW-Madison, has been conducting primate research in Nigeria that focuses on human susceptibility to disease. She studies primates in order to increase understanding of health-related consequences for both humans and wildlife living in a shared, changing global environment. 

Research such as hers could provide a glimpse into how different life stages and vulnerable groups respond to new health threats. Friant recently spent nine months in southeastern Nigeria, where she worked with the Center for Education, Research and Conservation of Primates and Nature (CERCOPAN) to monitor a group of red-capped mangabeys that lived within a fenced segment of forest, where they were exposed to natural conditions, including parasites.

Nelson Institute doctoral student Sagan Friant with CERCOPAN patrol at a hunting shed close to Cross River National Park
Doctoral student Sagan Friant stands with CERCOPAN
patrol near Cross River National Park in Nigeria.

With support from the National Science Foundation and the Fulbright Program, Friant studied how different characteristics of a host — for example, a monkey’s stress level or its social and health status — influence the susceptibility to infection. She gathered this information by examining fecal samples for gastrointestinal parasites.

Although her study focuses on primates, the results can be beneficial for humans as well.

“In human populations, it’s really hard to measure some of these behavioral and physiological traits,” said Friant. “You can take a closer look at them in a more controlled environment using animals as a model.”

According to Friant, primates make great models for this research because they live in large social groups, are closely related to humans, and share similar infections. “In general, you can answer a lot of these evolutionary questions about what makes humans susceptible to diseases by turning to a primate model of social animals,” she said.

Friant’s interest in primates began when she was a small child. “My parents took me to the zoo too much when I was little,” she recalls, “we would walk there so I would be too tired to walk around the zoo. Instead I would just sit and watch the gorillas.”

Years later, when Friant began exploring her different options for college, she searched for schools that had primatology programs. The University of Wisconsin hosted the website with the list of schools offering primatology programs, which was enough of a signal for Friant to travel from her home in San Diego to Madison.

Toward the end of her undergraduate career, Friant took a course about parasitology and found it fascinating. Years later, she has found a way to combine her two passions with her research in Nigeria.

Her work has come with many challenges, from delayed visas, difficulty navigating and subsisting without electricity. But throughout, she says, her experience in Nigeria has been extremely rewarding. Her favorite part has been working with the locals, both in developing personal relationships and helping to further their education.

“I worked with two research assistants who were both master’s students, and we shared a hut,” said Friant. “We had shared passions in conservation and research work, and how we’re all trying to achieve that in very different environments but also very different cultures just led to very interesting conversations.”

Her presence is somewhat unusual in Nigeria, and that generally sparks an interest from the locals. “Being white, being a woman and being in the forest makes me stand out,” she said. “There are so few white people, especially in the rural areas, and most of them aren't taking motorbikes into the ‘bush.’ I get a lot of questions about why I am in the country and why I sleep in the forest. It provides good opportunities to tell people how unique their forest and animals are.”

Since her initial visit, Friant has returned to Nigeria three times, with a strong desire to go back. “I love travel,” she said, “and I will continue to build it into my work as long as possible.”

Festus Onajde, pictured, assisted Friant with her fieldwork in Nigeria. Friant trained Onajde and another research assistant, Rosemary Gbegbaje, in techniques of animal behavior, wildlife health assessments and processing of biological samples.
Festus Onajde, pictured, assisted Friant with her fieldwork in Nigeria. Friant trained Onajde and another research
assistant, Rosemary Gbegbaje, to assess animal behavior and wildlife health and to process biological samples.

Melanie Ginsburg is a senior majoring in journalism.