The Gombe Ecosystem Health Project: 16 years of program evolution and lessons learned

Elizabeth V. Lonsdorf, Dominic A. Travis, Jane Raphael, Shadrack Kamenya, Iddi Lipende, Dismas Mwacha, D. Anthony Collins, Michael Wilson, Deus Mjungu, Carson Murray, Jared Bakuza, Tiffany M. Wolf, Michele B. Parsons, Jessica R. Deere, Emma Lantz, Michael J. Kinsel, Rachel Santymire, Lilian Pintea, Karen A. Terio, Beatrice H. HahnAnne E. Pusey, Jane Goodall, Thomas R. Gillespie

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Infectious disease outbreaks pose a significant threat to the conservation of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and all threatened nonhuman primates. Characterizing and mitigating these threats to support the sustainability and welfare of wild populations is of the highest priority. In an attempt to understand and mitigate the risk of disease for the chimpanzees of Gombe National Park, Tanzania, we initiated a long-term health-monitoring program in 2004. While the initial focus was to expand the ongoing behavioral research on chimpanzees to include standardized data on clinical signs of health, it soon became evident that the scope of the project would ideally include diagnostic surveillance of pathogens for all primates (including people) and domestic animals, both within and surrounding the National Park. Integration of these data, along with in-depth post-mortem examinations, have allowed us to establish baseline health indicators to inform outbreak response. Here, we describe the development and expansion of the Gombe Ecosystem Health project, review major findings from the research and summarize the challenges and lessons learned over the past 16 years. We also highlight future directions and present the opportunities and challenges that remain when implementing studies of ecosystem health in a complex, multispecies environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere23300
JournalAmerican journal of primatology
Issue number4-5
StatePublished - Jul 5 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Other important lessons learned surround specific logistical considerations. A primary challenge for ecosystem health work is the time and cost associated with legally and safely exporting samples (with the necessary preservation techniques) for analysis in laboratories outside of the country of origin. For example, permitting and shipping regulations change often both in the country of export and import, applying and renewing permits can take months, and maintaining a cold chain is extraordinarily difficult and expensive. If at all possible, partnering with in‐country laboratories and experts is ideal. Not only does this reduce the headaches associated with permitting and shipping and specimen integrity during storage and transport, it promotes local investigators, in‐country collaborations, and local program capacity. This was not possible when our project began due to the specialized nature of some of the laboratory techniques we were implementing, but with the development of new and lower‐tech diagnostic techniques, field‐friendly infrastructure, and opportunities for remote consultation and training, this is becoming more possible. Newer projects should seek out these collaborations or seek to work collaboratively to develop the necessary infrastructure if it does not exist. For example, members of our team recently completed a project supported by the National Science Foundation to upgrade our laboratory and diagnostic capacities within Gombe. Investing in the human infrastructure is also critically important, so that projects can contribute to the growth of in‐country expertise and partner effectively with the communities living in or around wild primates. We recognize that some projects may not have the resources that more mature research sites have. In these cases, we recommend prioritizing the collection of fecal samples in RNA and, when possible, necropsies on deceased individuals with tissues preserved in both formalin and RNA. Such samples can be banked at ambient temperature until the appropriate diagnostic partners and funding support can be identified. Importantly, specific training is required to conduct necropsies with appropriate attention to biosafety, so pathology/biosafety experts should be consulted. The training materials developed by the Zoo Pathology Program can be found at . All of the above items take time to develop and implement, and require a long‐term view of goals and objectives. The length of the project and the stability of the funding for the duration of the project should be considered from the start. later later

Funding Information:
The authors thank the Jane Goodall Institute and Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA) for initiating and supporting the 60+ year research tradition at Gombe, including the current health‐monitoring project. In addition, our deepest gratitude goes to the Gombe Stream Research Centre staff, without whom our work would not be possible. Special thanks are due to the Honorable Dr. Titus Mlengeya Kamani and to the Gorilla Doctors for key support of this study at its inception. Permission to carry out research at Gombe was granted by the Government of Tanzania, Tanzania National Parks, Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology, and the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute. This study was supported by grants from the US Fish and Wildlife Great Ape Conservation Fund, the Arcus Foundation, the Leo S. Guthman Foundation, the National Institutes of Health (R01 AI58715, R01 AI120810, R00 HD057992), the National Science Foundation (FSML 1624552), the Morris Animal Foundation (MAF D09ZO‐041, MAF D09ZO‐634), Emory Global Health Institute, and the Emory Synergy II Program. Additionally, monetary support and invaluable time and effort were provided by staff and volunteers at Lincoln Park Zoo's Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology, Lester E. Fisher for the Study and Conservation of Apes, and Emory University. We are grateful to Michael Reid, Zarin Machanda, and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments that improved the manuscript. The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Wiley Periodicals LLC


  • chimpanzees
  • disease transmission
  • ecosystem health
  • human–primate interactions

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Review
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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