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Research examines pesticide exposure across human-wildlife interactions in Uganda

Sep 20, 2023

Indiana University researchers are examining how climate variability — including changes in rainfall and temperature patterns — influences farmers’ practices in western Uganda, a project funded through a four-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

A primate in a tree. A new study will explore how pesticide use impacts primates in the western Uganda, offering new insight into a topic often overlooked. Photo by Julie Kearney Wasserman.

The researchers are focused specifically on the use of chemical pesticides, a relatively new practice among Ugandan farmers who often rely on more traditional farming methods. Ultimately, they hope to better understand how pesticide exposure affects both humans on farms and the wildlife of the surrounding areas, including primates of the tropical forest in Kibale National Park.

“We want to know how farms and protected tropical rainforests, with high levels of biodiversity and the ecosystem services they provide, interact to influence chemical exposure in people and wildlife,” said Michael Wasserman, associate professor of anthropology and human biology in the IU College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator on the project. “Once we have insight into those interactions, we can help raise awareness of what pesticide use looks like at a community level and inform individuals about chemical exposure across the entire landscape.”

The increase in pesticides can create issues in agricultural areas that aim to provide healthy food and in protected areas that aim to conserve biodiversity and ecosystem services. This is particularly true in areas with tropical forests, such as Uganda, where Wasserman has conducted research for 20 years. In addition to Africa’s rapidly growing population, food insecurity is also highly concentrated there, making Uganda an ideal location to understand the tradeoffs surrounding pesticide use.

The research team, composed of an interdisciplinary group of scientists from across the United States, Canada and Uganda, will measure chemical exposure in different ways: by sampling the air with polyurethane foam discs; testing local community exposure using silicone wristbands; and documenting primate exposure via analysis of fecal matter.

In addition to the chemicals, they will also measure cortisol in people and wildlife. Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced during the stress response, which can be one indicator of a potential biological effect of chemical exposure.

“We think about remote locations, like Kibale National Park, being pristine and void of chemicals, but in reality, chemicals know no borders and travel to faraway locations,” said Marta Venier, an assistant professor in the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and co-principal investigator on the project. “It is really exciting to apply our innovative approach in this remote environment to characterize the chemical landscape and better understand how it affects human health and primates.”

A team of IU researchers in Uganda Wasserman and his team, including IU students, worked at the Makerere University Biological Field Station in Uganda's Kibale National Park this summer. Photo by Julie Kearney Wasserman.

The study will also provide important insight into the effects of pesticides on primates in the area. Wasserman, whose background is in primate ecology and evolution, said that a lot of research has been conducted on the effects of deforestation and hunting on primate species, but very little is known about the effects of anthropogenic chemicals on their biology.

“Primates are a highly threatened group of organisms on this planet,” Wasserman said. “To have a study like this, with experts from many disciplines working together to understand why people are using the chemicals and how much they are using, will give us novel insight into a potential threat for primates that has been largely overlooked.”

The study will also involve student researchers from the team’s various universities, including IU. Students will have an opportunity to learn about a variety of topics, including climate variability and food security, and to participate in research in Uganda and the Primate Environmental Endocrinology Laboratory at IU.

Additionally, the team will work with the Uganda Wildlife Authority and Makerere University Biological Field Station to host community workshops sharing their research findings and discussing potential solutions to best maintain crop productivity while minimizing both human and wildlife exposure to pesticides.

Karen Bailey from the University of Colorado Boulder, Jessica Rothman from Hunter College – CUNY, and Jeremy Diem from Georgia State are co-principal investigators on the study. Senior personnel include Eduardo Brondizio and Virginia Vitzthum, both from IU; David Tumusiime and Simplicious Gessa of Makerere University; Joel Hartter from the University of Colorado Boulder; and Tyler Bonnell from the University of Calgary.


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