Aileen goes wild for her baboon project

A 23-year-old UCC zoology graduate has taken up the job of managing the first baboon research centre of its type ever built.

Aileen Sweeney, from Kilworth, Co Cork, and her team have just moved into the centre at Kasanka National Park in central Zambia which has been specifically built to study Kinda baboons (Papio cynocephalus kindae).

Aileen said the research project was aimed at proving such types of baboon, listed as a subspecies of the Yellow baboon, are in fact a distinct species.

“Hopefully results from this research will lead to Kindas being classified as their own species,” she says. “All other baboon species have black infants but, uniquely, Kindas may give birth to black, white, grey infants, or even mixed-coloured infants. The baboons’ behaviour and biology has never been properly studied before,” she said.

It may sound an exotic job but it’s pretty tough going.

“I get up before dawn [5am] and follow the baboons on foot,” says Aileen. “I track them for between eight to 13 hours per day. I have an armed local scout with me at all times in the field in case of encounters with elephants, leopards, or potentially even poachers.

“I can individually recognise all members of the 57-strong troop of baboons, all of who are named after pop stars.”

The camp is unfenced and living conditions are primitive, to say the least.

“We have no running water; we fill a barrel above the kitchen sink with water from a stream,” said Aileen. “There’s no electricity. Shower water has to be heated over a fire and we’ve no fridge. Fruit and veggies go off quickly so these are usually a luxury after we do the monthly supply shopping in the capital Lusaka, which is an eight-hour bus journey away.

“I’ve already had malaria since I’ve been here despite taking anti-malarial drugs.”

Despite the hardships, Aileen said she “absolutely loves” her work and does not mind the basic living or the isolation.

As part of her job, she is also obliged to undertake five days of community work per month.

This involves co-ordinating and teaching local schoolchildren science and maths and she has to undertake a 50km round trip cycle to the local school.

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