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Scientists: Kenya Wants You!

The Institute of Primate Research, in the Ololua forest about 20 kilometers outside the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, has been in operation since it was founded by the archaeologist Louis Leakey in 1960.

By | October 24, 2005

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The Institute of Primate Research, in the Ololua forest about 20 kilometers outside the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, has been in operation since it was founded by the archaeologist Louis Leakey in 1960. The institute's initial focus was on the study of evolution and the ecology of non-human primates, but today its emphasis has shifted toward biomedical research mainly using baboons.

However, government funding for the institute isn't what it could be, says its director, Emmanuel Wango, and any research shillings need to be garnered from international agencies such as the World Health Organization, or from collaborations with overseas scientists.

International collaborations have long been a regular occurrence at the lab, says Wango, "but it's something we want to enhance. We feel we've reached a point where we want to expand our mandate and research scope." So the institute has been talking to researchers in Europe and the United States, telling them what it can offer. On a recent trip to Sweden, for example, Wango found a receptive audience. "People have shown a lot of interest in a lot of areas," he says.

One of the main factors for overseas collaborators seems to be the low cost at which the institute can provide primates, says Michael Gicheru, who heads the institute's work on leishmaniasis. "The cost of primates in developed countries is very high. Here our prices are very low."

In fact, explains Wango, the baboons used at the center are considered pests around Kenya. "They attack farms and women and children. Farmers call us to come and capture them." This the institute does, he explains, applying stringent ethical principles and operating practices in the process. The Institute has facilities for breeding colonies of about 270 primates.

Also, the institute has noticed a recent increase in the number of researchers looking to collaborate, Wango says. A possible reason is animal extremism in the West, as he explained in an interview with Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper. "Although we have for a long time collaborated with scientists from the West, the problems they are facing back at home are making them consider strongly working with us," he was quoted as saying.

So far, animal extremism hasn't surfaced in Kenya, says Wango. And considering the baboons are thought of as such a nuisance, he thinks, it is likely to stay that way. "I think it would be very difficult for them to get a foothold."

In addition to attacking university labs, contract research companies and a myriad of associated firms, activists have begun targeting nations such as Mauritius who supply primates, says Barbara Davies, spokeswoman for the UK's Research Defense Society. She is concerned that if animal researchers did start shifting their operations away from the United Kingdom in greater numbers, "it would be bad for UK science and perhaps bad for the animals." The Kenyan institute has a good standing internationally, she notes, but "the UK has the strictest standards in the world for animal welfare."

Despite this, she says, there's actually little evidence that the activists' tactics are driving researchers overseas. The savings involved in working in developing countries might have a more significant impact than violence, Davies says. "We've seen more talk about that than we've seen about animal extremists being an insurmountable problem."

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