Mental health in a conservation landscape: psychological dynamics of living in proximity to primates in western Uganda

Tom’s research seeks to understand the ways that living alongside wildlife can affect people’s mental health, particularly in relation to disease transmission

Photo credit: Tom Pienkowski


Humans and wildlife share many of the same spaces. This can bring people and animals into contact in many ways. The direct consequences of this contact – like crop raiding by elephants – are well recognised. However, much less attention has been paid to indirect impacts, such as the psychological consequences of living alongside wildlife. My research will explore how human-primate interactions influence peoples’ mental health through several mechanisms, including zoonotic disease transmission. This will help illustrate unexplored effects of environmental protection on people and guide efforts for more fair and successful conservation. Furthermore, the growing Planetary Health movement seeks to understand how environmental change affects human health. Much of the research in this area has focused on physiological disease, neglecting other aspects such as mental and subjectively experienced health. Understanding how ecosystems interact with mental and subjective aspects of health may help support a more holistic approach towards planetary health.

Mental health is influenced by the world around us, including the socio-ecological context that we live in.

This research is planned around Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda. There is significant overlap between human settlement and primate habitats around Budongo. Crop raiding brings primates into close proximity to people. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this contact may increase the risk of zoonotic disease transfer and undermine local food security. For instance, infection by the parasitic nematode Oesophagostomum spp. in people may originate from primates. Some residents are concerned about the impact of these risks on their quality of life, with potential implications for their mental health.

I will use a range of methods in this project. These will include in-depth interviews to understand subjective experiences of health, and qualitative approaches to explore changing mental health risks between groups.


Thomas Pienkowski


E.J. Milner-Gulland (Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity at Department of Zoology and Merton College, University of Oxford).

Aidan Keane (Chancellor’s Fellow & Senior Lecturer at the School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh).


Natural Environment Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership

Collaborating organizations:

Interdisciplinary Center for Conservation Science