skip to primary navigationskip to content

Dr Peter Walsh

Dr Peter Walsh

University Lecturer in Primate Quantitative Ecology

Office Phone: +44 (0)1223 764701

Research Interests

Basic Research

My research interests centre on primate movement, social network formation, and emergent disease dynamics. I work primarily on great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans), using a combination of fieldwork in Central Africa, mathematical modelling, and molecular analyses conducted in the laboratories of collaborators. My emergent disease research focuses on understanding how human activities such as bushmeat hunting regulate densities of apes and other wildlife disease hosts and, therefore, the dynamics of emergent pathogens such as Ebola, SIV, and malaria. My social networks research takes a Complex Systems perspective, studying how the spatial cognition mechanisms primates use to navigate through a heterogeneous environment result in emergent patterns of social and disease network connectivity. This work includes analyses of scaling properties of both individual movement and contact networks as well as Bayesian fits of agent based simulation models to empirical data from gorillas, monkeys, and humans.

Ape Conservation Research

Despite the blood, sweat, and tears of many dedicated conservationists, efforts to save African apes from ecological extinction are largely failing. In my ape conservation work I try to use an objective scientific approach to analyse major threats and search for innovative solutions: often solutions that employ new technologies. I then do “proof of concept” studies to illustrate to the broader conservation community that these technologies can be safe and cost effective conservation tools. Current projects include work on ape vaccination, the use of satellite telemetry to make western gorilla tourism economically viable, rapid diagnostic tools to screen tourists and staff for pathogens that threaten habituated apes, and an analysis of institutional relationships between host governments, non-governmental organizations, and private business. I also retain a low level engagement in the former focus of my conservation work, survey and monitoring.

Research Supervision

I am currently looking for students who have (in descending order of priority):

1. Strong mathematics and computer programming skills (previous training in anthropology, ecology or evolutionary biology desirable but not necessary).
2. Previously conducted independent research in Africa or other developing country (spoken French desirable but not necessary).
3. Strong molecular biology skills.
4. Training in business and organizational behaviour.

Other Professional Activities


Satellite Telemetry: The mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda are textbook example of how tourism can be harnessed as a tool for wildlife conservation. However, repeated attempts to export this gorilla tourism model to the roughly 95% of gorillas who live in Western Equatorial Africa have largely failed. A major factor is that western gorillas move ten times further each day then their East African cousins. This makes them extraordinarily difficult to habituate to approach by humans and subsequently keep track of: creating high personnel costs and amplifying disease spillover and psychological stress. These same constraints have also limited research on the social behaviour and ecology of both gorillas and chimpanzees primarily to questions that can be answered by observing a single social group. Very little empirical work has looked at networks of interaction between social groups. A potential technological fix for these problems lies in new satellite telemetry collars that send GPS coordinates up to an orbiting satellite then down to a handheld satellite phone. By making gorilla tracking more efficient, we expect this technology to reduce tourism start-up time, recurrent operating costs, disease spill-over, and gorilla stress by as much as 80%. I am currently testing this technology on captive gorillas in the UK and reintroduced gorillas in Gabon in collaboration with the Aspinall Foundation. A proof of principle study on wild gorillas, in collaboration with the Gabonese Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, is planned for startup in mid-2012. In the future, these gorillas and this approach will be the bases for both gorilla tourism programs and studies on gorilla movement, intergroup social networks, and disease dynamics.

Vaccination: New research suggests that naturally occurring diseases such as Ebola and SIV pose a major threat to African apes. Respiratory diseases that spill over from humans also account for about half of deaths amongst habituated gorillas and chimpanzees in research and tourism programs. Unfortunately, since 1988 opponents have blocked programs to vaccinate wild apes. Through a non-governmental organization I founded ( I have been working to break down barriers to vaccination. Our most recent projects include an Ebola vaccine trial on captive chimpanzees at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana (in collaboration with Integrated Bioltherapeutics) and a field trial of measles vaccine on habituated gorillas in the tourism program at Dzanga National Park in Central African Republic (in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund, the Central African Government, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park). Laboratory analyses to evaluate vaccine efficacy are currently underway.

Rapid Diagnostic Methods: Although vaccination may be the best option pathogens such as measles, some of the respiratory pathogens that most threaten habituated apes are not vaccine preventable. For these pathogens, the best solution may be the screening of habituation staff and tourists with new rapid, non-invasive, and low cost pathogen screening assays. I am currently seeking funding for an evaluation project, which will be implemented in collaboration with the Gabonese Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux and Cambridge colleague Leslie Knapp.

Cambridge University Social Networks: The College system at the University of Cambridge presents an ideal empirical system for studying social network dynamics. I am currently studying how factors such as gender, course of study, educational background (public vs. private), and physical proximity influence the structure of networks of social interaction amongst colleges. Future work will take a more mechanistic approach, seeking to understand what cognitive rules of thumb drive patterns of social linkage.

Efficient Conservation Management: One major contributor to the poor performance of ape conservation efforts in Central Africa is a mismatch between the conditions on the ground and the way conservation efforts have been managed. In brief, a centralized, top-down approach in which national or regional networks are “co-managed” by national governments and large international non-governmental organizations has dominated. This approach has performed very poorly compared to either the site-based government-NGO collaboration typical of gorilla tourism in East Africa or the private concession systems that have successfully protected other wildlife in Eastern and Southern Africa. I am using gorilla telemetry studies in Gabon as both a vehicle for studying how the relationship between government, NGO’s, and the private sector would be best structured in Central African gorilla and as a test case for implementing best practice. This work also includes rigorous business analyses of market potential, operating costs, and sustainability. Yet to be fully funded, it is a collaboration with the Gabonese Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, and private sector tour operators.

Key Publications

D. Boyer, PD Walsh. 2011. Modeling the mobility of living organisms in heterogeneous landscapes: Does memory improve foraging success? Philosophical Transactions Royal Society A. 368:5645-5669.

PD Walsh, D. Boyer, M.C. Crofoot. 2010. Monkey and cell phone user movements scale similarly. Nature Physics. 6:929-930.

W Liu, Y Li, GH Learn, RS Rudicell, JD Robertson, BF Keele, J-B N Ndjango, CM Sanz,, DB Morgan, S Locatelli, MK Gonder, P J Kranzusch, P D Walsh, et al. 2010. Origin of the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum in gorillas. Nature 467: 420-426.

C Neel, L Etienne, Y Li, J Takehisa, RS Rudicell, I Ndong, J Moudindo, A Mebenga, A Esteban, F Van Heuverswyn, F Liegeois, PJ Kranzusch, PD Walsh, et al. 2009. Molecular epidemiology of Simian Immunodeficiency Virus Infection in wild-living gorillas. Journal of Virology 84: 10289-10296.

Kühl, H.S., Nzeingui, C., Le Duc Yeno, S., Huijbregts, B., Boesch, C., Walsh, P.D. 2009. Discriminating between village and commercial hunting of apes. Biological Conservation 142:1500-1506.

Hoffmann, M., Hawkins, C.E. & Walsh, P.D. 2008 Action needed to prevent extinctions caused by disease. Nature 454:159.

Kühl HS, Elzner, C., Moebius, Y., Boesch, C., & Walsh PD. 2008. The price of play: self-organized infant mortality cycles in chimpanzees. PLoS One 3:1-10.

Köndgen S, Kühl HS, Ngoran P, Walsh PD, Schenk S et al. 2008. Pandemic human viruses cause decline of endangered great apes. Current Biology 18:1-5.

Walsh, P.D.
, Tutin, C.E.G., Oates, J.F., Baillie, J.E.M., Maisels, F., Stokes, E.J., Gatti, S., Bergl, R.A., Sunderland-Groves, J. & Dunn. A. 2007. Gorilla gorilla. In: 2007 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, IUCN.<>

Walsh, P.D.
Breuer, T., Sanz, C., Morgan, D., & Doran-Sheehy, D. 2007. Potential for Ebola transmission between gorilla and chimpanzee social groups. American Naturalist 169:684–689.

Bermejo, M., Rodríguez-Teijeiro, J.D., Illera, G., Barroso, A., Vilà, C. Walsh, P.D. 2006. Ebola outbreak kills 5000 gorillas. Science 314: 1564.

Biek, R., Walsh, P.D., Leroy, E.M., & Real, L.A. 2006. Recent common ancestry of Ebola Zaire virus found in a bat reservoir. PLoS Pathogens 10:885-886.

Walsh, P.D.
, Biek, R. & Real, L. A. 2005. Wave-like spread of Ebola Zaire. PLoS Biology 11:1946-1953

Walsh, P.D
. et al. 2003. Catastrophic ape decline in western equatorial Africa. Nature 422:611-614.