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Primate Conservationlocked

Primate Conservationlocked

  • Stacy LindshieldStacy LindshieldPurdue University
  •  and Giselle M. Narváez RiveraGiselle M. Narváez RiveraPurdue University


While anthropological primatology is known for its basic research on understanding the human condition from comparative and evolutionary perspectives, its applied and practicing domains are equally important to society. Applied researchers and practitioners often work in the fields of environmental sustainability and conservation, biomedicine, captive care and management, and education. For sustainability and conservation specializations, primatologists seek careers in higher education, government, and nongovernmental organizations and may work in large and diverse teams on conservation and management problems for nonhuman primates (hereafter, termed primates). Primate conservation has largely focused on population monitoring in protected and unprotected areas; measuring effects of agriculture, extractive industries, and tourism on primates; and evaluating intervention strategies. Primate population management in urban and peri-urban areas is a growth area; these landscapes pose risks for primates that are absent or rare in protected areas, which include dog attacks, animal–vehicle collisions, and electrocutions.

Anthropologists can leverage their deep knowledge of primate behavior, cognition, and ecology as part of interdisciplinary teams tasked with environmental mitigation in these human-centered landscapes. One example of this work is the use of arboreal crossing structures for primates to move safely through forests fragmented by roads. Primate conservationists recognize that environmental sustainability extends beyond conservation. For instance, primates may create public health problems or nuisances for local communities in cases where they are potential disease vectors. While these circumstances lead some people to view primates as pests, in a subset of these cases, cultural norms and values prohibit culling (i.e., killing or otherwise removing from a population) as a management strategy. Primate conservationists working on these issues may integrate human perspectives and attitudes toward primates in localized intervention or mitigation programs aimed at environmental sustainability and/or natural resource management.

More than half of the world’s nonhuman primate species are threatened with extinction, and this problem is mostly a modern and global phenomenon related to unsustainable land use. Primates enhance many societies through providing ecosystem services, enriching cultural heritage, and advancing scientific research. It is for these reasons that primatologists often contribute to conservation programs in protected areas. Protected areas are designed to allow wildlife to flourish in spaces by restricting land use activities, but the history of protected areas is fraught with social injustices. Such areas are often but not always associated with higher biodiversity than adjacent and unprotected spaces. People and primates have shared spaces since time immemorial, often in sustainable ways. In addition, allocating a majority of primate range areas to fortress-style protection is at odds with the economic growth models of some primate range countries (i.e., nations with indigenous wild primates). Furthermore, many primatologists recognize that conservation benefits from integrating social justice components into programs with the ultimate goal of decolonizing conservation. Primate conservation continues to build on the foundation of basic and applied research in protected areas and, further, contributes to the development of community conservation programs for environmental sustainability. Examples of these developments include participating in offset and mitigation programs, introducing ethnographic methods to applied research to evaluate complex social processes underlying land use, and contributing to the decolonization of primate conservation.


  • Applied Anthropology
  • Biological Anthropology
  • International and Indigenous Anthropology


Primate conservation is an applied and practicing branch of anthropology and primatology that investigates nonhuman primate (hereafter, “primate”) populations and their habitats as well as human–primate relationships to ultimately prevent species extinctions (Cowlishaw and Dunbar 2000). Primates enhance society by contributing to tourism economies and healthy ecosystems, enriching cultural heritage, and, as model organisms, advancing scientific knowledge (Wich and Marshall 2016). At the same time, more than half of the world’s primate species are threatened with extinction, often due to unsustainable resource use in or near human-centered landscapes (Estrada et al. 2017). It is for these reasons that many primatologists feel compelled to incorporate conservation into their career trajectories. Primatologists tend to build their careers around niche science and basic research in anthropology, biology, or psychology, but the applied or practicing domain (Nolan 2003) is equally important to society (Bezanson and McNamara 2019). Structural distinctions between basic and applied research are commonplace in scientific and academic organizations, but individuals working in conservation often fluidly shift between these domains, which calls into question the value of maintaining the basic–applied dichotomy in conservation research (Nyssa 2020). Primatology creates space for conservation research that uses humanistic approaches such as historical literature analysis (Radhakrishna 2018) and emphasizes theory building over applied or practice components. However, applied primatology is mostly pluralistic in that it incorporates theory and applications (Riley 2013, 2018) and is oriented toward conserving threatened species (sensu Baillie et al. 2004).

Historic Trends

Primate conservationists aim to minimize species extinction risks by assessing primate populations and their habitats as well as intervention strategies. These assessments often involve knowledge frameworks from the natural sciences (e.g., animal behavior, conservation biology, ecology, evolutionary biology) that are advanced by scientific societies and related nongovernmental organizations (Baillie et al. 2004; Nyssa 2020). Primate conservation is a highly collaborative field involving government agencies, public institutions, local communities, and businesses.

Protected Areas

Primatologists work in protected and unprotected areas in primate range countries (see Figure 1). Protected areas prohibit people from using the lands and natural resources, except for those people granted legal rights by the state. The protected areas strategy is also referred to as the “fortress” approach to conservation; national parks and wildlife refuges are examples of this strategy. Protected areas are designed to preserve or increase biodiversity within the zone of conservation (Bruner et al. 2001; Butchart et al. 2012), but effectiveness hinges on the ability of authorities to limit prohibited activities. There can be a disconnect between the idealized concept of a protected area and practicing habitat protection, sometimes resulting in the “parks on paper” problem, tensions with local communities around the boundaries of legal and illegal activities, or both (Horwich and Lyon 2007). While restricting land use in protected areas is oftentimes associated with higher biodiversity than adjacent and unprotected spaces (Bruner et al. 2001), a significant critique of the protected area concept is that people and primates have shared spaces since time immemorial, often in sustainable ways. Meanwhile, political and economic forces such as global capitalism, industrialization, and unsustainable resource use are arguably more impactful drivers of primate population declines (Estrada et al. 2017). In addition, the creation of large protected areas may be at odds with the economic growth models implemented by many developing countries (Edwards et al. 2013). For these reasons, the creation of protected areas is a highly politicized act and may not always be in the best interest of primate conservation over the long term.

Figure 1. The global distribution of wild primates.

Source: IUCN (2021).

An alternative conservation model, known as community-based conservation (i.e., grassroots or bottom-up conservation), is based on the premise that local people are essential to the long-term success of conservation, and they must be highly integrated into local conservation efforts (Horwich and Lyon 2007; Hoàng 2016). This model is often applied to conservation projects in unprotected areas (e.g., zones of development) or places that do not clearly fit into the protected–unprotected dichotomy, such as mosaics of state and private lands, and community-managed forests (Fischer et al. 2014).

Communication and Outreach

Primate conservationists reach their intended audiences through writing for commercial publishers; producing gray literature (i.e., the literature not published in academic journals, such as practitioner-generated reports) (Haddaway and Bayliss 2015); consulting with policymakers, businesses, and community leaders; and using a mixture of media platforms (e.g., film, radio, social media, billboards) to engage with culturally diverse audiences. Evidence-based (i.e., scientifically supported) conservation relies on peer-reviewed studies and gray literature (see Table 1) to inform policy recommendations (Junker et al. 2020). Conservation organizations and suborganizations, such as the Primate Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission, provide peer-reviewed publishing outlets focused mainly or entirely on primate conservation, while commercial (academic and educational) publishers more often have broader aims and scopes that include but are not limited to the conservation of primates.

Table 1. Select List of Publishers and Publishing Programs That Focus on Primate Conservation Research and Problems


Literature Type1,2

Publication Examples2

International Union for Conservation of Nature, Species Survival Commission, Primate Specialist Group

Primary academic style

Primate Conservation, African Primates, Asian Primates, Neotropical Primates, Vietnamese Journal of Primatology


Lemur News

Best practices, action plans, special reports

Arcus Foundation, Great Apes and Gibbons Program

Secondary academic style

State of the Apes book series


Action plans, special reports

Synopses of Conservation Evidence, University of Cambridge


Primate Conservation (Junker et al. 2017)

Pax Animalis


The Conakry Connection (Ammann et al. 2013)

1. Notes: Academic style refers to peer-reviewed original research articles (primary) and secondary publications that rely mostly on primary sources.

2. The boundaries among literature types and among publications can be unfixed or porous. For example, a best practices report may undergo a level of peer review that is similar to a book series and use the same writing style as a secondary source.

In their survey of more than 750 scientific articles that were published in prestigious and high-impact journals from commercial publishers between 2011 and 2015, Bezanson and McNamara (2019) found that about 18 percent of articles (N = 132) included conservation themes or discussed the significance of the results for conservation. While this percentage may seem relatively low given the threatened status of most primate species, the journals included in this survey oriented toward basic research and, subsequently, may have led some of these authors to omit applied topics such as conservation. As such, these results are not necessarily representative of the proportion of primatologists who engage in primate conservation. Of these 132 conservation-related studies, 48 percent of articles evaluated anthropogenic impacts on primate habitats, while most of the remaining ones covered population assessments (20 percent) and ethnoprimatology (14 percent) (Bezanson and McNamara 2019). These authors showed that other conservation topics, including primate health, conservation genetics, and intervention strategies such as reintroducing captive primates to the wild, were also addressed, albeit to a lesser degree.

Threats to Primates

Identifying and describing the extent and impact of human activities on primate habitats comprise a major theme in primate conservation (Bezanson and McNamara 2019). The majority of these threats are directly or indirectly connected to the problem of unsustainable resource use. Although this list is not exhaustive, major threats to primates and their habitats include agriculture, extractive industries, infrastructure and settlement expansion, contamination, hunting and the wildlife trade, disease, and climate change (Estrada et al. 2017; Stewart et al. 2020). It is important to be aware of the connections and overlaps among these threats as well. For example, a large logging operation driven by consumer demand and global markets may lead to localized settlement and infrastructure expansions, increasing demands for timber and wild game meat in local markets, increasing opportunities for wildlife trafficking, and rising risk of transmitting diseases between humans and animals, also known as zoonotic disease transmission (Arcus Foundation 2014). Examples of this kind highlight the complex entanglement of primates, peoples, and societies—globally and locally—that often occurs with globalized capitalism.


Agricultural practices of all kinds such as industrialized and traditional agriculture, horticulture, and pastoralism can result in primate habitat loss and concomitant decreases in primate populations (Estrada et al. 2017). Industrialized and globalized agricultural operations tend to have the largest footprints due to the vast land area required for high crop yields intended for global markets. Well-known examples of such operations in primate range areas include palm oil in Indonesia (Parreñas 2018), beef and soybean in Brazil (Karstensen et al. 2013), and banana and pineapple in Costa Rica (Jadin et al. 2016).

Extractive Industries

The extraction of natural resources such as timber, minerals, and oil and gas, also known as the extractive industries (Arcus Foundation 2014), is a major driver of habitat loss. Large-scale timber extraction ranges from clear-cutting to selective logging with high to low environmental impact. Sensitivity or resilience to logging varies by logging type, targeted tree species, and species-habitat relationships. Clear-cutting and land-conversion usually lead to habitat annihilation (Arcus Foundation 2014) and have pushed some species to the brink of extinction (e.g., northern white-cheeked gibbon, Nomascus leucogenys, and rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, plantations in China) (Fan et al. 2014). At the other extreme, some primates seem to thrive amidst small timber operations when indirect threats such as hunting are rare or absent (e.g., black-handed spider monkey, Ateles geoffroyi, and Gmelina arborea plantations at El Zota, Costa Rica) (Luckett et al. 2004).

Similar to timber extraction, oil and gas and mining operations can have large or small footprints and vary in potential for environmental sustainability as a consequence of variable environmental impacts and species resilience. Extractive industries tend to invoke large-scale and industrialized operations, but small-scale or artisanal approaches are also widely practiced throughout primate range countries (Arcus Foundation 2014; Edwards et al. 2013). Artisanal practices tend to rely mostly on labor, although machine technologies and fossil fuels are often integral to these operations as well. In addition, care should be taken in describing the spatial scale of artisanal operations. Here, scale may refer to (but not always) the spatial scale of the high-impact area, such as the pit area of a surface mine. By this measure, some artisanal mines are as large or larger than industrialized operations (Ndiaye et al. 2018).

Infrastructure and Settlement Expansion

Infrastructure and settlement expansion in urban, peri-urban, and rural areas usually accompany industrialization and other forms of economic development, leading to further habitat loss. Examples of infrastructure include roads, electricity grids, hydroelectric dams, and shipping canals. Each (non-mutually exclusive) infrastructure type is designed to support households and growing economies (Arcus Foundation 2018). Infrastructure and settlement footprints are mainly uninhabitable to primates, with the exception of species that may thrive in urban areas (e.g., long-tailed macaques, Macaca fascicularis) (Fuentes 2020). Urbanization and linear infrastructure (e.g., roads, power grids) can accelerate the intensity and prevalence of human–primate interactions (Collinson et al. 2019) and introduce novel mortality risks from primate–vehicle collisions, electrocutions, and accidental falls on roads (see Figure 2) (Lindshield 2016).

Figure 2. (a) Patas monkeys (Erythrocebus patas) in Niokolo Koba National Park, Senegal, routinely traverse a national highway that cuts through this protected area. (b) Primate-vehicle collisions sometimes occur at this human–primate interface.

Source: Photos by Ousmane Diedhiou, Recherche Chimpanzé Assirik, Direction des Parcs Nationaux.


Primate conservationists also consider the health impact of contamination on primates and their habitats. Contamination of air, water, soils, and food sources that primates use may occur through a variety of human cultural practices, such as the application of pesticides to agricultural crops or the mining industry’s use of heavy metals (Serio-Silva et al. 2015; Wang et al. 2019). The impact of contamination on the health of wild primates is poorly understood, but several areas of concern stem from human and animal studies. For example, mercury (a heavy metal that is often used by artisanal gold miners) toxicity is associated with neurological defects and reduced fertility in mammals (Evers 2018). Thus, primates (human and nonhuman) probably experience higher morbidity risks in places where gold mining and mercury contamination intersect (Niane et al. 2019).

Hunting and Wildlife Trade

Humans killing primates for meat or medicine is commonly viewed as a key threat to primate conservation. The issue of hunting is central to primate conservation because the life history traits (e.g., fertility rate) of many primate species are highly sensitive to hunting, and hunting rates have increased with the replacement of traditional hunting techniques with more efficient weapons (e.g., shotguns) (Arcus Foundation 2020). The widely held belief in primatology that hunting is antithetical to primate conservation may also be entrenched in the foodways of some researchers, as many of the affluent societies that produce today’s professional primatologists consider eating primates as a food taboo. While many people who coexist with primates may have similar taboos, foodways that encompass primate meat may be part of a subsistence strategy that prevents malnutrition and food insecurity (Friant et al. 2020). Furthermore, conservation interventions aimed at reducing primate hunting and killing, such as alternative food security programs, may include hidden costs. For example, interventions that aim to replace wild game meat with livestock animals may ultimately increase demand for agricultural land and deforestation (Booths et al. 2021).

The trade in wildlife for food, biomedical research, zoos, and pets has been linked to significant declines in some primate species (Arcus Foundation 2020). The development of international agreements such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora have curbed the flow of primates internationally, but black-market operations—driven by demand and enabled by porous international borders—continue to threaten species such as orangutans, chimpanzees, and lorises that are highly valued by zoos, pet owners, and research laboratories (Ammann et al. 2013; Arcus Foundation 2020; Nekaris et al. 2010).


Disease transmission between human and nonhuman primates is bidirectional. Primate conservationists tend to focus on morbidity and mortality risks in primate species that are vulnerable to human diseases, particularly great apes (Gilardi et al. 2015). At the same time, nonhuman primates may host lethal diseases (e.g., ebola virus) that are transmittable to humans (Leendertz et al. 2016). The potential for cross-species disease transfer is especially high between human and nonhuman primates due to our close, shared evolutionary history (Gilardi et al. 2015). In extreme scenarios, primates may function as virus reservoirs with spillover potential into human populations. However, most documented cases of zoonotic disease transmission in primates indicate that endangered species are most vulnerable to the threat of disease transmission. For these and other reasons, primatologists are increasingly including veterinary medicine and public health dimensions in their conservation work (Weber et al. 2020).

Climate Change

More than half of the world’s land area—including areas within the geographical ranges of primates—will experience higher temperature extremes, heat waves, droughts, and vegetation browning in the 21st century (Jia et al. 2019). These changes are expected to impact primate nutrition, as protein availability in leafy foods (Rothman et al. 2015) and water availability (Jia et al. 2019) are known to be affected by a warming climate. For some primate species, especially those populations living in extreme environments, climate change may spur migrations, range shifts, and local extinctions (Korstjen and Hillyer 2016; Stewart et al. 2020). Compounding these problems is the multispecies (i.e., ecological community or coupled human-natural system) aspect of climate change, where peoples’ needs and demands will co-occur simultaneously with the needs of primates (and other coexisting species). For example, chimpanzees in extremely hot, open, and dry environments in Senegal (McGrew et al. 1981) are living in a climate that pushes the boundaries of thermal tolerance for the species (Wessling et al. 2018); that climate is predicted to get even hotter and drier in the mid-21st century (Funk et al. 2012). In addition to the potential growing threat of hyperthermia risk for this species in Senegal (Pruetz 2021), competition for water with people and other coexisting species also experiencing water shortages may further complicate chimpanzee conservation in Senegal.

Trends in Primate Conservation

Primatologists often work in multidisciplinary teams and contribute their expertise in primate behavior, cognition, and ecology to conservation and management projects, often with epistemological orientations in scientific methods, conservation biology, and behavioral ecology (Junker et al. 2020; Riley 2018). Anthropological primatologists working on these issues may prioritize the study of community attitudes and perceptions toward primates while developing localized intervention or mitigation programs aimed at environmental sustainability or natural resource management, or both (see Box 1).

Box 1. Ethnoprimatology in Action

Ethnoprimatologists share their expertise of primates and the human–primate interface to help with the holistic construction of environmental sustainability programs. These programs are often broad in scope, centered on one or more related themes such as sustainable development or conservation, and involve multidisciplinary teams of experts and stakeholders. A case study of this “ethnoprimatology in action” involves the building of artificial crossing structures over roads in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica to minimize mortality risks from electrocutions, animal–vehicle collisions, or dog attacks (Lindshield 2016; Fan 2018). Since the 1990s, several communities within and around the greater Puerto Viejo area have relied on paved roads and aboveground electricity and telephone lines to support their nature tourism industries and improve their livelihoods (Fan 2018; Lindshield 2016; Narváez Rivera 2017; see Box 2). At the same time, this development has caused deforestation and led some local residents to question the environmental sustainability of their tourism industry (Fan 2018).

In the greater Puerto Viejo area, arboreal and artificial crossing structures (see Figure 3) are designed to improve forest connectivity for primates and other animals that must otherwise limit their ranging to forests on only one side of a habitat gap, or traverse across unsuitable land or structures (e.g., paved road or aboveground utility lines and posts) to reach habitat on the other side of the forest gap. In this study area, designing effective crossing structures over paved roads and utility lines required a multidisciplinary team of natural resource managers, engineers, and anthropologists to test bridge designs and evaluate sites for installation (see Figure Box 1). Anthropological expertise was essential for identifying the strengths and weaknesses of crossing structure designs in relation to primate behavior and locomotion, community attitudes toward crossing design aesthetics, and community perceptions about what is (and is not) working with crossing structures (Fan 2018; Lindshield 2016). Ultimately, this anthropological knowledge is useful for developing new crossing structures that are more aesthetically appealing to local people and more functional to the primates and other animals that use them.

Figure Box 1. Anthropologist Yibo Fan (fourth from the left) holding a participant conservation workshop in the greater Puerto Viejo area of Costa Rica to discuss potential installation sites for artificial crossing structures.

Source: Photo by Yibo Fan.


Decolonization is a process that aims to improve equity for all by undoing social and institutional structures that systemically disadvantage formerly colonized people and/or their descendants (Jobson 2020). In primatology, decolonization disrupts the reproduction of colonial (i.e., neocolonial) structures that are (a) not serving the best interests of local people in primate range countries (see Figure 1), and/or (b) winnowing out diversity in the professional primatologist pipeline. Although this process has been long recognized by social scientists as vital to doing ethical and inclusive work (Harrison 2010), conservationists have been arguably slow, at times, to catch on. For example, although representation of range country authors in the primate conservation literature is increasing (Junker et al. 2020), most of the authors in the conservation science literature are from affluent, developed countries (Fazey et al. 2005).

The creation or maintenance of protected areas as a conservation intervention strategy also has the potential for tension where neocolonialism and decolonization intersect. The creation of national parks, for example, sometimes entails the forced removal of indigenous communities and stripping away of their land rights. The social impacts of national parks are complex, as some local communities economically benefit from protected areas while others do not when tourism is involved, for example (Narvaez-Rivera 2017; Schulze 2021). Due to benefit differences among households, people from the same communities may hold contrasting views about the relative importance of protected areas (Chua et al. 2020). Confronting these issues can be uncomfortable, but taking such steps to decolonize protected areas ultimately may improve conservation programming (Schulze 2021). In addition, primate conservationists may turn toward community-based conservation, as it is by design a more decolonizing process because it prioritizes the needs of local people and acknowledges that conservation is intrinsically a human problem that requires the involvement of local people to find sustainable solutions.

Types of decolonizing actions include talking about neocolonial structures that are currently in practice, building institutional partnerships with range country scholars and institutions, involving local researchers in all aspects of primate research, valuing indigenous or local expertise as much or more than knowledge produced by technoscientific (technological and scientific) and social science methods, practicing shared governance of conservation projects, co-publishing and co-presenting research, and prioritizing training opportunities for graduate students and practitioners from range countries (Chua et al. 2020; Covert 2019; Hoàng 2016; Junker et al. 2020; Parreñas 2018). In their review of primate conservation in Vietnam, Hoàng (2016, 134) describes why building capacity and community support are so important to primate conservation: “The fates of Vietnam’s primates and its primatologists are inextricably linked.”


Ethnoprimatology, an interdisciplinary field of study that emerged in the 1990s and reconnects biological and cultural anthropology, is an approach that centers on the human–primate interface in ecological landscapes where cultural, economic, and political forces have strongly shaped the environment and terrain (e.g., peri-urban or agricultural areas). An ethnoprimatological approach explores the cultural and ecological interconnections between humans and primates, usually to address conservation and management issues from a more holistic perspective. Ethnoprimatologists often prioritize studies on primates outside of protected areas and counter the long-held idea that studying primates outside of these “pristine” areas is poorly suited for advancing the study of primate behavior, evolution, and ecology (Fuentes 2012; Riley 2018).

Ethnoprimatological approaches also provide space for views on environmental sustainability that extend beyond conservation. For instance, urban or peri-urban primates may create public health problems in cases where they are potential disease vectors (Fuentes 2020). While these circumstances lead some people to view primates as pests, in a subset of these cases, cultural norms and values prohibit culling as a management strategy. Vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus sabaeus) in St. Kitts, introduced to the Caribbean island during the 1600s by slave traders and merchant settlers, have been described as “a problem” by farmers but as a “valuable resource” by the government. While Kittitian farmers suggested culling to protect their livelihoods, the state aimed to find a “balance” and prioritized foreign perceptions of conservation to protect the tourism economy. Using a political ecology framework that examines the influence of power on local ecologies, Dore (2018) described how the state’s management approach marginalized Kittitian farmers. She further concluded that a more sustainable coexistence can be achieved by striking a better balance between outsider, globalized views on conservation and the needs of the farmers whose livelihoods matter to St. Kitts’s society.

Primates that interface with farmers in these areas engage in highly variable ecological interactions. To farmers, primates can be seen as pest or nuisance animals that damage or destroy economically valuable plants and/or threaten the safety of the people when physical confrontations occur (Dore 2018). However, not all agricultural contexts involve negative interactions. In some cases, crop-feeding primates may target portions of these plants that would otherwise go to waste, or they inhabit portions of the cultivated land that do not directly interfere with crop production. In such cases, people usually display a high degree of tolerance toward primates (i.e., commensal relationship). In some cases, primates and farmers engage in mutualistic interactions. For example, primates may ward off other animals that damage or destroy crops, or disperse the seeds of valued trees that people may use in the future (Estrada et al. 2017). As these cases demonstrate, perspectives on primates vary widely and depend on the local context. Ethnoprimatology is designed to address this complexity and can be coupled with traditional approaches in wildlife management and conservation biology to more holistically confront conservation problems.

Mixed Methods

Primate conservationists recognize the sociocultural and ecological complexities that shape human–primate relations and conservation management (e.g., Chua et al. 2020). Primatologists use a mixed-methods approach, or the integration of qualitative and quantitative methods, to promote nuanced understandings of conservation issues (Setchell et al. 2017). Aiming to reconnect primatology (typically a quantitative field) with its ethnographic origins and explore the role of local and extralocal forces in primate conservation, primate conservationists incorporate ethnographic (often qualitative) approaches that include methods such as participant observation and interviews. Jost Robinson and Remis (2014, 2018) demonstrate the value of this approach in their ethnoprimatological study of the interrelations between hunters and hunted in the Dzanga-Sangha Dense Forest Reserve in Central African Republic by using both ecological and ethnographic datasets. They found that as gun hunting became more prevalent due to migrant hunters working in extractive industries, cercopithecoid monkeys have changed their antipredator strategies. These monkeys became more cryptic (i.e., quieter), which in turn may have impacted their group cohesion and survival as well as the hunting success of local people relying on traditional hunting methods. By integrating multiple methodological perspectives, Jost Robinson and Remis were able to describe the entanglements of human–environment relationships more holistically than possible with exclusively quantitative or qualitative methods.

Science and Technology

Research is often a slow and tedious process that lags behind the pace of land use activities that impact primate populations and their habitats. This problem explains, in part, the need for conservationists and policymakers to make greater investments in evidence-based interventions to promote environmental sustainability (Junker et al. 2020). Technoscientific advancements are used by primate conservationists to scale up their research—that is, cover larger geographic scales that represent a larger number of primates and their habitats—and operate at higher efficiencies to accelerate the pace of research (Wich and Piel 2021). These methods often complement, rather than replace, traditional field methods (e.g., pedestrian surveys, behavior observations, habitat descriptions) in primate conservation research.

Tools such as drones, camera traps (i.e., automated cameras that record images when their sensors are triggered by movement or temperature changes), and global positioning systems (GPS) help primatologists to survey at relatively large spatial scales more intensively than would be possible using traditional methods (Cronin et al. 2021; Wich et al. 2021). Drones, for example, can be equipped with remote-sensing technologies such as digital cameras, LiDAR (light detection and ranging using pulsed lasers), and thermal imaging to detect animals, measure their environments (e.g., forest canopy height), and photograph the landscape (Spaan et al. 2019; Wich et al. 2021). Furthermore, remote sensing datasets collected from drones or satellites can be coupled with direct observations on the ground using hand-held GPS units to enhance measurements of primate habitats, monitor changes to their environments over time, and facilitate geospatial analyses (Bonnin et al. 2020; Cronin et al. 2021).

These technological developments often generate large datasets that can be tedious and labor-intensive to process and analyze by hand (Singh et al. 2020), leading primate conservationists to partner with computer and software engineers to integrate efficiency tools, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. These developments can reduce the reliance on expert knowledge and manual labor while processing and analyzing the large datasets. For example, animal object recognition from still images and videos taken from camera trap databases can be developed and automated using machine learning algorithms (Singh et al. 2020) and even detect animals in images that are not on the visible light spectrum for humans (Whytock et al. 2021).

New remote-sensing technologies hold great potential for enhancing primate conservation, but the use (and misuse) of data generated from these technologies may violate personal privacy or harm marginalized communities (Sharma et al. 2020; Verweijin 2020). Collecting wildlife imagery with camera traps and drones may inadvertently capture images of people behaving in ways that may violate their sense of privacy or violate state laws (Sharma et al. 2020). Furthermore, in areas protected with militarized conservation, drones or camera traps have been known to directly contribute to human suffering by accelerating the pace of state-sanctioned violence (Massé 2018; Verweijin 2020). Anthropological primatologists must address these complicated problems within their research or practice by integrating professional ethical standards for human-subjects research with animal welfare concerns.


National economic development strategies in primate range countries bring people working in large-scale and often industrialized projects into closer contact with primate species (Collinson et al. 2019; Edwards et al. 2013; Kormos et al. 2014). Such projects may include but are not limited to industrialized agriculture, extractive industries, infrastructure development, and settlement expansion. In industry collaborations, primatologists may work in multidisciplinary teams and contribute technoscientific and/or ethnoprimatological expertise to projects aimed at offsetting or mitigating the harmful impacts of development on threatened primates and their habitats (see Figure 3) (Badji et al. 2018; Kormos et al. 2014).

Figure 3. Practitioner spotlight: Landing Badji, PhD, is an ecology and conservation officer for the Biodiversity Offset Program of Petowal Mining Company in Senegal. For his dissertation, Dr. Badji studied the ecology of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) in the commune of Tomboronkoto (Kedougou, Senegal) and, notably, the impact of industrial and artisanal gold mining on chimpanzees and their habitat. In 2019, he received a PhD in ecology and ecosystem management from Cheikh Anta Diop University. Dr. Badji is the first Senegalese primatologist to conduct dissertation work on wild chimpanzees and receive his graduate education at a Senegalese university.

Source: Photo by Landing Badji.

Managing primate populations around urban and peri-urban areas, particularly transportation infrastructure, is an area of growth for primatologists collaborating with industry sectors. Transportation infrastructure and urbanizing landscapes pose otherwise unusual mortality risks for primates, such as dog attacks, animal–vehicle collisions, and electrocutions (see Box 1) (Lindshield 2016; Pereira et al. 2020). To ultimately reduce these mortality risks, the study of artificial crossing structures for primates as an intervention strategy is aimed at facilitating primate movement in forests fragmented by roads and utility (e.g., electricity, telephone) lines (see Figure 4; and see Box 1). Such projects require primatologists to work collaboratively with industry specialists—utility and road technicians in this case—in addition to residents, to provide essential information on primate populations and their habitats within human-centered landscapes during the project design phase and to evaluate the effectiveness of these mitigation strategies (Lindshield 2016).

Figure 4. Mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata) interacting with an artificial crossing structure in a rehabilitation center at Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica during a test of crossing structure function.

Source: Photo by Giselle Narváez Rivera, Centro de Rescate Jaguar.

The tourism industry in Uganda that is centered around mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) demonstrates that industry collaborations may be developed to leverage primate conservation for economic gain (Ampumuza and Driessen 2020; Weber et al. 2020). These authors remind us that, while gorilla tourism has benefited many communities and is often viewed as a successful conservation intervention, there are imperfections within the industry. For instance, high contact between people and gorillas may lead to more intensive crop-feeding in local gardens, possible physical attacks on people, and disease transmission. In addition, marginalized or otherwise vulnerable populations may have their livelihoods disrupted by the creation of protected areas that are designed to support the tourism industry (Schulze 2021). To meet conservation targets, primate tourism projects need to generate profit without exploiting primates and the people living alongside them (see Box 2).

Box 2. Primate Tourism

Primate tourism, a form of nature tourism or ecotourism, has been considered an important tool to support conservation efforts in many primate range countries. These projects need to be carefully planned and evaluated, as there can be unintended consequences of tourism that negatively affect primates and the people who coexist with them (i.e., zoonotic disease transmission and physical or economic displacement of local people). One example of a primate tourism project that has worked well in the early 21st century is located in Gandoca, Costa Rica at the Gandoca-Manzanillo Mixed National Wildlife Refuge. Costa Rica is internationally recognized as a popular ecotourism destination and as a global leader in biodiversity conservation (Jones and Spadafora 2016). The wildlife refuge offers a reliable opportunity for tourists to watch spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) dangle from the treetops in a mangrove lagoon. The spider monkey is an Endangered (IUCN Red List A4cd version 3.1) species (Cortes-Ortíz et al. 2021) that is not easily seen elsewhere in the area. While many conservation and ecotourism initiatives are neocolonial and involve foreign investors that extract profits from the community, the tourism project in Gandoca is led by local community members, many of whom view the monkeys in a positive light (Narváez Rivera 2017). Ecotourism in Gandoca has worked well because it has: (a) generated profit for local residents that mostly stayed within the community, (b) avoided the exploitation or displacement of people, (c) not exploited primates or their habitats, and (d) promoted the coexistence of people and primates (see Figure Box 2).

Figure Box 2. (a) A black-handed spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) visits the mangrove lagoon at the Gandoca-Manzanillo Mixed Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica. (b) Spider monkey viewing is a tourism attraction at the Gandoca lagoon.

Source: Photo by Josue A. Rodriguez Rojas.


Primate conservation is mostly an applied or practicing field (Nolan 2003; Riley 2018). Within primatology, applied researchers and practitioners often work in the fields of environmental sustainability and conservation, biomedicine, captive care and management, and education. For sustainability and conservation specializations, primatologists often seek careers in higher education, government, and nongovernmental organizations and may work in large and diverse teams on conservation and management problems for primates. Although we make a distinction between applied and practicing primatology here for the purpose of comparing and contrasting career tracks, the boundary that divides applied research from practice can be porous for primate conservationists.

Applied primatologists usually hold advanced degrees (e.g., PhD) in anthropology, biology, or a related field. They often work in universities or colleges and engage in classroom instruction and professional service (e.g., the work that supports the functioning of their institutions or the external scientific societies to which they belong) in addition to research and publishing. Publishing research is oftentimes critical to job security. Their ability to allocate effort to applied research is contingent on factors such as institutional requirements (the relative importance their institution places on research toward job promotion and security) and individuals’ professional and personal goals. It is not uncommon for these primatologists to engage in a mix of basic and applied research. The degree to which anthropologists emphasize applied or basic research depends on factors such as personal preferences and financial support from their institutions and/or external funding agencies.

Practitioners often work in conservation nongovernmental organizations, research institutes, zoos and sanctuaries, and environmental consulting (see Figure 3). Like applied primatologists, practitioners usually have doctorate degrees in anthropology (or a related field), but it is possible to pursue a career with a master’s or bachelor’s (or equivalent) degree, or relevant professional experience. The extent to which practitioners allocate effort to conservation activities or research relative to other job tasks varies with factors such as employer requirements, financial support, and personal preferences. These primatologists may be required or otherwise feel compelled to publish their work in the scientific or grey literature, while other individuals may give greater priority to activities (Haddaway and Bayliss 2015) such as program development and evaluation, lobbying, community outreach, or fundraising.


Primate conservation is an applied and practicing area of anthropology (and closely related fields) that broadly aims to help society reach environmental sustainability through protecting and managing the world’s primate species. In anthropology, primatologists often address the multidisciplinary aspects of conservation by merging technoscientific biology with social science frameworks that are designed to understand the diverse and complex lifeways of people. These methodologies can be simultaneously quantitative, qualitative, technoscientific, and decolonizing. Solving the primate extinction crisis involves ramping up the pace of research with technological advancements to generate workable evidence-based intervention strategies that meet the needs of policy makers, while also deconstructing the uncomfortable reality that most of the visible work has been generated by primatologists from affluent, developed countries.

Further Reading