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In Pursuit of Primates, Skills & Conservation Roles

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

By Christian Howell. Christian Howell is a PhD student for Dr Tania Minhos (Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal) and Dr Kimberly Hockings (University of Exeter, UK), with his current research based at the Gola Rainforest National Park, Sierra Leone. You can follow him on Instagram @primatehowell and via his own blog

With international travel achievable, for the most part, I’m fortunate enough to find myself in West Africa’s Sierra Leone. We’ll delve deeper into just what we’re looking to achieve here a little later, as going straight into the depths of chimpanzee survey talk doesn’t always make for the most entertaining read.

Following ideas in primatology

I first encountered primatology (the study of primates) as an undergraduate student needing a topic for my dissertation. “Wouldn’t it be great if I could find a way of watching monkeys at the zoo all day,” I thought to myself. And so I was able to conduct a simple behavioural study on a group of crested macaques (Macaca nigra) to see how zoo husbandry routines may have shaped their behaviours. Fast forward to now, and having supervised a couple of undergraduate students who used similar methods on the same species at other zoos, we have an article under revision for the scientific journal Zoo Biology. It can be quite amazing how ideas and experiences evolve in this way and where they can take you.

With the many graduates seeking limited conservation-based roles, having an idea of the direction you wish to take is important, taking on opportunities and gaining experience can take time and it is crucial to be flexible in how to approach or select a role we would like to work in one day. For instance, I have come far away from a goal I set as a graduate to become a Zoo Curator! I hope by sharing some experiences, and allowing you to see how they have shaped ideas, that people with even the smallest of thoughts of working within a conservation or environmental research type-role may gain some insight to start their own exploration into this line of work. Furthermore, those around them may see why gaining these experiences are beneficial, enabling greater support to be provided so they can persevere and be resilient throughout.

Photo: A male orangutan photographed whilst working with the Borneo Nature Foundation, Borneo.

The Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project, now known as the Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF), hosted 7 week expeditions to the Sebangau forest in Borneo and I joined my first fieldwork expedition here in 2013, being invited back in 2014 for 6 months. Little did I know this was great exposure to survey techniques for great ape populations; orangutan nest counts, phenology, habitat assessment, camera trapping etc. It also involved running through peat swamp forest after groups of gibbons which had been habituated to human presence in order to study their behaviour and feeding habits. I say running, but this was mainly stumbling, hopping, falling, cursing, and marveling at the speed and ease the gibbons would put almost 100m between us and them. From here we see skills I am using today for my PhD already being developed. As much as we can learn within the classroom there is no real substitute for ensuring you can gain the experience in the field, but it doesn’t have to be abroad as there are many UK wildlife groups that will conduct their own work which may need a volunteer or two.

Photo: Chimpanzees photographed whilst working at the Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda.

In 2016 I headed to Uganda’s Budongo Forest to conduct my thesis research for my MSc in Primate Conservation from Oxford Brookes University. The study involved that underlying interest of how humans can influence primates, but this time in wild chimpanzees. Such work involved collecting chimpanzee poops which would later be sent to the German Primate Centre to detect metabolized molecules associated with the stress response remaining in the poop, our study used molecules called faecal glucocorticoid metabolites (FGCMs). The idea being an individual with a higher stress load will have more of these metabolized molecules (FGCMs) in their faeces. I compared the group of chimpanzees in the relatively undisturbed habitat of the Budongo Forest to those in a nearby mixed forest and farmland habitat at Bulindi. The results showed that the Bulindi chimpanzees had, on average, FGCM levels that were three times higher than chimpanzees living in the Budongo Forest. We published these results in the scientific journal Conservation Biology. Whilst we have to consider that FGCM levels do not equate to absolute stress levels, we lacked data as to why FGCMs might differ so much between these populations of chimpanzees. Sure, these Bulindi chimpanzees had to share an environment with humans, they would be chased out of fields, there were roads to cross which risked collisions with traffic, but they had a supply of readily available human crop foods to eat. These foods are known to be more nutritious than wild foods, so could this buffer against a potentially higher stress load? Would their stress load be higher again compared to those living in the Budongo Forest if they had no access to these foods? Further research is ongoing, and the Bulindi Chimpanzee and Community Project is encouraging the acceptance of this shared landscape between chimpanzees and local people. You can check out all the amazing conservation work that Dr Matthew McLennan and his team are doing in Bulindi here

With this project, skills were now being developed to investigate the sorts of questions I pose above. Additionally, experiences were being taken further away from the zoo and primates in a captive setting. These ideas had really started to change into something more specific which related to wild chimpanzees and their adaptability to human disturbances in their environments. The work itself to collect data had also become longer and much more physically demanding, however, the rewards felt greater.

Photo: A chimpanzee photographed whilst working at the Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda.

Latest project

After working as a Research Officer for a zoo, doing some more volunteering as a research assistant on another student’s PhD project, lecturing at a university centre and managing the Greater Mahale Ecosystem Research & Conservation Project (GMERC) in Tanzania, I began my PhD. The PhD project had been advertised and the experiences and skills from all these various roles now very much paid off and I was offered the project. The main project idea from the advert was in an early stage, and I then had some months to work on bringing together a variety of methods in order to achieve its goals. We’ll take a look at the project below now and see just how ideas and previous experiences have really shaped what has been produced. For me, the excitement and opportunity feels greater than studying that group of macaques at the zoo. There is real potential to influence how an environment is managed to improve the conservation of a population of wild chimpanzees.

Unfortunately, across West Africa, chimpanzees are on a trajectory towards extinction, and require effective action to be taken in order to prevent local extinctions. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has identified farming and poaching as two of the most significant threats to chimpanzee populations in these areas. My PhD research is based at Gola Rainforest National Park, where these threats are currently present and past surveys have indicated a smaller population of chimpanzees than expected inside the national park. Is this due to chimpanzees using different behavioural strategies to avoid hunting, making them more elusive? Or are they making nests in areas outside the national park? Maybe human activity reduced the chimpanzee population? If so, how intense is human activity in these areas? So you see, we are back to human influences on primates and trying to find how chimpanzee populations adapt to different levels of various human activities. The idea now revolves around all previous experience and skills, and will hopefully give those aspiring to work within conservation a positive outlook for any long, hard days sacrificed!

Photo: A map displaying the location of the Gola Rainforest National Park within Sierra Leone, and the location of the transects being used for data collection in the current study. Source: ESRI, Maxar, GeoEye, Earthstar Geographic, CNES/Airbus DS, USDA, USGS, AeroGrid, IGN, and the GIS User Community.

Gola has quite a remarkable landscape to understand how chimpanzees are responding to these activities and potential threats. It also allows an opportunity to see how they may be utilizing differing habitats which will have varying levels of human presence and activity. The national park is surrounded by a 4km wide leakage belt which is part of West Africa’s first REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) project. REDD+ projects are a United Nations initiative, aiming to foster conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhance forest carbon stocks. However, the increasing dominance of cocoa as a cash crop at Gola from REDD+ initiatives promotes a growing and major conservation concern, as although vital for human development, the growing presence of cocoa is driving increased wildlife crop foraging and the resulting conflicts. Indeed, there is little to no data concerning the conservation efficacy of the REDD+ initiatives, the leakage belt, or the ongoing impacts from other continuing human activities in and surrounding Gola.

Photo: An area where the Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP) meets farmland, photographed whilst working at GRNP, Sierra Leone.

My PhD team is currently collecting data on chimpanzee and human presence and activity across a section of the national park’s central forest block and its surrounding leakage belt. This location was chosen due to previous surveys of the national park indicating it has a higher abundance of chimpanzees. Data collection involves walking 2km transects (predetermined straight lines) to spot signs of chimpanzee presence (dung, feeding remains, footprints, nests) and human activity (mining, logging, farming, snares, machete cuts) across all habitat types. We are also deploying over 20 camera traps across the study area and collecting eDNA samples (usually in the form of water samples from pools and streams which can contain DNA of animals in the environment; environmental DNA) to determine if chimpanzees are present and occupying key areas across the leakage belt and national park. Alongside this we are collecting information on chimpanzee feeding trees to determine if when they are fruiting or not fruiting this will influence chimpanzee movements. Due to the seasonal availability of fruits chimpanzees can use agricultural areas to supplement diets and this will be important to identify. The team splits on most days and I am very fortunate to have Kiefer (who is a MSc Conservation & Biodiversity graduate from the University of Exeter and is Research Assistant to my PhD research project)leading one half of the field team, which is hugely beneficial for achieving the project’s workload goals, whilst improving data accuracy and reliability.

Photo: A Research Technician from GRC-LG helps to set up a camera trap; photographed whilst working at GRNP, Sierra Leone.

It is hoped that this project will complement other national survey work to provide knowledge of chimpanzee populations at the regional level that will allow for conservation planning. The combination of transect surveys, combined with camera trapping and eDNA sampling, will provide accurate data to estimate chimpanzee presence and abundance for this area of the national park, whilst quantifying the human and ecological influences which may be driving their distribution and behaviour.

And there we have it. By following a simple idea of how humans can influence primates we have come a long way from reading about me watching those macaques at the zoo. Hopefully we have seen how skills and experiences develop with regards to what we sign ourselves up for, and how we can use those at later dates to create ideas with more potential impact. These experiences do not always come easily and going back to the beginning of the blog, there is a great need to persevere and be resilient whether applying for the chance to gain experience in the field or making funding applications to further your own cause. This is not always easy, however, by sticking at things and facing rounds of rejection for funding and scholarships my project is now underway. It is also important to remember, experience doesn’t always have to come from working abroad either, remember there is much to be done on our doorstep that may lead to a different but just as fulfilling role. Some of the skills and experiences you have read about are quite specialist, but there is also a whole host of transferable skills that will come attached to people from many different backgrounds, allowing them to work effectively within a conservation or research type role. Maybe we shouldn’t always stick to what we know? By diversifying our experiences there is even more potential for a greater proportion of people to be involved in and work towards the conservation of the best set of animals, primates nature.


McLennan, M.R., Ganzhorn, J.U. Nutritional Characteristics of Wild and Cultivated Foods for Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) in Agricultural Landscapes. Int J Primatol 38, 122–150 (2017).

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