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Durham University News

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Understanding human needs is key to wildlife ecology research

(16 August 2017)

Primate and Predator

The Primate and Predator Project based in the Soutpansberg mountain range of South Africa, aims to better understand the ecology of local species and the threat that human activity poses to their conservation. Project Director Professor Russell Hill, Department of Anthropology, discusses the challenges of managing a research project abroad and successfully engaging with local communities. 

How did the Primate and Predator Project come about?

In some respects it came about by chance! A PhD student and I went to South Africa in 2007 to look for a field site to study vervet monkeys. The airline lost his bags, forcing us to change our plans a bit. On trying to visit a specific nature reserve the local tourist information office recommended we instead visit a ‘man in the mountains who has monkeys’. That man was Prof Ian Gaigher who ran a field site within the Soutpansberg Mountains and did indeed have monkeys on site! It was a perfect set up and Ian has remained a long-term collaborator who helped us establish the predator side of our research. In 2011 we established our own field station at the site, formalising our research as the Primate and Predator Project (PPP), and the project has now supported a large number of PhD students, as well as our undergraduate field course.

What are the main challenges for establishing and running a research project abroad?

Financially supporting a permanent presence on site has been a real challenge and in the early days there were often gaps. It was only after we developed a grant partnership with the conservation organisation Earthwatch that we were able to establish our own field station and a permanent presence there. 

Being Durham-based is also challenging. I rely heavily on the field team to manage many of the important relationships with the local community and undertake the data collection.

How do you and your field team cultivate and continue those successful relationships with the local community?

Our starting point is to try to understand the problems the local community faces rather than implementing solutions we think are right. Understanding the human dimension of human-wildlife conflict is most important.

The farmers experience very real economic losses from wildlife. Leopards kill livestock and baboons can remove an entire crop field in one to two days if it is left unguarded. It is vital to understand these problems from the farmer’s perspective.

Building long term relationships and trust is vital to ensure the land owners accept that we’re not just there to implement a conservation strategy. We support South African nationals to join the research team as they are well-placed to engage with local land owners. We work with farmers to design solutions that are practical, feasible and avoid lethal measures, and integrate them as partners in our research.

How have these relationships helped to improve and inform your research?

When we started conducting research in the area we didn’t plan to work on a conservation project or study human-wildlife conflict. Our original interest was in studying how predators influence primate behaviour. However, we quickly realised that a key concern for the local landowners was the problems these animals caused for their livelihoods, and that we could not work successfully in this area without addressing the questions that were important to the local community. It is very much the case that we develop our ideas in tandem with the local community as they are best placed to tell us what the major problems are, but also to guide us on the solutions that are acceptable in the local context.

You can follow the Primate and Predator project on Facebook and keep up to date with their blog.

Image credit: Chacma baboon, Benny Rebel

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