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Durham University

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Setchell, J.M., Fairet, E., Shutt, K., Waters, S. & Bell, S. (2017). Biosocial conservation: integrating biological and ethnographic methods to study human-primate interactions. International Journal of Primatology 38(2): 401-426.

Author(s) from Durham


Biodiversity conservation is one of the grand challenges facing society. Many people interested in biodiversity conservation have a background in wildlife biology. However, the diverse social, cultural, political, and historical factors that influence the lives of people and wildlife can be investigated fully only by incorporating social science methods, ideally within an interdisciplinary framework. Cultural hierarchies of knowledge and the hegemony of the natural sciences create a barrier to interdisciplinary understandings. Here, we review three different projects that confront this difficulty, integrating biological and ethnographic methods to study conservation problems. The first project involved wildlife foraging on crops around a newly established national park in Gabon. Biological methods revealed the extent of crop loss, the species responsible, and an effect of field isolation, while ethnography revealed institutional and social vulnerability to foraging wildlife. The second project concerned great ape tourism in the Central African Republic. Biological methods revealed that gorilla tourism poses risks to gorillas, while ethnography revealed why people seek close proximity to gorillas. The third project focused on humans and other primates living alongside one another in Morocco. Incorporating shepherds in the coproduction of ecological knowledge about primates built trust and altered attitudes to the primates. These three case studies demonstrate how the integration of biological and social methods can help us to understand the sustainability of human–wildlife interactions, and thus promote coexistence. In each case, an integrated biosocial approach incorporating ethnographic data produced results that would not otherwise have come to light. Research that transcends conventional academic boundaries requires the openness and flexibility to move beyond one’s comfort zone to understand and acknowledge the legitimacy of “other” kinds of knowledge. It is challenging but crucial if we are to address conservation problems effectively.