An Anthropological Perspective on Primates and Conservation


I took my very first anthropology course in the Fall of 2008. I had started my undergraduate journey at Youngstown State University in 2006 as a Secondary Education: Social Studies major. That first anthropology course sparked my interest, so I took several more. By the time I decided to change my major, I was already 5-ish years into my academic career. By the time I got around to filling out a “change of major” form, I had done archaeological field work in the Bahamas and Guatemala, and I had developed quite an extensive background in forensic/physical anthropology. I never doubted my decision to switch majors, as it has allowed me to integrate two of my passions: nonhuman primate and conservation.

When my undergraduate advisor and mentor, Dr. Loren Lease, approached me and a few other students about possibly doing the Primates of South Africa Field School (now, Sepela Field Programs), I laughed. The pessimist in me said that there was absolutely no way that I could go to South Africa. Nope. My support system kept telling me to apply for scholarships, work a little extra to save up, and create a Gofundme account to help with the cost. Even though I’m super stubborn, and as I have previously stated, a pessimist, I decided to listen to them. Well, long story short (too late, I know), I was able to come up with the money, thanks to hard work, a few scholarships, my Gofundme account, and donations from friends, family, and professors. Africa, here I come! *cue Toto*

IMG_2492Finally on African Soil

On June 4th, 2014, I finally stepped foot on African soil: Ethiopia. I was one step closer to the birthplace of humankind! After a semi-short flight, we landed in South Africa. There were 3 of us from YSU attending this field school: Amanda, Olivia, and myself. Amanda and I flew together, while Livi had a different flight. When we all finally met up at the airport, and met Dr. Wren and all of the other students, all of my nerves melted away. Everyone was so kind! After arriving at our hotel, we settled down for a bit, and then headed to…THE MALL for groceries and supplies! That was an adventure!

We spent the first few days in Jo’burg visiting the University of Witwatersrand, and seeing THE TAUNG CHILD! We had learned all about the Taung Child in our anthropology classes back home, so seeing the real deal in person was absolutely amazing. Jo’Burg was a busy place filled with many beautiful people. Sadly, there were no nonhuman primates (NHPs) to be found. It wasn’t until we reached Telperion, our first field site, that we had our first wildlife encounters. Telperion is a field research site run by the Applied Behavioural Ecology and Ecosystem Research Unit (ABEERU) at UNISA. I really enjoyed my time at Telperion, despite my overactive imagination getting the best of me during the nights there. The “ghosts” that I kept hearing were in fact, tiny bushbabies roaming about on the roof and in the gutters.


Life in the Bush

Puff adders? Black mambas?! When we first stepped out in the bush, I was terrified. We had a demonstration beforehand on what to do if you encountered dangerous wildlife, and I learned quite a bit, but for some reason, I felt that snakes could smell fear. I wasn’t worried about rhinos, leopards, elephants etc., it was snakes…snakes would be the end of me, I feared. Snakes and I do not get along, so naturally, I figured I would be bitten by a snake and croak. So, unfortunately, my first few days out in the field were spent looking down on the ground instead of up in the trees. After those first few days were over, I started to become a bit more confident and comfortable. Also, after seeing Dr. Wren walk through the bush in shorts, I decided that I needed to stop being so scared, and just walk like a normal biped. If she could do it, so too could I – minus the shorts because a) I get cold easily and b) acacia thorns.

Navigating yourself out in the bush was an absolutely amazing experience. During some hikes we tracked baboons with Dr. Alan Barrett at Loskop Dam Nature Reserve. After tracking for a little over an hour, Dr. Barrett handed us the GPS and told us to explore. After a few extra tips on using the GPS unit, we were off. We didn’t see the troop of baboons we were originally looking for, but we did stumble upon a troop of vervet monkeys. We were surprisingly close to them, and we were able to record some amazing footage. I remember tip-toeing through the bush, trying to be as quiet as possible, occasionally using the “clicking” sound used by the previous researchers when habituating the vervets at Loskop. Sitting quietly with the monkeys, just listening to them scramble through the trees and crunch on food, were some of my favorite moments out in the bush.

Conservation is incredibly important to me, and that is why I felt it was necessary for me to attend this field course. When I decided I wanted to be a primatologist and conservationist, I knew that I ultimately wanted to work with orangutans. Over time, though, I fell in love with all NHPs, even the odd-looking aye-aye! So that I could work with and benefit all of these species, I decided that conservation was the route to take. In order to study monkeys, apes, and lemurs, they need to be alive and well out in the wild. For that to happen, conservationists need to be out there working for their protection.

IMG_2493A greater human awareness of problems facing our primate cousins is essential to their survival. To adequately protect these species – many of which are endangered – it is necessary to understand their ecological requirements and the obstacles to their survival. My undergraduate senior research capstone looked at whether or not students from my university were knowledgeable about primates and primate conservation. It was hypothesized that with more education, attitudes and perceptions in regards to primates and primate conservation would change. Education is key, right?

This research yielded unexpected results. Strangely enough, those students with a background in STEM had more knowledge, but were less likely to speak out to create change. They were also less likely to change their shopping habits to help conservation efforts (for example, purchasing palm oil-free products). Conversely, liberal arts students were less knowledgeable, but more likely to help out when it came time to change their shopping habits and spreading the word on the dangers that wild primates are facing on a daily basis, like the palm oil industry. Our findings were quite upsetting. How could we get people to care?

I had the opportunity to present my senior capstone research results at three different conferences. The first presentation was at a sociological organization’s annual conference. After presenting, I was told that I should focus more on problems going on here in the United States, which really bothered me. The second conference was PEGG (Primate Ecology and Genetics Group). I was nervous presenting at PEGG because I was one of very few undergraduate presenters, but I ended up getting good feedback that was very useful. My final conference presentation was a poster at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) annual meetings. After presenting my research at the AAPAs, somebody pointed out, “It’s not all about education. Maybe you should take a look at how humans make decisions. Take a look at the feminist movement!” This is something that I find fascinating and have been exploring further. Will humans ever feel obligated to help with conservation efforts?




IMG_2490Jessica holds a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and a Bachelor of Arts in History from Youngstown State University. She is currently researching potential graduate programs she would like to attend. She enjoys knitting, reading murder mysteries, dancing, and learning foreign languages. She resides in Boardman, Ohio, with her parents and cats.

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