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Conservation an inevitable part of anthropology research

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Habitat loss due to human disturbances like land clearing, climate change, or natural disasters have influenced the work of anthropologists studying non-human primates since Dr. Jane Goodall first shed light on the issue almost fifty years ago. These factors literally reduce the forest into small islands that are separated from each other – called fragments – and anthropologists in the Faculty of Arts are studying their impact on non-human primates.

“One consequence of forest fragmentation is impact on the micro climate of the forest and its composition in terms of the food and trees that are available and which support the life of primates and other animals,” says Steig Johnson, professor of Anthropology.

Population and behaviour changes have resulted in endangered species, crowding in forest ranges and inter-breeding between species. Johnson says, for example, that the grey-headed lemur of Madagascar is endangered because their forest range has been fragmented so severely that only ten percent of the original forest is left.

Changing habitats, because of human or natural forces, isn’t the only threat to primates. In some parts of Ghana, Africa, a cultural taboo against killing the colobus monkey has for decades protected these animals from human interference, but taboos are not necessarily set in stone.

“In the past, a cultural shift against traditional taboos in general has inspired some to kill colobus monkeys as a form of rebellion.” says Dr. Pascale Sicotte, a professor of Anthropology who studies the colobus. “Local leaders have worked hard to combine the local taboo with modern conservation practices, such as eco-tourism. However, the taboo itself is meant to protect the monkeys and not their habitat or the forest around the villages. This has lead to overexploitation of these small forests.”

Sicotte and her research team interact regularly with local chiefs and the Ghana Wildlife Division to provide data for the creation of policies that better protect the resources which are a part of Ghanain heritage.

To improve their understanding of how primates are affected by habitat loss, anthropologists in the Faculty of Arts are building a collaborative database that integrates population and habitat data from their long-term field sites – the Andringitra region of Madagascar, the Boabeng Fiema Monkey Sanctuary in Ghana, Monkey River in Belize, and Santa Rosa National Park in Costa Rica. Called PACE (Primate Adaptation to Changing Environments), the goal is for researchers to share and access information from anywhere in the world, including with other Canadian and international collaborators.

It is modeled after the international Primate Life History Database, integrating data from long-term field sites in Latin America, Asia and Africa, including Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee research site in the Gombe Forest, Tanzania.

“Every day and year after year, the primates at these sites are being tracked by scientists to examine the effects of habitat changes on population dynamics and behavioural patterns,” says Linda Fedigan, Canada Research Chair in Anthropology and leader on the PACE project. “Access to these integrated databases will enable the primatology community to ask much larger, more comprehensive questions about every type of primate from lemurs to chimpanzees around the world.”

Want to lean more? Buy your tickets to hear Dr. Jane Goodall: 50 Years of Chimps and Change October 24, presented by the Faculty of Arts and the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. Tickets are still available. Visit