The Primatologists who Started it All

This week saw the biggest gathering of primatologists ever. The joint conference between the International primatological society and the American Society of Primatologists in Chicago brought researchers from across the globe to present and discuss their work and meet others in the field.

Whilst some of us unfortunately couldn’t attend this historic moment, and to celebrate international primate day we will be learning about just a handful of the primatologist that have changed humans perspectives of non human primates, given new insights into their lives and dedicated themselves to the protection of primates around the globe.

Birute Galdikas

2014-08-27-dr_galdikas.jpgGaldikas is often recognised as the woman who taught the world about the red apes. Galas studied anthropology at the university of California. Graduating in 1969 she met with Louis Leakey (the world renown anthropologist).During these meeting Galdikas convinced Leakey to allow her to study the Bornean Orang-utans in the wild. Arriving in Borneo at age 25, Galdiks is still operating out at “camp Leakey”. Her research taught the world about the behaviour of the red apes and she now is deeply involved in conservation efforts to protect their homes from logging and also to rehabilitate orangs that have suffered at the hands of poaching. Galdikas established the Orangutan Foundation International back in 1986 and has now grown to a global network of volunteers fundraising and also those working hands on at camp Leakey.


Dian Fossey

For anyone who has ever heard of primatology as a science it is highly likely you have dianfossey.jpgheard of the work of Dian Fossey. Fossey was an American primatologist born in 1932. She undertook the first long-term study of mountain gorilla in Rwanda for 18 years of her life.  Another primatologist linked to Leakey, she had taken out her life savings to travel Africa for 2 months. During this trip she travelled to Olduvai gorge where she met Louis Leakey. Months later she met Leakey again and he suggested she begin a research project much like that being carried out by other female scientists. After 8 months of getting permits Fossey arrived in Virunga national park and began her study. Fossey wrote of her work and the gorillas in the mist became an instant classic. Fossey was deeply affected by the poaching of gorillas in the park and acting to protect gorillas by the introduction of anti poacher groups and some reports that she personally got involved in altercations with poachers. Fossey was determined to maintain the study site for science and opposed the introduction of tourism into the area as the risk of disease was too high. The Fossey foundation today uses tourism as a tool to help protect the species (Learn more about eco-tourism here). Fossey strong views and confrontation with those harming the gorillas, and their habitat left some in the local community unhappy. On 27th of December 1985 Dian Fossey was found murdered in her cabin. It is believed that she had been attacked with a machete because of her halting the development of the forests of Virunga. Today the Fossey foundation continues her work. To protect and research the mountain gorillas.

 Jane Goodall

For many Jane Goodall is something of a living legend of primatology. Another member of Leakeys “Trimates”. It was Goodall who studied the Chimpanzees of Gombe. Goodall is a British born primatologist who began her study after an encounter with Leakey on a trip to Africa. Leakey was impressed by her knowledge and passion for animals. Despite her lack of formal training Leakey proposed she study at Gombe and Goodall was quick to accept. She arrived in 1960 and quickly got stuck into forest life. You can read detailed accounts of her time in the forest through many of her books, one of her best works being, In the shadow of man. After a couple of years Leakey proposed she study for a PhD and in 1962 she attended Cambridge university. Using her PhD to allow her to cry on her research of chimpanzees she continued until she handed in her thesis in 1965 and received a PhD in ethology. Goodall believed 20150910_120621_JANE GOODALL.jpgstrongly in the emotional capabilities of animals and fought to further animal rights throughout her career. Goodall’s work was the included many of the first observations of primate behaviour, including the hunting of smaller primates by chimpanzees. Goodall received some criticism in the scientific community due to some of her tech piques. Most notable being her lack of labelling of primates. She didn’t see the benefit of giving animals numbers and designations, instead she gave animals unique names and was happy to speak of their personalities.. Something not widely accepted in ethology. With Goodalls global popularity she was seen as the face of conservation for many. She used this to establish the Jane Goodall institute to further chimpanzee research at Gombe. She favours community based conservation and works closely with local people to get them excited about conservation. She has also founded a youth conservation group, roots & shoots, to get young people involved in conservation. She continues today to travel the globe giving lectures, demonstrations and collecting donations for conservation. She sits on numerous animal rights boards, was named a united nations messenger of peace, won numerous prestigious awards, continues to fascinate both young and old with tales of a brighter future, and isn’t looking at slowing down any time soon.

These three women through their bold actions, unwavering conviction and ruthless dedication to research have changed how the world sees the great apes and conservation as a whole. The work of primatologist continues to further our understanding of the world we live in and teaches us not only about the lives of primates but also further our knowledge on what it means to be human. So this international primate day, show your support for the primatologists out there, and continue to stay curious about the research being done and the questions being asked.


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