Promoting local leadership and networking in African primatology

The African region (including Madagascar) has the highest concentration of nonhuman primate diversity on Earth. In all, the continent is home to 42 percent of the world’s 713 primate species and subspecies and more than half of all primate genera. Five of the top 12 countries on Earth for primate diversity are African— Madagascar, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Cameroon, and Nigeria. Madagascar alone is second on the world list and has the highest number of endemic primate taxa of any country on Earth. Also of considerable interest is the fact that we continue to discover new species and subspecies of primates. 97 species and subspecies were described for the frst time in the past two decades, and more than half of them are from Africa—50 lemurs from Madagascar, and three prosimians (two galagos and a potto) and four monkeys, including a new genus, Rungwecebus (the Kipunji), from mainland Africa.

African primates play an important role in our research on numerous aspects of human biology and the cognitive sciences, as well as in understanding the threats of emerging diseases. Arguably more fundamental and critical is their role in sustaining the healthy ecosystems vital for human livelihoods and in their presence in the cultures and folklore of many African societies. Sadly, as is the case in all other parts of the tropical world, the primates of Africa, and Madagascar in particular, are severely threatened. The latest IUCN Species Survival Commission Red List assessments carried out between 2012 and 2016, showed that 63 percent of all primates worldwide are threatened—the highest degree of threat for any of the larger groups of mammals— and with many of the Critically Endangered species literally on the verge of extinction.

There are several reasons for this decline in primate populations. Foremost is habitat destruction and fragmentation, mostly as a result of logging, large-scale mining, and agroindustry (notably oil palm and soy plantations), but with many other factors at play as well. In West and Central Africa, for example, bushmeat hunting is a major cause of primate declines, and the same is true for Madagascar. Primates are also killed for medicinal purposes, for the ornamental use of various body parts (for example, black-and-white colobus, geladas), and as crop pests (for example, baboons, vervets). Outbreaks of major diseases in Africa can also be of serious concern, both for nonhuman primates and humans, with recent Ebola outbreaks having killed large numbers of gorillas and chimps in certain countries (such as Congo-Brazzaville).

In recognition of the importance of primates in Africa and to further stimulate the development of concerted domestic efforts to curb the threats to their continued survival, a number of African primatologists worked to advance the establishment of a primate-focused group—the African Primatological Society (APS). This group would provide a platform for sharing data, information, tools, and technical assistance to support Africa’s preparedness and domestic efforts in primate research and conservation,as well as to encourage greater participation and leadership of African primatologists. This initiative began as a genuine attempt to increase the robustness of African involvement in international primatological meetings and in decision-making bodies; enriching their capacity to engage and influence stakeholders and policies within their home country; and improving the quality of their scientific inputs and roles in major dialogues or activities relating to African primates.

The APS was formally established during an inaugural Congress in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in July 2017. The congress brought together about 150 experts, including aspiring primatologists, researchers, conservation practitioners, tourism stakeholders, and policy makers from 22 African countries, along with a few dozen people from other countries across the globe.

Two years later, the second congress of the APS was held in Entebbe, Uganda in September 2019. The event was a resounding success, bringing together over 300 primate experts to discuss the theme ‘Challenges and Opportunities in Primate Conservation in Africa’, and to fnd ways to promote active participation of native African primatologists in the international primatological arena. With 250 out of 312 delegates hailing from 24 different African countries, the APS more than achieved its goal of providing an accessible platform for African primatologists to collaborate, network, and discuss pressing challenges and issues, opportunities, and potential solutions towards protecting Africa’s primates and their habitats.

The two congresses benefitted from the avid support of various stakeholders in academia, non-governmental organizations, civil society groups, national and local governments, funding agencies, public and industry scientists, local, national and international media, and delegates from all regions of Africa (North, West, Central, East, Southern Africa, and Madagascar).

The added value to the congresses was the deliberate inclusive approach, which involved students from African institutions working on primates for their dissertations. This bottom-up or ‘catch-them-young’ initiative will help us also focus on prospective primatologists across age and gender. It was also gratifying to see how we were able to mobilize the international community and governments to play their role to advance and support the goals and objectives of African primatology at large.

One main recommendation that was emphasized during the congress was for members to not only have a greater level of commitment to the new society, but also to promote public dialogue and effective policy advocacy within their own sphere of influence. Genuine inclusivity was also highlighted as a way to boost the participation of all primatological expertise and interests on the continent.

The congresses have underscored the following action points and agenda to inform the work needed to be
done for the effective conservation of African primates and for the development of African primatologists in
the wake of the establishment of the African Primatological Society:

Africa-based training programs needed

In general, African countries are faced with major challenges concerning the lack of adequate resources, equipment, dynamic institutions, and governance. A well-designed training program and infrastructure will play an important role in enabling many African primatologists to learn from best practices of peers, and to obtain continuous input on their performance. The turnout of African participants at the congresses has shown that the region has a high proportion of people conducting research on or working for the conservation of African primates. However, to promote growth, enhance the quality of their work, and increase the level of their involvement in primatological communities, there must be some structural training and environment that will empower them. To achieve this, leadership-based training that is grounded in a robust scientific curriculum is required to build and equip both experienced and upcoming primatologists.

Strengthen regional and global integration of African primatologists

Regional and global integration is needed to overcome the limitations of Africa’s small but growing mass of primatologists, and also to give the continent a stronger voice in the conservation and management of its primates. Until the birth of the APS, many African primatologists and primatological groups, such as the Groupe d’Etude et de Recherche sur les Primates de Madagascar (GERP) and the Primate Ecology and Genetic Group (PEGG), South Africa, have been working in isolation from the rest of the larger community of Africans and non-Africans working on primates. The African Primatological Consortium (APC) headquartered in Uganda is an excellent example of regional integration to create a forum for a collaborative research community for primatologists in Africa. The impact of these fragmented communities or individual primatologists on the conservation and management of primates has, however, been limited in addressing many of the conservation development issues on the continent. Active and increased African participation in international primatological meetings should also be encouraged so as to promote global integration.

Develop a red colobus action plan

Certain groups of African primates besides the great apes—man’s closest living relatives—are of particular concern. Of these the red colobus monkeys of the genus Piliocolobus are a prime example. 18 species and one subspecies are currently recognized and all are threatened, with seven being in the Critically Endangered category. Workshops were organized during the two congresses to develop an action plan for the conservation of these remarkable animals, which involved a large network of red colobus researchers and conservationists. The action plan was launched at the 2018 Congress of the International Primatological Society in Nairobi, Kenya. It focuses on site-specifc activities, but also uses common themes to leverage efficiencies of scale.

Develop and/or revise other action plans

Other primate groups, such as the lemurs of Madagascar, are in urgent need of attention. A lemur action plan for 2013–2016 was successfully funded, but there is much that still needs to be done. A Red-Listing Workshop for Lemurs was held in Madagascar in November 2017, with the objective of updating our knowledge of these species and revising the action plan. Action plans for other taxa and regions are also needed, and a major initiative is underway for the 16 mangabeys and mandrills, 13 of which are currently threatened.

Finally, it is vital that African primatologists engage in a multi-sectoral approach to promote conservation efforts that include governments, local communities, the private sector and NGOs.


Estrada, A., P. Garber, A. B. Rylands, C. Roos, E. Fernandez-Duque, A. Di Fiore, K. A. I. Nekaris et al. 2017. Impending extinction crisis of the world’s primates: why primates matter. Science Advances 3: e1600946. DOI 10.1126/sciadv.1600946.

Imong I., R. Ikemeh, I. Kone and D. Ndeloh. 2016. The Birth of the African Primatological Society for the future of African Primates. African Primates 11(1): 49-50.

IUCN SSC, PSG. 2021. Primate Specialist Group taxonomic data base. A. B. Rylands and R. A. Mittermeier. 13 October 2021.

This article is from issue


2021 Sep