Primate and Predators: Reaching New Research Heights

Conservation Careers Blogger Erin Williams is currently working as a volunteer Research Assistant with the Durham University Primate and Predator Project at Lajuma Research Centre in South Africa. The Principle Investigator, Dr Russell Hill is usually based at Durham University in the UK, but during a recent visit to the field site, she was able to speak to him and ask about the project and his advice for those hoping to get involved in conservation. The advice he gives on selecting volunteer opportunities is particularly interesting, so do give it a read.

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Dr Hill, what is your current job title?

At Durham University I currently have two job titles, I am a Reader in the Anthropology Department and Faculty Director of Research Development and Governance, supporting grant development and ethics within the university. I am also the Principle Investigator of the Durham University Primate and Predator Project at Lajuma Research Centre, South Africa.

When did you decide to set up the Primate and Predator Project?

We had been working in South Africa at Lajuma for the past 10-12 years. Originally we started with a study of vervet monkeys and we found the site completely by accident. We were intending on visiting Ben Lavin Nature Reserve near Lajuma but we needed somewhere to stay the night before. We went into the tourist information office, and after explaining to the women what we were hoping to go to the nature reserve for, she said “no no, you must go and see the man in the mountains“. She then phoned up Professor Ian Gaigher, who is the Director of the Lajuma Research Centre, and we came up and visited.

When we arrived, there were vervet monkeys right there, in his front garden, and we have been working here ever since. The formal project was only started four years ago when we started our association with Earthwatch so we had the finances to have people stationed here permanently.

Why did you decide to establish the Primate and Predator Project?

The objectives of the project have changed since our original work. Our early studies here were to understand predator prey interaction and because my background is in anthropology and a lot of my research has been on primates. Lajuma is a great place to work because it has all five species of South African nonehuman primates and the three diurnal species in abundance. So that was our original focus, especially due to how healthy the leopard community was perceived to be here at the time.

I guess as we moved from those original studies to formalise the Primate and Predator Project, we realised that the leopard community, although still healthy, is heavily persecuted and that element of humanwildlife conflict and is important to understand. Also, whilst the primates up here arent crop raiders, there is certainly significant conflict in the lower lying areas and growth of farming in the area. We wanted to take the academic element of predator prey interactions and put it alongside this practical experience of humanwildlife conflict.

What do you think the findings at the Primate and Predator Project will be able to provide for conservation?

Our findings are species dependent. For leopards, five years ago we thought we had a very healthy population of leopards with one of the highest densities recorded in Africa and one of the highest, if not the highest of densities recorded outside of a state protected national park. So we thought we had an incredibly important leopard population. Now, whilst that still remains true, it is quite clear that the population is declining and there are very high levels of persecution, very high levels of conflict and very high levels of legal and illegal hunting. Our recent work in collaboration with Panthera, and in feeding our data directly into the provincial estimates of leopard population numbers will be used to inform the number of hunting permits and so on. This is obviously an important outcome from our work.

With the primate work, we have had students working out on the mountain, improving our understanding of cropraiding by primates, and hopefully reducing cropraiding by baboons and vervet monkeys in particular. With the samango monkeys, because the population is relatively restricted across South Africa and fragmented, we need to develop an understanding of, for example, how males are transferring between populations. It’s important that all the work that we do can feed back into useful policies or strategies for the future.

What would be your advice to those who want to get involved with conservation and what would you say is the best way to help make a change or an impact?

I think there are lots of opportunities to volunteer, particularly for those who want to get hands on with conservation projects, I guess the key thing is to look at the outputs from those projects and if they are actually publishing the work that they do and that there is a sound scientific basis to it. It is that sort of information which will feed through to help adapt policies and inform policy makers and landowners as there are lots of projects with volunteer opportunities out there but the information isn’t being collated, utilised and analysed in the ways that will inform conservation strategies. Being able to help hands on is a great experience, and many projects really need the help, but making sure the project is doing something with the data collected and isn’t just an enterprise in itself.

What piece of advice do you wish you could tell yourself back when you first started out in your career?

Have a good awareness of where you want your career to go to. You can get many fantastic opportunities volunteering across the world with conservation projects and through doing so you can make a huge contribution to the projects you are working on. However, if you are using it as a stepping stone to a master’s degree or PhD research, then talk to potential supervisors before embarking on those sorts of experiences, to make sure that the experience you are getting is actually valuable in the context of what you want to do next. I certainly know I signed up for numerous projects without really considering this.

For a lot of people the projects do take you out of your comfort zone so you have to enjoy living in that sort of environment, because its not all particularly glamorous, as there are a lot of thorns and other issues. Having a clear view of what you want it to lead to afterwards, therefore, how you can make the most of those opportunities whilst you are out there. That is why I think it’s important to get involved in a project that does have clear research objectives. If you want to go into research afterwards, you can potentially make a direct contribution to live research projects and show that you not only understand the work on the ground but also how it fits into the research process.

For more information on the Primate and Predator Project please visit the project’s website , Facebook page and blogIf you are interested in finding out about how you can become a volunteer Research Assistant with the Durham University Primate and Predator Project please contact the project’s Field Team Leader, Katy Williams, by emailing

Careers Advice, Interviews, Volunteer & Internships, Project Manager