A meeting with Catherine Hill and the human dimensions of primate conservation

catherine hillBy Rocío Cano @RocisGaia APE Conservation and Welfare Board Member

Whenever we speak about primate conservation or a conservation project is proposed there is a fundamental part that we often forget: the human dimensions of conservation. This dimension is formed by the local communities that live in the target area, many times in close contact with wildlife. People’s knowledge, values and beliefs should be taken into account and will give a different approach to any conservation project. In order to go more in depth into this topic we had an interview with Catherine Hill, researcher and professor in Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University. Her research focuses on people-wildlife interactions as well as in the human dimensions of conservation. She currently has PhD students carrying out research into people-animal interactions, ethnoecology, and human-wildlife conflict in Uganda, Colombia, Kenya and Guinea Bisseau.

What motivated you to focus your research in the human dimensions of conservation and, specifically, in human-primate conflicts?

My doctorate is in primatology, looking at female territoriality and male-male competition in a West African guenon species, Cercopithecus diana diana.  I did my fieldwork in Sierra Leone and for part of that time ran the field station I was based at, so was the recipient of many complaints about what ‘my’ various wildlife species had done on local people’s farms.  Until then, I hadn’t really thought about the idea that primates and other ‘exotic’ wildlife that I found fascinating and beautiful, could be seen as ‘pests’ by others.  It was that realisation that made me want to understand other peoples’ viewpoints because I didn’t see how conservation could possibly work if it didn’t take into account some of the costs and constraints imposed on those people actually sharing their environment, and consequently their lives, with these animals.


According to your personal experience, what are the main conflicts among humans and primates sharing the same landscapes?

Crop damage because of primates foraging in crops and/or damaging crops as they run away when chased by human guards or dogs – chimps particularly can cause more damage as they flee from guards than they usually do when foraging in crops.

Another ‘conflict’ between people and primates (and this happens with other animals as well) is where, because that particular primate species is of interest to external agencies/people – usually because of its conservation status – this can draw attention to the local site and local people’s activities at that site. This can sometimes result in local people being observed/identified as carrying out illegal activities, e.g. cutting timber trees, hunting, etc., so brings them to the attention of the authorities – not because they’re behaving illegally vis a vis the primates but because of the primates’ presence locally, people’s activities become of interest to outsiders where previously they were left alone.


Then, taking into account the conflicts we can come across, what factors should we consider when designing and implementing a conservation project in order to reduce these conflicts?

I would say the very first thing to do is to understand something of the situation from the local people/farmers’ perspective.  Find out what they think is happening, whether they think it problematic, and if so, what sort of outcome they would see as desirable.  Very often the ‘conflict’ arises, not specifically because of what the animal is doing, but because there is a conflict of interest between 2 or more different groups of people – including wildlife agencies, conservationists, and researchers – so the actual ‘conflict’ may turn out not to have much, if anything, to do with the animals, but is because different human groups have different sets of values/agendas, and particularly people/stakeholder groups feel they are disadvantaged as a consequence.

There is currently a growing interest in understanding local perceptions and people’s attitudes towards primates. How do you think are these attitudes involved in the conflicts we were talking about before?

As indicated above – the problems/challenges lie more in the different views, values and expectations of different groups. Additionally, there is often a lack of recognition/understanding amongst all groups concerned that not everyone views or values particular animals in the same way – so for some people a chimpanzee is an amazing creature that should be protected at all costs; for others it’s an animal that is potentially dangerous and might harm their children, take their chickens, chase their women etc.4242904605_c506637333_z

From my own experience, the presence of conservation practitioners in an area of conflicts between wildlife and humans can create the idea that we (conservationists) care more for the animals than for the people who live in the same area. How does our presence influence people’s attitudes towards primates and their conservation?

It varies from site to site and situation to situation.  And yes, the actions of conservationists and other wildlife agencies, as well as that of researchers, can be interpreted by local people as an indication that those people value the wildlife more than they do the health/wellbeing of the local people.

Then I guess this would negatively affect people’s attitudes towards the wildlife we are trying to protect. How can we avoid this misinterpretation?

By working hard to understand local perspectives before trying to change what’s happening.  That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be encouraged to change what they do sometimes, but changes should be developed in association with them as part of a negotiation process.

Before trying to change attitudes we need to understand them – what I mean is we need to understand them from an insider’s perspective. Then we may have a better idea of what we’re really expecting of people when we try to encourage them to react or think differently.  Being sensitive to other people’s views and perspectives is very important – and being willing to accept the need for compromise is also important. Rhesus_Macaque_(Macaca_mulatta)_in_Kinnarsani_WS,_AP_W_IMG_5792

Does primates’ perceived similarity to humans help in their conservation?

Perhaps in some cases – certainly I think their perceived similarity to humans can make them more appealing to people who don’t have to live alongside them.  But, in at least some cases, their similarity to humans may be both positive and negative – it is both appealing and unappealing.

In what ways can it be negative?

It can be negative sometimes because people ‘impose’ ideas of human morality on animal behaviour – so where animals transgress human social mores/social rules – e.g. ‘stealing’ people’s crops, then those animals are perceived very negatively because they are ‘stealing’ or behaving in a ‘greedy’ and uncivilized way.  So perhaps where people see primates as being human-like they may be more likely to try to impose human values on them.

Taking into account the rapid growth of some human populations, do you think that a sustainable coexistence with non-human primates is possible within shared landscapes? What are the main challenges?

I don’t know whether it really is possible or not.

At the proximate level the challenges mainly revolve around trying to ensure primates’ habitat needs are met whilst allowing rural populations to generate a secure and good enough (rather than just adequate) standard of living.

At the ultimate level the challenges are more to do with national and international wealth and power distribution I suspect – and that’s where it will be particularly difficult to manage because no group of people like to give up access to some of the resources they have become accustomed to having – and whilst there is a very inequitable distribution of resources those that have very little will continue to strive to have more, and those of us who have a lot will try very hard to hold onto what we already have.orangutan-250664_640

Do you see community-based ecotourism as a possible solution to yield social and conservation benefits and promote a sustainable coexistence?

Perhaps, but it would depend on how it was carried out – any project needs to be flexible enough to cope with changing conditions (internal and external) and changing needs and expectations of the people involved.  It’s not enough to assume that because people get some benefits that these necessarily offset opportunity costs or that they’re distributed equitably between different group members etc.  So, anything that is dependent on the vagaries of external markets (in this case tourist behaviour) might be difficult to sustain long term.

I can see that in some of your publications you have explored the ethical aspects of conservation. Sometimes we try to impose impoverished rural communities to live amongst troublesome wildlife, what do you think about this? How can we, in these cases, protect primates and benefit the local communities at the same time?

I would argue that it isn’t always ethical to insist that people share landscapes with difficult/dangerous wildlife – particularly when those wildlife threaten them physically or threaten their livelihoods significantly – unfortunately I think there are occasions when it’s not possible to meet human and wildlife needs, and I’m not comfortable with the idea that impoverished, disadvantaged and politically weak groups of people should lose out to wildlife.2447516109_66baeee440_o

There is a lack of social knowledge among biologists, what is the role of social scientists in primate conservation?

Helping to explore and understand people-animal and people-environment interactions – from a resource ecology perspective, for example, examining people’s land use and livelihood strategies and how people and primates may be in competition over the same resources,  and also helping to explain cross-cultural differences in perceptions and attitudes, disentangling the various agendas, understandings and priorities in ‘conservation conflict’ scenarios, and perhaps contributing to improving communication between the various stakeholders.

Then I assume that an interdisciplinary approach is essential for any conservation project. Do you think that there is a lack of human dimensions in conservation biology? Are there currently opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration?

There is recognition among biologists and social scientists that collaboration might be a valuable and effective option – but the disciplinary approaches can be very different which can make effective collaborative ventures quite challenging – but they’re certainly beginning to happen within research related areas, as well as some interventions.  I think the situation is improving within conservation biology – but it’s a mistake to try to make biologists into social scientists and social scientists into biologists – interdisciplinary teams who are committed to trying to understand one another’s perspectives and language are what are needed I think.



Just to conclude, what would you say to someone who wants to work in this field?

Try to approach the subject with an open mind, try hard to understand other people’s perspectives, and accept there are many different ways of looking at these issues.

And don’t make the mistake of assuming that, just because something is done in the name of conservation, it is always ethically/morally right!

And finally, could you recommend a book?

There are several excellent, and interesting books, available.  Some I particularly like and use a lot in my teaching are:

John Knight (Ed) (2000):  Natural Enemies.  Routledge.  London.

John Knight (2012): Waiting for Wolves in Japan.  University of Hawaii Press.

Rosie Woodroffe et al (2005): People and Wildlife, Conflict or Coexistence.  CUP.

Ann Herda-Rapp and Theresa L. Goedeke (Eds) (2005): Mad About Wildlife: Looking at Social Conflict Over Wildlife.  Brill Academic Publishers.

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