Indigenous knowledge vital in saving vulnerable primates from extinction

A new study in Science Advances finds that primate species found on Indigenous people’s land face significantly less threats to their overall survival compared to species found on non-Indigenous lands.

The population of non-human primates – like monkeys, apes, tarsiers or prosimians – are declining rapidly around the world. Image: Gerald Tan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

The declining population of non-human primates, like monkeysapestarsiers or prosimians, mainly due to deforestation and habitat loss, has long been a concern for researchers. At least 68 per cent of all primates are in danger of extinction, while 93 per cent have declining populations globally.

But a new study released Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, shows that primates have healthier populations when their range overlaps with Indigenous peoples’ lands. The authors conclude that, in order to save primates, we need to protect Indigenous autonomy over their territory.

This is the latest paper to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples and their traditional beliefs, practices and knowledge systems based on living with local ecosystems and exploiting them sustainably, hold important conservation lessons for the world.

“In writing this paper, the realisation we came to was that probably the single most important action one could take to prevent the primate extinction crisis is to allow Indigenous peoples to maintain sovereignty over their land,” says anthropologist Paul Garber, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and one of the lead authors of the new study.

Speaking to Mongabay by video call from his home in the United States, Garber says one of their goals was to conduct a global study that could serve as a base for further research. The authors, which include 29 biologists, anthropologists, ecologists and other researchers around the world, collected data from the Neotropics (Mexico, Central and South America), Asia and Africa, where most of the over 500 species of primates live.  

We are facing a moment where if something doesn’t change, we’re going to lose these primates rapidly.

Paul Garber, professor emeritus, University of Illinois

What they found was that 93 per cent of all primate species found in non-Indigenous territories were classified as threatened (either Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered) by the IUCN. However, only 55 per cent of primate species whose range overlaps with Indigenous territory were classified as threatened – and this number only decreases the greater the overlap between primate range and Indigenous territory.

“There is no primate species that’s only found on Indigenous lands,” says Garber. “But what we found is that as the per cent of the species range increases on Indigenous peoples’ lands, so when it’s 25 per cent 50 per cent [on Indigenous lands], then those species are less likely to be considered threatened, or to have declining populations. So they are more correlational.”

One exception was most regions of Africa, says Garber, mainly due to different colonial histories. In many African nations, European colonisers evicted Indigenous communities from their lands in order to create large national parks, protected areas and game reserves. Because of this, the vast majority of primate species diversity is still to be found in these parks and reserves that are not recognised as Indigenous territory, he explains.

Traditional knowledge and ‘source-sink’ hunting

Many Indigenous communities have a long ancestral relationship to their territory, and are dependent on it for their physical, cultural and spiritual well-being, says the new report. They have learned how to exploit these ecosystems in sustainable ways in order to not extinguish the resources they depend on, and continue to pass on these teachings through their traditional beliefs, knowledge systems and social norms.

In protecting these forests, Indigenous communities are also protecting the habitat of primate species around the world.

Garber gave the example of sustainable hunting practices within many Indigenous territories, referred to as the source-sink dynamic. Community members hunt in areas called “sinks,” which is an area within 10 to 15-kilometre (6 to 9-mile) radius around Indigenous settlements.

But there are other areas designated as non-hunting areas, such as sacred landscapes, that are “source” areas. Animals migrate from the source area to the sinks, so there’s a constant replenishment of animals to hunt in sink areas, without needing to enter the source area and extinguish the whole species. This is what Garber calls “taking advantage of the resilience of the [natural] system.”

Many communities also have diversified economies that include fishing, hunting, and collecting other plants and animals, while some communities only consume primate species during a particular festival, or only hunt once a year, so they don’t overexploit these populations, says Garber.

“They simply have learned over long periods of time in the environment, and based on their systems of knowledge, on how to exploit environments sustainably. It’s something that we feel Westerners or other cultures could really draw from,” says Garber.

Professor Christopher Golden, ecologist and epidemiologist at the University of Harvard who also participated in the study, spoke to Mongabay about the Betsimisaraka people in Northern Madagasacar, and their cultural taboos around hunting that contribute to conservation.

This includes a story they tell each other about the Avahi, or woolly lemur, which only has one baby each time it gives birth. There is a taboo against hunting the animal as they are “just like humans and cannot sustain any deaths,” say local populations, as Golden documents in one of his prior studies.

Golden says most other hunting taboos in Northern Madagascar, where he has been working for over 20 years, are more driven by public health concerns rather than a conservation ethic. But they end up giving the same result.

Many communities, for example, will avoid hunting primate species that transmit illness or have allergies or toxins, which the communities have identified using their own traditional epidemiological knowledge.

At the end of the day, you could really say that it is that Indigenous wisdom that is driving the conservation impact […] the fact that they understand the mechanism by which the environment could present illness to people, creates the conservation kind of ethic in and of itself,” says Golden.

However, not all Indigenous communities are the same.

The new report also outlines examples where new hunting technologies introduced in Indigenous communities, where shotguns replaced blow darts, has directly led to local extinctions of primate species. This was the case with the disappearance of orangutans in several sites in Borneo, and the extirpation of spider-monkeys in the Central Amazon.

But Garber says these examples are the exception rather than the rule. While Indigenous peoples also exploit their environments, there’s no question that the larger danger to primates are external factors causing large-scale deforestation and habitat loss, mainly roads and infrastructure projects and the expanding agriculture frontier.

Closest living relatives at risk

Primate species are also facing a number of other threats, says the report. This includes climate change, unsustainable hunting, the trade of wild meat and primate body parts, and the dispossession of Indigenous lands.

Primates are very sensitive to these environmental changes and exploitations, as they have low birth rates, usually only one offspring at birth for most species, and in some cases only give birth once every few years – much like humans.

“We’re dealing with a very vulnerable kind of species,” says Garber. “They’re also a good indicator species. If primates are having problems, then other species will soon follow,” he adds.

Garber, who has been studying non-human primates for over 40 years, says this mammal group plays an important role in helping maintain healthy ecosystems, both as pollinators and food dispersers, and their role feeding on insects and smaller mammals and vertebrates.

As the closest living relatives to humans, studying the behaviours of various primates in the wild can also give insight into human behaviour and evolutionary changes that cannot be found in fossil records.

Researchers agree that the only way to save the primate population is for states to do more to protect the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples over their territory. That includes increasing land tenure and titling in these territories, barring destructive extractive and infrastructure projects, and actually punishing intruders, such as illegal hunters, miners, loggers.

“We are facing a moment where if something doesn’t change, we’re going to lose these primates rapidly,” says Garber.

This story was published with permission from

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