There are few things more rewarding in life than caring for an animal, particularly when that animal can communicate in ways so like us, be it through their facial expressions and vocalisations or through the simple gesture of seeking a hand to hold in times when comfort is needed above all else. There is of course one taxon of animals which we share the most similarities with and that is the group of animals to which we humans belong: Primates.
Threats to Primates
Unfortunately, in all parts of the world primates are under significant threat from human activity. Rising human populations means every year more and more forests are cleared for agriculture and timber production; habitats are fragmented as towns and cities expand and roads are constructed to connect routes of human activity. Primates are hunted for the trade-in bushmeat, and those who are not killed can find themselves traded as pets, or as entertainers for circuses and as photo props for tourists to pose with.
Like us, primates have complex social and cognitive needs, and these needs cannot be met when they are used as pets or entertainment. Primates raised in the illegal wildlife trade often suffer significant psychological and physical harm, many of these individuals will have watched their mother be killed before being taken and sold for human use, to then be raised in unnatural conditions apart from their own species.
Primates who are lucky enough to be rescued from the illegal wildlife trade require rehabilitation. For rescued primates to be released into the wild, they must first re-learn how to be a primate. Without their mothers and family groups to learn from, primates do not know how to stay safe from predators and which fruits are safe to eat. They must learn how to survive with their own species from whom they have been separated, and they must learn the skills their mother never had the opportunity to teach them.
Some primates cannot be reintroduced to the wild, they may never truly recover from the trauma of their capture, their removal from nature. These primates may be physically injured to such an extent they would not be able to evade a predator, or they may be too old, frail, or afraid to adjust to life beyond captivity. For these individuals, once rescued they will need around the clock care for the rest of their lives, in a permanent sanctuary.
Volunteering in Primate Sanctuaries
Primate sanctuaries around the world rely on volunteers for the daily care of their primate residence. When working in primate rescue, there is never a moment where there is are no tasks to complete. Be it preparing feeds, nurturing infants, cleaning enclosures, or assisting with facility maintenance, volunteer roles are varied. Volunteers also play a key role as advocates for primates as educators, administrators, and fundraisers and whilst these jobs do not always involve hands-on experience with primates, they are vital for the running of the sanctuary and the care of the primates they house.
Volunteering with Primates Responsibly
For hands-on experience with primates, most sanctuaries will require a minimum commitment of 1 month. Whilst hands-on encounters with primates are wonderful, if not managed appropriately you could cause more damage than good. As our close relatives, whilst we share many similarities, we can also share disease. What could be a common cold for you could be life-threatening for them. It is also worth remembering that the longer you care for a primate, the more difficult it may be for them to transition to life without you once you inevitably must leave their side.
For some, this would be yet another instance of abandonment and for these individuals care from permanent staff would be preferable over temporary carers. Similarly, many long-term residents will have been rescued from abusive humans and can be fearful of new people, thus changes in routine can be difficult to cope with. Temporary residents who can return to the wild must learn not to approach people, not to seek affection and care from those who are most likely to cause them harm once they are released.
For these primates, human contact must be kept to a minimum. As you can see, the needs of rescued primates are very varied, and a hands-on approach is not always in their best interest. Yet, regardless of how close you physically are with these animals, you will soon find that you can form close bonds with them all the same.
Sharing Your Experience with Primates Responsibly
Scientists, researchers, and conservationists across the globe are calling for professionals and volunteers to stop sharing photographs of themselves in close proximity with primates. As tempting as it might be to share a selfie with a primate with who you have become connected, it is important to recognise that this does not portray the correct message to the wider world.
Studies have shown that the rise in primate pet popularity and wildlife selfies are linked to the promotion of these activities in online social media spaces as well as by celebrity endorsement. The more people see close human-primate interactions, the more people will be ill-informed as to the reality of the primate pet trade and the damage it can do.
Be responsible for how you choose to share your volunteering memories and follow the 2021 IUCN guidelines for primate photos. These recommendations include refraining from posting photos where humans are cradling, playing with, or hand feeding primates. By sharing your experience responsibly, you best demonstrate your commitment to wildlife conservation.
In all, volunteering in primate rescue is a once in a lifetime opportunity and one which you will never forget. Ask yourself this simple question when you are searching for a volunteer placement: How best can I help? It may be the hands-off tasks that will have the most positive impact overall.
If you would like to volunteer with primates, you can check out our primate projects here.
Written by WorkingAbroad blogger Jes Hooper (University lecturer in Animal Management)