The Effect of Wildlife Provisioning on Primates

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Wildlife provisioning can be defined as the “offering of food to a non-human animal, beyond its natural supply and the quality of the animal’s environment.”  Food provisioning to wildlife is a common practice that is prevalent around the world.  Primates, in particular, are affected by this trend, since many live very close to human civilizations.

Why does wildlife provisioning in primates occur?

Primates serve many social and cultural connotations in countries around the world.  For example, in Hindu mythology, langurs are represented as Hanuman, the monkey god.  In China, the epic and perilous journey of Song-Wukong, the Monkey King, is a popular tale for children.  Such embedded respect and appreciation for primates encourages human and primate interactions.  Food is presented to monkeys as offerings to the gods, and as a symbol of prosperity and good luck.

In addition, the growth of primate ecotourism has also increased provisioning to primates.  By creating feeding grounds for monkeys, many monkeys aggregate to the delight of tourists, who are able to get in close contact with them.  In turn, there is a reduced fear of humans in primates, and many associate humans with food.  This creates a vicious cycle, in which more human-primate conflicts can occur.

Surprisingly, many primate research studies have also used provisioning.  This can be seen across all species including macaques, chimpanzees, baboons, bonobos and more.  Such methodology was incorporated so that researchers could observe primates at closer encounters, and to obtain more detailed information on group composition and group dynamics (such as dominance, sharing and cooperation).  By providing the wild study subjects food, researchers were able to habituate the primates quickly.  Many primatologists are now realizing how such provisioning may have affected their data, and some longitudinal studies of primate behavior have been called into question.

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What are the consequences?

There are many negative health impacts associated with primate consumption of human food.  Because human foods are more processed and contain higher contents of sugar and fat than their regular diets, it leads to weight gain, and increases in levels of insulin and cholesterol.  This has been shown to increase blood pressure in provisioned primates as well as risk for cardiovascular disease in primates.

Provisioning can also increase the amount of disease transmission between humans and primates.  For example, most macaques carry the herpes B virus, and while they do not become sick from this virus, it is pathogenic for humans.  This virus can be transferred from monkey bites as well as exposure to monkey feces.  In turn, humans can also transmit diseases to monkeys.  In particular, tuberculosis has been devastating on many wild populations of primates.

Provisioning also changes the behavior of primates.  Studies have shown that primates with more concentrated food resources might partake in more aggressive encounters within groups.  Higher levels of aggression can change social dynamics and also increase the mortality of individuals that are ranked lower.  Also, grooming is an integral part of socialization in primate groups because it reinforces social bonds.  With a change in the availability of resources, it is hypothesized that these social bonds will be less valued.  Overall, with less grooming and less cohesion, group dynamics can chance drastically and increase the likelihood of group fission.  This in turn increases the vulnerability of the groups to stochastic events.

Perhaps what is most important is that wildlife provisioning continues to change the connection between primates and their ecosystems.  Primates are natural seed dispersers of the tropical rainforest, but with less natural fruits in their diet, they are less likely to disperse seeds.  This reduces the overall genetic diversity and gene flow of the plant communities, which can affect the diet and foraging patterns of other species in the ecosystem.  As such, food provisioning to primates has far-reaching consequences beyond primates.

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Curbing provisioning

Important measures must be implemented and enforced to curb the provisioning of primates.  In ecotourism, more accessible information must be provided to tourists prior to their trip so that they better understand the risks of zoonoses and anthropozoonoses.  In addition, tourists must wear face masks and gloves at all times and view primates at a distance with limited visit durations.  There are also many deterrence strategies that communities can implement to reduce primate raids, including recycling programs, and the construction of artificial watering holes and artificial sleeping sites that are far removed from the community.  Collaborations between local governments and primatologists are essential to facilitating these changes.  Moreover, it is crucial that there is continued funding for researchers better understand the effects of provisioning on primates so that we continue to be informed of its dynamic consequences.  It is important to note that all of the consequences of wildlife provisioning are connected, and that it is tantamount to have a multi-pronged approach that can be scalable to the local level.

So, next time you are tempted to feed a begging monkey while you are traveling abroad, think again!

 

Citations
http://www.imfene.org/commentary/3-ways-to-reduce-baboon-human-conflict
Sugiyama, Y., and H. Ohsawa. 1988. Population dynamics and management of baited Japanese monkeys at Takasakiyama C. Reichorui Kenkyu (Primate Research), 4; 33-41.
Pragatheesh A (2011) Effect of human feeding on the road mortality of rhesus macaques on National Highway–7 routed along Pench Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, India. J Threat Taxa 3:1656–1662
Fa JE 1986 Use of time and resources by provisioned troops of monkeys: Social behavior, time and energy in the Barbary macaque at Gibraltar. In FS Szalay (ed.): Contributions to Primatology. Vol. 23. Basel: S. Karger.
Reynolds V (1975) How wild are the Gombe chimpanzees? Man N.S. 10:123-125.

Primates – Why Do We Care?

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One of the main reasons I returned to school was to finally scratch my research itch.  While I did lab work and directed research in my undergrad for my Neuroscience degree, I dedicated most of my days (and plenty of nights) to advancing my business career.  This involved rushing from lab work to group meetings, from neurobio classes to finance, and toggling essays on human evolution with consulting proposals.  My summers were busy with internships, and the most research intensive opportunity I had was working on an independent research project with Dr. Craig Stanford (which was fantastic, to say the least). 

I had always been particularly interested in primates because of their dynamic, yet structured, social behavior and I vowed to better understand these patterns with my master’s degree.  I have the fortune of working with Dr. Marina Cords, one of the world’s experts in blue monkeys (Cercopithecus mitis), and will be studying multi-male patterns in blue monkey groups.  Before I go into details about my research in a later post, I’d like to pause here to explain to those who are not familiar with primates the importance of studying them.

To the average person, primates are “cute” and “funny”.  Their interactions with monkeys rarely go beyond documentaries, or the exhibits of zoos and museums.  For some, it might even be surprising to think that people dedicate their careers to the study of these creatures.  In fact, primate studies are crucial to our understanding of ecosystems, behavior and ourselves.  Here’s why (and some cute primate pics to accompany:

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Combining Virtual Reality with Conservation Communication

An area that I am very interested in is conservation communication, and how we as a scientific community can better utilize technology to educate the public.  In order to inspire next generation’s scientists and conservationists, it is important to incorporate these topics into educational curricula effectively.

It is not without reason that conservation efforts tend to seem removed to the general public.  The majority of the population will never be able to visit the remote places that conservation biologists work in – they will never be able to interact with the local community or gauge the severity of the issues at hand.  With so much distance between the public and these universal concerns, it is not surprising that most people wonder: “Why does any of this matter to me?”

I believe that amidst the information overload that we have today, leveraging novel technology is key to creating more awareness in conservation.  Particularly with virtual reality, I believe that we can create immersive and personal experiences for viewers to connect with conservation topics like never before.

Virtual reality is a new and immersive form of digital media that can transport the viewer to far reaches of the planet.  Whether it be the safaris or Mozambique or the rainforests of Sumatra, the wearable technology creates a 360-degree environment for the viewer to experience and interact with.  I believe that by being a part of an environment, and walking alongside researchers and field experts that can explain the severity of the situation at hand, issues will more deeply resonate with viewers.

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While the general public may be moved by these experiences, virtual reality can also open up these experiences to those with disabilities.  For those who are non-ambulatory, these environments allow patients to personally explore the world that they might never have the opportunity to.  This can help to improve their outlook and quality of life.

Also, in collaborating with zoos and museums, virtual reality can be used as an educational tool.  By creating virtual exhibits of these institutions, virtual reality can be utilized in classrooms around the world.  This provides a cost effective way to reach more students, especially those that live in developing countries or impoverished neighborhoods.  In addition, virtual reality will allow these institutions to host virtual guests, which can decrease wait time and create a more personal visit experience.

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From Corporations to Conservation

If I went back in time to tell myself a few years ago where I would be today, I would hope I get a high-five.  At that time, I was fresh out of undergrad, and had just accepted a position to be a part of a competitive accelerated leadership program with a Fortune 100 company.  I was determined to prove to myself and to everyone around me that yes, I could not only make it in a dog-eat-dog corporate culture, but that I could excel.  And somehow, somewhere along the way up the ranks of corporate America in my early twenties, I was going to also find this enigmatic “sense of purpose” that all career counselors and HR managers talk about.

For me, I think that sense of purpose was hidden beneath the emails, the client meetings, and conferences so much so that I began to see those as my purpose.  The most long-term I allowed myself to see was next fiscal quarter’s numbers, and this nearsightedness discouraged me to ask myself some pretty important questions.

Now, I don’t want you to walk away from this thinking that Corporate America is evil.  For many people the structure, the rigor and the metrics are extremely satisfying.  There are many perks along the way, including sales compensation, expense cards, raises, and fantastic health plans.  It was just that for me, despite these incentives and if I was being honest with myself, I did not find that sense of internal drive that my co-workers did.

I double majored in Business and Neuroscience in my undergraduate studies, and I think I was drawn to the glamour of big industry – the networking, the numbers, and even the way my parents spoke highly of my company to their friends.  However, I couldn’t ignore that my nerdier side continued to be more intrigued by the sciences.  In particular, I took an Origins of Human Behavior class that made me in awe of the natural world, and how closely connected we are to it.  It intrigued me so much that a voice of doubt was planted in my head that asked whether I was making the right career choices.  Everyone has “that moment” and “that person” who greatly influences your career trajectory, and for me, that class and that professor was it.  He would become one of my long-time mentors, even throughout working in the business world, and was someone that I could confide in my career concerns.

That voice of doubt eventually fomented itself into a noticeable discontent in my work, and drove me to take my GREs, and to apply to grad school.  I am eternally grateful for Columbia University for taking a big leap of faith on me, and for accepting me to their Conservation Biology Masters program despite my unusual application and background. Today, I am more content, and more sure that I am in the right place.

While it was definitely tough to tell my friends, family, and co-workers my decision to return to school and to change career paths, I was surprised and humbled by the overwhelming level of support.  Throughout my conversations with them, a few recurring questions came up that I thought I’d share.

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