Primate Conservation Limelight



Title: Post-doctorate Associate, Duke University

Country of origin: United States

Proudest moment: Defending his PhD in anthropological sciences at Stony Brook University. It was a moment when Herrera says he could “share his whole world” and connect the dots between seemingly disparate aspects of his research on lemurs—from field work in Madagascar to his morphological study of how lemurs evolved to their present-day existence.

First non-human primate witnessed in the wild: Howler monkey in Costa Rica. Fifteen species of howler monkey are currently recognized.

​Can the world’s primates be saved by building stronger local communities? It’s a good start, according to lemur researcher and community ecologist James Herrera, who is a staunch believer in the good that comes from directing conservation efforts towards helping the people who live near threatened habitats and species.

Deforestation represents one of the top threats to endangered primates, especially for biodiverse havens like Madagascar, where Herrera has carried out a majority of his field work. “It’s easy to see loggers and small-scale farmers as the enemy,” Herrera noted in a recent interview. “But they are not evil. Madagascar is one of the most impoverished nations in the world. They’re clearing the land to feed their families. What we need to do is fight inequality, improve access to healthcare and education, and bring sustainable agriculture to these communities. It’s about creating new opportunities.”

Herrera is a post-doctorate researcher at Duke University, where he’s now studying disease transmission in Madagascar’s small mammals. Throughout his career, Herrera has followed his love of research to the forests of Belize and Costa Rica as well as deep into the American Museum of Natural History’s vast primate fossil collection. However, his passion remains focused on the precarious beauty of Madagascar. “The Malagasy culture is amazing,” said Herrera, noting that the work that goes into understanding issues of sustainability and community building in Madagascar are as important as the research work itself.

He, along with several colleagues, just published a new paper in the Journal of Biogeography that shows how mapping trees in Madagascar can help better pinpoint lemur population numbers. More than 100 species of these tree-dwelling primates exist today, all of which are found nowhere but on the island of Madagascar. The results of the study are significant: while some lemur species remain near extinction, the work showed that 16 species—including mouse lemurs and the white-fronted brown lemur (Eulemur albifrons)—may not be as threatened as originally thought.  

Nowadays, Herrera is as likely to be found deep in the forests of Madagascar as he is crunching primate fossil data (he’s also working on an ambitious project to build a complete primate family tree by combining all the data that exists for both living and extinct primates). As a child growing up on Long Island, Herrera remembers watching documentaries about primatology’s most-famed research hero, Jane Goodall, and thinking he’d like to be like her when he grew up. “I didn’t have a lot of role models of people who did this kind of work,” he said.

Much has changed in the field of primatology since Herrera was a child and he’s optimistic about the future, especially about the work that’s happening now to train the next generation of scientists—in Madagascar and around the world. Herrera believes educating young researchers about local issues of food, security, inequality, and culture will impact the success of future primate conservation efforts.

He’s also inspired by the use of technology in the field, which is helping accelerate the speed of discovery. DNA testing, for example, can be done in the field, so researchers waste less time chasing false leads. Likewise, the use of GPS, tablets, solar panels, and other tools means data can be backed up to “the cloud” in real-time, rather than written in notebooks that were “kept close to your heart,” said Herrera. “It used to be if you lost your notebooks, you lost all of your work.” Of the use of technology, he notes, “it’s only going to get better. The only limits are our imaginations.” 

A team effort. Herrera, pictured in the first row, far right, with his Malagasy assistants and Duke undergraduates
Primate conservation rests on the ability to work with local communities. “What we need to do is fight inequality, improve access to healthcare and education, and bring sustainable agriculture to these communities. It’s about creating new opportunities,” said Herrera, pictured here with one of his research teams in Madagascar.
The unglamorous side of life as a researcher in the field. Remote bush camp accommodations are sparse.

Photos courtesy of James Herrera. Used with permission..

By Christine Regan-Davi, October 2018