Primate Conservation Limelight




Title: Professor Emeritus of Biological Anthropology and Conservation Biology

Country of origin: United States

Proudest moment: Being asked to cut the umbilical cord during the birth of his field guide’s first child. The birth took place while Garber was conducting research deep in the Amazon rainforest, about 10 hours by canoe from the nearest village.

​First non-human primate witnessed in the wild: ​Panamanian tamarin (Saguinus geoffroyi), also known as Geoffroy’s tamarin, a New World monkey found in Panama and Colombia.

For Paul Garber, a biological anthropologist and former editor of the American Journal of Primatology, a career studying primates has blossomed into a deep passion for activism.

“By nature, I’m an optimist, but I’m concerned that we are at a moment: unless humans, all of us, make important decisions, we’ll lose half of all primate species,” said Garber, who last year was named a distinguished primatologist by the American Society of Primatologists. “Primates are like the canary in the coal mine. In the not too distant long-term, our forests won’t be suitable for humans, not only non-humans. I’ve decided that I have to be an activist if I’m going to help save these primates.”

A native of Brooklyn, NY, Garber hadn’t imagined a life as a primatologist, but the calling found him anyway. As a college student, he became awed by the world that unfolded before him in his early anthropology classes. “And then I began to realize that we could learn about human evolution by studying our closest living relatives—non-human primates.”

The first member of his family to attend college, Garber has spent the past 40 years doing field research and working with local communities to develop sustainable conservation programs. He’s studied dozens of primates, including capuchin monkeys, tamarins, marmosets and golden snub-nosed monkeys. He has been involved in research and conservation efforts around the globe—from Brazil and Central America, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, China and Indonesia.

He recalls what it was like to be a young researcher on his first field assignment in Panama as a PhD student: “I was very unprepared. I had never traveled outside of the country,” he said. “But I’ve always met kind people [in local communities] who were willing to adopt me.” Years later, his field work led him to one of his most humbling experiences and perhaps the proudest moment of his career. Deep in the Amazon forest, about 10 hours by canoe from the nearest village, Garber found himself witness to the birth of his field guide’s first child—and then being asked to have the honor of cutting the umbilical cord.  

For Garber, primate conservation begins with “understanding that non-human primates are part of a natural forest community that includes humans. Any effective conservation solution requires working with local human communities, respecting them, and asking them what they need so that they can become stakeholders.”

When asked about his career, Garber sees the impact of his work on three levels: locally, nationally, and globally. He’s been involved with small-scale, local community projects, such as recycling and school-building programs in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. At the national level, he emphasizes the critical importance of training the next generation of primatologists, especially non-US primatologists from Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, and China. “I’ll never have the impact in these countries that a student of mine might have,” Garber notes. “It’s very important for conservation that we train students from primate habitat countries.”

As executive editor of the American Journal of Primatology, a role he held from 2008 until 2017, Garber found that many research papers were coming from the same limited number of field sites. To broaden his view, he said it was important to visit field sites where he hadn’t worked, so that he could understand the challenges that researchers there faced. By taking a step back and listening to other cultural perspectives, Garber said he was able to develop a more diverse view of primatology and encourage young habitat country primatologists to publish their research.

Today, Garber is a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Urbana’s Department of Anthropology, where his focus is on ecology, evolution, and conservation biology. Recent work includes an effort to help bring awareness to the primate extinction challenges in China, where 80 percent of the country’s 25 extant primate species are Threatened, and 15 to 18 species have population sizes of less than 3,000 individuals.

“China is at a moment in their history where it has the potential to attempt to reverse the situation. China has both the economic resources and a really outstanding, well-educated group of scientists,” Garber said, noting the success of the country’s previous efforts to save the Giant Panda. Until recently, primates have not been a priority for the government and it wasn’t until last year that China formed its first primatology society. Now, Garber is working with researchers in the country to promote the development of new, non-government programs and agencies to help with primate and habitat conservation and awareness. “For Asia, China has the potential to make the most impact.” 

Paul with golden snub-nosed monkeys, Rhinopithecus roxellana, endangered and endemic to China
Critically endangered white-headed langurs, Trachypithecus leucocephalus, also endemic to China. Fewer than 1,000 remain in the wild. The infants are born orange, although adults are black and white.


Principal Drivers and Conservation Solutions to the Impending Primate Extinction Crisis, edited by Alejandro Estrada and Paul A. Garber, Published in the International Journal of Primatology, Volume 43, Issue 1

The Primate Extinction Crisis in China: immediate challenges and a way forwardPublished in Biodiversity and Conservation

Primates in peril: the significance of Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for global primate conservation, Published in #OpenAccess Journal @thePeerJ

This ancient Chinese tomb held a royal, her extinct ape—and a warning, Published in The Washington Post

Anthropologist: Primates face deepening threat of extinction
Published in the Illinois College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Newsletter

Photos courtesy of Paul A. Garber. Used with permission.

By Christine Regan-Davi, September 2018