Primate Conservation Limelight


Dr. Shirley McGreal has dedicated her life’s work to protecting all primates from harm and abuse at human hands. From founding the International Primate Protection League in 1973 to her tireless (and sometimes dangerous) work to thwart primate smuggling rings to working with international governments to ban primate exporting, Shirley has helped create awareness of the vital need to protect all primates, great and small—and her work has saved the lives of thousands of primates around the world.

In October 2019, Shirley spoke to New England Primate Conservancy from the IPPL’s gibbon sanctuary in Summerville, South Carolina, where dozens of rescued gibbons live today.

Dr. McGreal passes away on November 20, 2021.

Title: Founder and Director, International Primate Protection League

Country of origin: England

What was the first primate you saw in the wild?
The stump-tailed macaque (Macaca arctoides). While in Thailand in the 1970s, I saw these baby monkeys being held in deplorable conditions—cramped cages at Bangkok Airport. 

Where are you from originally? Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in England but received my doctorate in India. I’ve lived in Thailand and France, as well as in Illinois and Ohio in the United States. Eventually, I settled in South Carolina, where I established our gibbon sanctuary in 1977. 

How did you begin in the field of primate conservation?
I was originally planning a career as a college teacher, but my experiences in Thailand in the 1970’s set me on another path. I was shocked by the deplorable treatment of monkeys like the stump-tailed macaque and baby gibbons that I saw while in Bangkok—I knew I had to do something. It was the beginning of my journey. When I began my research, I found that illegal trading practices were depleting many of the world’s primate species and that no single organization was protecting all primates. It was then I saw the need for the International Primate Protection League. 

What has been the proudest moment of your career thus far? If not proudest, perhaps you could tell us about your most memorable?
I’m quite proud to say that our work has been successful in banning the export of monkeys in five countries, including India, Thailand, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Malaysia.
Editor’s note: Shirley has received worldwide recognition for her tireless efforts to protect all the world’s primates. Her dedication has known no boundaries, even those for her own personal safety. In the 1990’s, she went undercover to expose a ring of primate smugglers, work which was recognized by the Interpol Wildlife Crime Group/Dutch Police League. Other accomplishments include:

  • Receiving the Jeanne Marchig Award from the Marchig Animal Welfare Trust in 1988, in recognition of her “practical work in the field of animal welfare…to bring about a more humane and compassionate attitude towards non-human primates.”
  • At the Rio Earth Summit, in 1992, becoming a laureate of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Global 500 Roll of Honour for Environmental Achievement, a prestigious list that honors those who are on the “front lines of global environmental action.”
  • In 2004, receiving the ChevronTexaco Conservation Award for her tireless efforts to make the world a safer place for primates.
  • Nominated to be an Animal Planet “Hero of the Year” for 2007.
  • In 2008, she received the first Caroline Earle White Award from the American Anti-Vivisection Society.
  • As a British citizen, Shirley was particularly honored to receive, from the hands of Queen Elizabeth II herself, the Order of the British Empire in June 2008, “for services to the protection of primates” in a ceremony held at Buckingham Palace.
  • Being presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her “many years of service to wild and captive primates worldwide” by the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance in 2014.

Looking toward the future of primate conservation, what makes you most hopeful? What makes you most concerned?
At times, I don’t feel hopeful, but I am a pessimist by nature. I see many large conservation groups that collect tens of millions of dollars, have inflated salaries that cannot possibly be justified, and yet they don’t have effective programs. So much money is going to these large organizations. This concerns me. It’s why our organization gives to small groups. 
For the future, I hope—what I’d like to see—is that more young people are better educated and informed, especially about the challenge of habitat destruction, so they can make change happen.

Stump-tailed macaque, the first primate species Dr. McGreal encountered in the wild.
June 4, 2008, Dr. McGreal and IPPL colleagues, including her beloved sister Jean, after receiving the OBE for Primate Protection from the Queen of England.
White-Handed Gibbons


IPPL is a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the world’s remaining primates, great and small. Since 1973, IPPL has worked to expose primate abuse and battled international traffickers. They also operate a sanctuary for gibbons in South Carolina and they support primate rescue efforts worldwide, especially in countries where primates are native.

Their goal is to keep these uniquely threatened animals safe from human cruelty, negligence, and exploitation, envisioning a world where all primates can thrive in their native habitats. IPPL focuses on:

  • Offering advisory and financial support for activities that promote the well-being of monkeys and apes, both in the U.S. and overseas
  • Granting financial assistance to primate rescue centers and grassroots advocacy groups that help protect primates and their habitat in countries where primates are native
  • Publicizing the plight of abused primates and organizing international protest campaigns
  • Conducting investigations of illegal international primate trafficking
  • Operating their South Carolina sanctuary for rescued gibbons who have arrived for a lifetime of compassionate care after former “careers” as laboratory subjects, discarded pets, and zoo exhibits.

Learn more about the International Primate Protection League and support their work.

By Christine Regan-Davi, October 2019