Primate Conservation Limelight
What’s your current title?
I am currently in transition. For the last 13 years I have been the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Country Director for Tanzania. However, I am now the WCS Director of Species Conservation for Africa. (As of 2023, Africa Director for Re:Wild)
Where are you from?
I am originally from northern England, but I have lived and worked in Africa since 1992.
What was the first primate you ever saw in the wild?
I think it was a vervet (no surprise there, perhaps) at Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe/Zambia border whilst traveling in 1991. Nothing prepares you for that bright blue colour . . .
Can you share with us a little bit about how you found yourself in the field of conservation?
It was Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic that first inspired me with a fascination for the natural world—that, and a childhood where playing in the woods, keeping strange pets, and fishing were all encouraged. I was always captivated by animals and, after a degree and a PhD in zoology, I went to Uganda to lead teams carrying out biodiversity inventories across the country’s forests.
There, I realised that although research was extremely important, conservation was urgent and that entailed learning about human primates, including their drives and motives, culture, economics, and politics, as well as communications and education.
Environmental protection was—and more than ever still is—the most pressing need for humanity and I wanted to play a role in that. Becoming a father merely reinforced it.
What is your current role, and how did you find your way there?
I run WCS in Tanzania, having set up the program 13 years ago. We employ 130 staff working on a very wide range of projects—from reforestation to education to wildlife surveys to park management—across five different landscapes. Prior to that I worked in Cameroon and then set up WCS’s Southern Highlands Program in Tanzania, so in many ways it was a natural progression. (See bio: https://tanzania.wcs.org/Staff.)
What do you appreciate most about your current job?
The variety and the responsibility. I am extremely fortunate to live and work in an incredibly beautiful country, and one that happens to be so important for conservation. Whether we consider biodiversity, endemism, habitats, or wildlife numbers, Tanzania is in the top three most important African nations. It is also surprisingly unexplored, despite the safari industry in the north, which is why we have been able to discover so many new species (13 vertebrates so far). To be able to lead teams of incredibly dedicated men and women across the country, and to be involved in such a variety of key conservation projects, is extremely rewarding.
When you think about your career to date, what might you consider your proudest moment?
Whilst I have been lucky enough to work on a huge variety of issues—from wildlife trade, biodiversity surveys, and human-elephant conflicts to education programs and zebra reintroductions—perhaps the two proudest moments were both primate connected.
Discovering the kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji) with long-time friends and colleagues Noah Mpunga and Sophy Machaga in 2003 was a hugely proud moment. Whilst the science aspect was exciting, the opportunity to then use the discovery to raise awareness of this little-known forest, protect habitat, set up new protected areas including Mt. Rungwe Nature Reserve, and initiate flagship species projects has been wonderful.
Similarly, last year we published the results of our first ever total census of the Zanzibar red colobus (Piliocolobus kirkii). We were able to establish that the total number was much higher than anyone had guessed, but by using our own precise method we showed that the demography indicated that the species is in serious trouble outside protected areas. This has led to us working with the Zanzibar Government right now to set up a new reserve to protect the animal.
When you think about the state of primate conservation today, what brings you the most concern?
Habitat loss, without a doubt. By this, of course, I mean mainly forest destruction. Hunting for bushmeat is a major threat, but it’s nothing compared to the loss of natural forest. Unfortunately, human populations show little sign of slowing their growth down, so this is likely to remain a problem without good habitat management and protected areas.
What brings you the most hope?
A growing interest amongst Africa’s youth in their heritage and environment. Perhaps the most important aspect of conservation must be education and support for the next generations.
Photos of Tim Davenport and the kipunji used with permission
Interview by Christine Regan-Davi, December 2018