Working with primates holds a special mystique thanks to the legacy of people like Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall (more on volunteer opportunities affiliated with their organizations soon). Primate is a large and diverse order of mammals that includes chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary ancestors. Many scientists are drawn to the study of primatology because they see so many similarities between the animals they work with and themselves. As a volunteer, working with primates offers a unique opportunity to experience the humanness of wildlife. No other animals can tell us more about our own evolutionary past, and yet, like so many others, these animals are in great danger.
Darwin Primate Group, a non-profit organization that rescues and rehabilitates primates in South Africa, knows all too well the dangers of the intersections between primate and human habitats. In some cases human settlements have encroached on natural habitats. In other cases, poaching has destroyed once healthy populations. Animals that wander into villages looking for food are seen as pests and destroyed. They are trapped for biomedical research, or their bodies are used for local medicinal cures. The DPG is the only primate rescue center in the Western Cape. They’re looking for volunteers.
The founder of the DPG, Karin Saks, has devoted her life to protecting and rehabilitating primates in the Plettenberg Bay region of South Africa. She works mostly with vervet monkeys and baboons, the two primate species that are native to the region. Since 1997 she has been fostering and rehabilitating primates in Africa, learning about troop structures and trying to help manage human/primate interactions. She has successfully integrated herself into wild baboon troops, and has even found a way to communicate with calls and grunts. She founded DPG in 2005 and has since found some international recognition for her work. A documentary about her life, Baboon Woman, is available from Firecracker Films.
There are two types of volunteer opportunities with the DPG. Volunteers can come stay for a week, jam-packed with primates, educational programs and visits to local sites. Volunteers interested in a longer and more involved stay can apply for the one-month package (they only have four open slots, so you may have to wait a bit longer to get in). Long-term volunteers live at the DPG, share in all of the work, and get extensive exposure to the animals. They are included in educational programs and trained in how to interact with the wildlife. For anyone interested in studying primatology, the DPG is the perfect combination of entry-level training and live, in-the-field experience. As a potential primatologist myself, I may very well end up at the DPG someday. I sure hope I do.