Primate Rehabilitation in Africa – Myths and Realities

By Tatyana Humle and Kay H. Farmer

Adult female from the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre (CCC), being monitored post-release via use of VHF-GPS-on-board collars in the High Niger National Park, Guinea. Photo credit: CCC.

Over 4,000 primates are being cared for in rehabilitation centres (also known as rescue centres and sanctuaries) across Africa1. Facility and primate numbers are likely to rise as humans continue to expand their presence and activities into wild primate habitat. Yet despite rehabilitation being used increasingly as a welfare and conservation strategy, many misunderstandings surround primate rehabilitation and we welcome the opportunity to discuss the Top 3 Myths and Realities.

Myth 1: Life in the wild is always better than captivity because the primates are free.

The IUCN Reintroduction Guidelines for Non-human Primates2 and Great Apes3 detail the extensive preparation that is required to support successful outcomes for released (or translocated) primates. Most primates arrive to rehabilitation centres at a very young age, and rehabilitation centres need to facilitate and assess their acquisition of essential skills necessary to navigate a self-sufficient life in natural habitat. In addition, primates also need genetic testing to prevent hybridisation with conspecifics, and disease screening to prevent any risks to conspecifics and other local wildlife. Potential release areas also need to be ecologically, politically, and socially viable.

Life in the wild is tough; food and water are no longer provided or predictable in type and quantity (unless provisioning takes place in the first instance); safe sleeping sites need to be located; conspecifics may be hostile; and wildlife may be scary and life threatening. Long-term monitoring after release is essential, but not one we often hear about. Not only does it help assess effectiveness and impact, it is also crucial in identifying when additional support might be needed for primates in trouble. But isn’t any life in the wild better than captivity? Whilst we are not advocating keeping primates in captivity unnecessarily, indeed many facilities over exceed their carrying capacity (although this should never be used as the rationale for release), some primates that seem like they will fare well after release, don’t. The fate of released primates that do not have the necessary skills to survive or a suitable area to live in, is likely to be suffering and death, contradicting good animal welfare and the romantic concept of ‘freedom’. Importantly there is also the potential for a negative conservation impact, and exacerbating the very reasons that led primates to need sanctuary in the first place. Life-time care, one that adheres to professional standards, would provide a better animal welfare outcome for primates that cannot be released, or are returned to the rehabilitation centre if they fail to thrive.

Myth 2: Primate rescue and rehabilitation takes money away from, and makes no contribution to, primate conservation.

Some people perceive that rehabilitation centres take funds away from wildlife conservation and criticise such programmes as encumbering and being misaligned with their own efforts and objectives. The reality is that much of the funding for rehabilitation centres comes from individual people. Whilst species conservation also receives money from individuals, conservation also receives funding from large grant-giving government agencies, and public and private foundations that support more holistic approaches such as sustainable development, ecosystem management and habitat protection. In contrast, grant-giving bodies targeting animal welfare are fewer in number and generally have more limited funds. This is therefore a tired argument.

Whilst rehabilitation centres may be grounded in animal welfare, the majority recognise that habitat and species conservation are shared key priorities, especially as their very existence is often inextricably linked to conservation failures. Confiscated or rescued primates are the surviving by-products of poaching, victims of the pet trade, and retaliation because of their crop foraging habits or non-tolerated incursions into human settlements. The influx of individuals into rehabilitation centres, however, can also reflect conservation successes as confiscations of live primates increase, and conservation education programmes expand their reach across the continent. In the absence of rehabilitation centres for animal placement, there is little incentive for wildlife officials to seize illegally held and traded animals, and their presence should therefore be viewed as a necessary condition for conservation success4. Over 40% primates in rehabilitation centres in Africa belong to species that are critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable to extinction 1. As permanent features of the landscape, many rehabilitation centres have a significant understanding of local and national conservation challenges. They not only play a vital role in supporting law enforcement, but also in the delivery of environmental education, in influencing policy, in contributing to the local economy and poverty alleviation via employment and purchase of goods and services, and in helping habitat protection efforts in areas where they are active.4

Educational tour at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre (LWC), Malawi, visited by over 25,000 children in 2014. Photo credit: CCC.

Myth 3: All primate rehabilitation centres provide good animal welfare.

In Myth 1, we discussed the complex and lengthy process of primate rehabilitation. Myth 2 emphasised the challenge of finding the necessary resources to achieve successful welfare and conservation outcomes, albeit the pressure this can place on under-resourced facilities already at or over capacity and their viability and sustainability. As a direct consequence, or simply for lack of knowledge and awareness, not all rehabilitation centres provide good standards of animal welfare, rehabilitation and release protocols. Indeed the labels ‘rescue centre’ or ‘sanctuary’ have been abused to legitimise private collections, unauthorised zoos, and unregulated breeding facilities. Donors, stakeholders, partners, and potential staff and volunteers, should ask if facilities are certified by regional (Pan African Sanctuary Alliance) or international accrediting agencies (Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries). For example, reputable facilities should have an animal acceptance policy, quarantine individuals upon arrival, prioritise rehabilitation of individuals in social groupings, promote weaning from human maternal surrogates as soon as appropriate for the species, have veterinary protocols and a no-breeding policy, not allow direct contact between primates and visitors, have a policy for euthanasia, and only release primates when sufficient preparation has been conducted. This is not a finite list and PASA and GFAS provide ample information on professional rehabilitation centre standards and operations.

Finally, rehabilitation centres, in common with conservation programmes, need to be more effective at what they do, and seek expertise as appropriate, to help attain the highest standards and maximise impact. Until the threats to primates and their habitats are halted or more effectively managed, primate rehabilitation centres will continue to recoup the consequences of poor land-use planning, corruption, and ineffective conservation action. Primate rehabilitation centres should therefore be valued as partners for the sake of primate welfare and conservation across Africa.


  1. TRAYFORD, H. R. & FARMER, K. H. 2013. Putting the Spotlight on Internally Displaced Animals (IDAs): A Survey of Primate Sanctuaries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. American Journal of Primatology, 75, 116-134.
  2. BAKER, L.R. 2002.  Guidelines for nonhuman primate re-introductions. Re-Introduction NEWS, 21, 29–57.
  3. BECK, B., WALKUP, K., RODRIGUES, M., UNWIN, S., TRAVIS, D. & STOINSKI, T. 2007.  Best Practice Guidelines for the Re-introduction of Great Apes. Gland, Switzerland, SSC Primate Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union.

      4. FERRIE, G. M., FARMER, K. H., KUHAR, C. W., GRAND, A. P., SHERMAN, J. & BETTINGER, T. L. 2014. The social, economic, and environmental contributions of Pan African Sanctuary Alliance primate sanctuaries in Africa. Biodiversity and Conservation, 23, 187-201.

Tatanya Hulme - Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent, UK and Kay Farmer - Division of Psychology, School of Natural Sciences, University of Stirling, UK.