This is an overview of our research program that has been ongoing for many years. The program involves observational studies of monkeys (primates) in their natural forest habitats, especially at Polonnaruwa. Our aims are: (1) to contribute new knowledge to the understanding of the evolution of social behavior in primates (and by extension in humans); (2) to provide a scientific basis for the effective management and conservation of natural populations of primates and other organisms; and (3) to disseminate our newly found knowledge through scientific publications as well through high quality documentary films, produced professionally, with an eye towards - not only educating and entertaining, but also gaining public support for conservation efforts in the local and international spheres. Our films also contribute positively to the image of Sri Lanka as a tourist destination.
Primates are but one taxon, but our interests in conservation are far broader. This year, for example, we reviewed the taxonomic status of all Sri Lankan mammals. We outlined the scientific grounds for the need to focus conservation efforts at the level of the subspecies of Sri Lankan mammals. This recommendation is a radical departure from the usual national and international IUCN Red List emphasis on species only. Sri Lanka is a biodiversity hot-spot in its own right, distinct from that of the Western Ghats with which Sri Lanka is usually cited as “sharing” this hot spot status. Mammalian subspecies diversity in Sri Lanka contributes substantially to the nation’s overall biodiversity and should be taken into account by policy makers and institutions responsible as the caretakers of Sri Lanka’s flora and fauna.
Regarding our practice of primate research to investigate the phenomenon of social evolution we have identified more than four thousand macaque individuals (living plus dead), distributed among 34 different social groups at our study site. For each macaque, we have traced its behavioural, genealogical, ecological and demographic history. Our methods are similar to those of actuaries; linking variables of behaviour and environment to those of survival. To this end, we require large samples over extended periods of time to assure statistical soundness. Some years ago we have begun similar investigations of the gray and purple-faced langur at our research site at Polonnaruwa. New studies focus on the slender loris as well.
Our research has practical applications relevant to Sri Lanka’s national development. For example, we have shown (in collaborations with veterinarians from the University of Peradeniya) the important relation between human and primate diseases, such as dengue fever, toxoplasmosis, cryptosporidium and other infectious diseases. At another levelwe also are proactive in nature conservation and in outreach educational programs to local communities. We have assisted the local and national governments, and their institutions in mitigating the conflict between humans and monkeys.
Prof. W.P.J. Dittus