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Ethical Guidelines

The majority of our research activities are conducted in the field observing wild primate populations in their natural environment, mainly African great apes. Research activities inevitably add an artificial component to the lives of the animals under study and may have consequences that are not always easy to predict. We thus acknowledge that our research presence has an impact on wild populations and the following measures are undertaken to minimize our impact on the well being of the animals we work with.

IssueEthical guidelines

Genetic, hormonal, behavioural and immunological sampling

As a rule, we will limit our sampling on wild apes and other primates to be done non-invasively without touching, trapping or tagging the animals. The following materials can be collected without directly contacting the animals under study: faeces, shed hairs, urine, semen, discarded food items.

Samples from wild apes and other primates may be taken by biopsy dart for essential studies of zoonotic diseases or in emergency situations (e.g. disease outbreak). Such sampling will only be chosen when representing potentially a great benefit for the individual, social group or population.

We may occasionally obtain sample materials, such as DNAs, from researchers who have collected samples using invasive methods. For example, blood samples may be taken during necessary veterinary treatment of mountain gorillas, and these samples may be useful for genetic analyses. As another example, researchers studying baboons may dart and temporarily immobilize animals in order to take blood samples and conduct phenotypic assessments, and we may use portions of these blood samples or products derived from them. In all such cases of invasive sampling, care should be taken to confirm that the sampling work was done in accordance with approved protocols and that the sampling caused only transient discomfort or social disturbance.

Blood or tissue samples may also be obtained from zoo or sanctuary animals during routine medical checkups. Provided that the sampling protocol follows the guidelines described by the respective zoological society and the governmental authority, such samples may also be used for genetic or physiologic studies.

Tissue samples may be obtained from corpses of wild animals during necropsies. Because of the risk of disease transmission such samples should only be taken by trained professionals.

In all cases, sampling must be done with the full permission of local park and government authorities under the guidelines of the host country.

Habituating new groups

Habituation is an invasive process into the natural behaviour of wild animals. However it is assumed that most of the behavioural alterations observed in the initial phase are reversible. Nevertheless, habituation represents additional risks for the animals since it makes them more vulnerable to poaching, induces physical and psychological stress, and exposes them to zoonotic disease transmission due to increased close contact with humans. Thus, habituation is carried out as follows:

  • habituation is only considered once alternative methods have been exhausted
  • habituation of new groups is only initiated once a long-term commitment of funding can be secured and, if in an unprotected area, where poaching activities can be minimized and continuously monitored
  • habituation is never done with artificial provisioning
  • rules are established to avoid disease transmission (see ‘Disease transmission to wild populations’ below)
  • habituation for ecotourism is done in strict accordance with the IUCN guidelines for ecotourism and habituation (http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/SSC-OP-038.pdf)

Experiments in the field

Experiments in the field with wild animals could be done provided:

  • the experiment enlightens aspects of behaviour that would not be possible with natural observations alone
  • the experimental design mimics natural situations and materials used are natural, or made to imitate natural resources
  • the frequency of the experiments is equal or lower than the frequency of occurrence of the natural situations that they mimic
  • the design and frequency does not impose any risk to the health or well-being of the animals

Disease transmission to wild populations

Observations of wild populations may increase the risk of disease transmission. In order to minimize that risk all our field projects have developed site-specific hygiene and research rules which can be found below under ‘Field site-specific regulations’. In general, research staff should:

  • have no direct body contact with the animals during observing, following, sampling, habituating and/or testing,
  • should do field work only when they are healthy,
  • keep a safe distance from the animals followed, adhering to site-specific rules regarding this distance,
  • have valid vaccinations,
  • limit the number of people following habituated animals to a level that minimizes disturbance,
  • follow specific hygienic rules to minimize the risks of disease transmission from human to animals and vice-versa.

With respect to emergency situations (e.g. disease outbreak) which concern the health and well-being of an individual, social group or population under study, we limit our veterinary intervention to anthropogenically induced injury or illness. This may also include vaccinating wild individuals if deemed necessary by government officials and/or field site directors with the aid of veterinary specialists.

Establishment and maintenance of field sites

We recognize that the creation of field sites has a long-term impact on the surrounding forest and ecosystem. To minimize this we take the following measures:

  • clearing of forest for camps and trails respects the laws of the ministry of forest and environment of the host country and relevant permissions are requested beforehand
  • vegetation is cut only along trails, with minimal cutting in the forest
  • the number of trails are limited to a level that minimizes vegetation destruction and facilitation of poaching activities
  • maintenance of trails and camp area does not require the cutting of large trees unless there is a concern for safety, in which case the relevant permissions are requested
  • toilets and sites for garbage disposal are built with the aim to minimize disease transmission to the surrounding habitat
  • we predominantly use solar panels and rechargeable batteries for power supply
  • to prevent the leakage of battery acid into the ecosystem all batteries are kept and stored at the camp site for transport back to Europe or the nearest major city
  • field-site specific information can be found in the links below

Involvement of local people

Research projects should include members of the local population. This includes:

  • providing access to information as to better educate the local human population about the surrounding ecosystem, and especially the animals under study
  • provide direct benefits to the human population through employment of local assistants
  • creating a close collaboration with local authorities
  • attempting to decrease the risk of illegal poaching by creating increased awareness of the health, environmental and legal ramifications of bush meat consumption
Conservation of endangered populations

Researchers are encouraged, when possible, to contribute actively to the conservation of the species they study by:

  • promoting the conservation attitude of the projects towards working with conservation authorities and the local population
  • participating in actions increasing the awareness of the local population about the species under study and the threats they face
  • collaborating with existing conservation initiatives or initiating new ones.

We would also refer those interested to a publication from our department showing empirical evidence for long-term research presence contributing to the conservation of chimpanzees, as well as other wildlife, in a national park (http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/03/24/rsbl.2011.0155)

Field site specific regulations

Links to field guidelines for each field site.

*Please note, ethics clearance for research directly involving human subjects is requested formally from established committees of relevant institutions.

All research activities undertaken by members of the MPI-EVA primatology department are regulated by German and EU laws and attempt to adhere to the above guidelines. In addition, our joint research project collaborations are conducted with organizations who also take into consideration our ethics guidelines. However, we recognize that the above list is not exhaustive of all our research activities, actual or potential, and as such novel situations are always reviewed in a case by case basis.

Rules of Good Scientific Practice

Adopted by the senate of the Max Planck Society on November 24, 2000, amended on March 20, 2009: http://www.mpg.de/197494/rulesScientificPractice.pdf