Orang-utans are a highly endangered species
An MSc in primate conservation is attracting animal lovers from all over the world

It's not easy getting ahead in the monkey business. Working with primates is a competitive career choice, but Helen Buckland, who at 24 secured a plum job as UK co-ordinator for the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS), had the best possible start. She is a graduate of Oxford Brookes' MSc in primate conservation, the only course of its kind in the world.

The course was established around five years ago in response to the rapid destruction of the habitats of many of our closest relatives in the primate world, and the subsequent threat of extinction. A multidisciplinary degree, encompassing anthropology and biology, the MSc also has an eye on the political issues affecting apes, monkeys and prosimians - specifically their interaction and conflict with humans.

Its unique focus on conservation makes the course not only competitive, but also international. Among Buckland's 28 classmates were students from North and South America, Australia and across Europe. The course leaders encourage students from those countries where other primates still live in their natural habitats.

Buckland's first degree was in psychology, at Edinburgh University. "It was broad-based biological psychology," she says, "but I was most interested in primate cognition." Before joining the MSc course at Oxford Brookes in 2003, Buckland had already accrued plenty of work experience, as a keeper at Edinburgh Zoo during her first degree, and volunteering at Washington State's Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute in the US, where chimpanzees are taught to use sign language. "I went there interested in psychology and came back more interested in conservation," she says. Before the MSc began, she took part in the conservation summer school at Gerald Durrell's Jersey Zoo.

"People on the course come from a wide range of backgrounds," says Buckland. "The other students weren't necessarily scientists, but we all had to have an interest in or experience of primate conservation."

Oxford Brookes offers the MSc as both a full-time and part-time course, over 12 or 24 months. The seven modules that make up the degree, from human-wildlife conflict issues to genetics and population management, are assessed through written work, presentations and field assignments observing primates in captivity at sites in the UK.

After completing the course, Buckland chose to work with orang-utans. "People were drawn to certain species during the course, not necessarily by the species themselves but by the issues affecting them and their predicament," she says. "Orang-utans are critically endangered, and I wanted to do something that would be useful to a highly endangered species."

SOS, a conservation charity, organises education and conservation initiatives in Sumatra, where only one million hectares of forest habitat remain for orang-utans. While illegal logging is a well-reported problem, the most pressing concern is palm oil plantation farming. "For my dissertation I travelled to Indonesia and studied the impact that palm oil farming has on orang-utans," says Buckland. "There's a huge demand for the product in Europe, because it is used in so many foods, but most of it is produced in Indonesia. Other students went to Africa, Asia, South America - it was a great excuse to see those parts of the world. The chairman of the Ape Alliance invited me to present my research and I was asked to set up a working group to produce a report on the impact of palm oil plantation farming: it's the greatest problem facing orang-utans now."

Following that report, she was offered the job as UK co-ordinator at SOS, and has just returned from her first trip to Sumatra, where she took part in the charity's annual fundraising exercise, an eco-trek into the Sumatran forest to see orang-utans in the wild.

SOS is involved in tree replanting in the forest clusters that still sustain orang-utan populations; and the education department visits schools in Indonesia and holds training programmes for local communities.

One of the charity's recent initiatives has had an impact closer to home. SOS asked every UK supermarket and major retailer to sign up to its "round table on sustainable palm oil". Buckland says: "We're not asking for a boycott of palm oil, we're asking for it to be produced sustainably. Those who have signed up include Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrison's, Asda, Waitrose, Boots, Co-op and Marks & Spencer. We generate consumer pressure on the retailers. It's really satisfying to have a success like this."