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Failure is the greatest teacher: Embracing the positives of failure in primate conservation

Webber, Amanda; Cotton, Sam; McCabe, Grainne

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Amanda Webber

Sam Cotton

Grainne McCabe


“Failure” is recognised as being vital for success in many fields but is seldom embraced in primate conservation or conservation more generally. In this paper, we use examples from the literature, particularly around reintroduction, to reflect on failure and consider the contribution it can make to primate conservation success. Barriers to acknowledging failure are highlighted and include concerns regarding reputational damage that impact on communication with funders, publishing, and discussing our projects more widely. We also discuss the need for a broader and adaptive approach to include multiple steps of experimentation, reflection, and subsequent learning. This process, which necessarily includes failures and the results of unintended consequences, will require primatologists to use a collaborative, interdisciplinary, and reflective approach to effectively address factors that contribute to failure, including those external to the traditional focus of primatologists. The paper concludes with specific recommendations for progressing in this area, including (i) Funding—funders to incorporate greater flexibility in response to project change and to specifically ask grantees to consider risk, failure, and lessons learnt, and funders and grantees to improve dialogue; (ii) Publishing—journals to have a section that considers failure and lessons learnt and, along with societies, to further engage with researchers from the Global South about the best ways to support with publishing; and (iii) Communication—primate conservationists to lead by example and reflect/discuss failure openly and to create spaces that encourage sharing of these topics. Whilst not exhaustive, we hope that these recommendations will contribute to developing a culture of constructive discussion around failure in primate conservation.


Webber, A., Cotton, S., & McCabe, G. (2023). Failure is the greatest teacher: Embracing the positives of failure in primate conservation. International Journal of Primatology, 43, 1095–1109.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Apr 12, 2021
Online Publication Date May 16, 2022
Publication Date 2023-02
Deposit Date May 20, 2022
Publicly Available Date May 25, 2022
Journal International Journal of Primatology
Print ISSN 0164-0291
Electronic ISSN 1573-8604
Publisher Springer Verlag
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 43
Pages 1095–1109
Keywords Primate conservation; Lessons learnt; Success; Publishing; Funding; Adaptive management;
Public URL
Publisher URL


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