In 1967 the Smithsonian Institution (SI) and Government of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) initiated a program of collaborative research on the fauna and flora of Sri Lanka. The program was sponsored financially under USA law PL-480 of aid agreement between the two countries. The Primate Biology Program (SI-PBP) is an outgrowth of this more comprehensive “Smithsonian Institution Biological Program in Ceylon.”

The SI Biological Program was organized jointly by the late Dr. Helmut Buechner (SI, Office of Ecology) and the late Dr. Raymond Fosberg (SI, Department of Botany).   Dr. Fosberg had organized a revision of Henry Trimen’s “The Handbook to the Flora of Ceylon,” whereas Dr. Buechner had been invited to do ecological surveys of elephants with an eye towards wildlife conservation and management.  Dr. Fosberg recruited the on-site assistance of Dr. Dieter Mueller-Dombois (then, University of Hawaii) for ecological studies of Sri Lanka’s National Parks, while Dr. John Eisenberg (Research Scientist of the SI National Zoological Park, and Professor of Zoology at the University of Maryland, College Park) lead the elephant surveys and expanded the program to include studies of Sri Lanka’s primates and other mammals.

These efforts were in collaboration with Sri Lankan scientists and institutions,  notably Professor Hilary Crusz  (Head, Dept. Zoology, University of Peradeniya),  Prof. B. A. Abeywickrama (Head, Dept. Agriculture, UP), and Prof. M. D. Dassanayake (Head, Dept. Botany, UP), and the Department of Wildlife Conservation (Director, Mr. Lynn DeAlwis). Drs. Eisenberg and Mueller-Dombois taught courses in Ecology at the University of Peradeniya, and provided highly successful training and research opportunities for many Sri Lankan students and colleagues.

Under the “Flora of Ceylon Project,” more than 25 eminent botanists  from around the world were involved in field work and museum collections for updating knowledge, plant family by family, about Sri Lanka’s flora. Many volumes have been published from this work (edited by Dissanayake and Fosberg).  Similarly, Dr. Eisenberg, with the help of Dr. Suzanne Ripley, had organized a team of international scientists and students to investigate the behavior and ecology of the elephant, leopard and the primate species.  Independently of this effort, Dr. Karl Krombein (SI,  Dept. Entomology) had lead many entomologists in a survey of Sri Lanka’s insect fauna.  There was also a survey of Sri Lanka’s fresh water and marine fish.  Overall, a great number of scientific publications resulted from this program, and many careers were launched in tropical biology, ecology, and conservation.

With the exhaustion of PL-480 funding by 1972, most Smithsonian activity ceased in Sri Lanka.   The Primate Project, however, continued independently of the PL-480 program, through US$ grants from the National Science Foundation (USA),  Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Germany), Earthwatch, and other agencies to Dr. Wolfgang Dittus, under the aegis of the SI National Zoological Park.  The Primate Biology Program has been administratively sponsored in Sri Lanka initially by the University of Peradeniya (1977-1983) and by the National Institute of Fundamental Studies since 1983.