Professor Simon Bearder's fascination with monkeys and apes has taken him on an unlikely path.

It began in South Africa, where for years he dedicated himself to studying and radio tracking the behaviour of bushbabies, taking a break only to study spotted hyaenas near the Kruger National Park.

When he came to England it was to take up a research fellowship at London Zoo.

But then this world authority on nocturnal primates headed for Headington, where he has been prominent in making Oxford Brookes University a major research centre for the study of our closest living relatives.

Yesterday, the university's contribution to the conservation of endangered primates was recognised by The Queen, with Professor Bearder travelling to Buckingham Palace to collect a Queen's Anniversary Prize.

Prof Bearder will tell you the prize is timely - and not because of the attention that it will focus on a unique course that he has spent years developing.

For him it is the approaching extinction of species of monkeys, apes and prosimians, which makes the Royal accolade so fitting at this moment.

Across the world more than 25 per cent of primate species and sub-species are on the brink of extinction, largely because of the destruction and loss of their habitats.

Despite the severity of the situation, which has seen the animals closest to us in genetic make-up being among the most persecuted, Oxford Brookes offers the world's only postgraduate programme linking the study of primates with conservation.

Most significantly it is now training between 30 and 40 students each year to prepare them for careers in conservation to reverse the devastating loss of species.

Prof Bearder said: "Our programme has been running for just seven years. Only one application can be submitted by each university and we were the one chosen at Brookes. The Queen's award is a credit to all our staff and students.

"Primates are one of the most persecuted species. The massive deforestation we see across the world today, means our students' work has never been more urgent. What marks our students out is the passion and energy they bring to their study."

Students, as part of their study, go from Brookes to some of the most remote corners of the world where primates are threatened.

And since the course started, students and lecturers from the university have discovered more than ten new primate species.

The course attracts animal lovers from all over the world, include young people like Panut Hadisiswoyo, from countries where primate populations are most under pressure.

Panut is no stranger to conservation, having founded a centre for orangutans at Medan, Indonesia, before going to Brookes.

He was able to come to Oxford after winning one of the scholarships which allow three students from 'habitat' countries to join the conservation programme every year.

For all his knowledge about primates, he points out that an MSc in Oxford carries real weight in his own country when it comes to dealing with major companies and government agencies.

"Getting a qualification like this is enormously important when you are talking to people at home. I'm grateful to have won the scholarship. It has given me an invaluable opportunity to get in-depth knowledge about primate conservation.

"I plan to use this course and the knowledge that I have gained to help make primate conservation more effective in my country."

For Prof Bearder, people like Panut bring experiences to the course that benefit everyone.

"Students from countries whose rainforests and primate populations are most at threat inform our own understanding of their home environment, and associated social and political issues.

"Unfortunately, financial barriers mean that only a small percentage of these habitat country students can ever afford to live and study in Oxford."

A campaign has been launched to raise £300,000 to allow the cutting edge research to continue.

Some of this money will help fund a world-class conservation biologist who will launch a distance-learning programme to reach habitat country students unable to study in Oxford, but whose education could directly lead to practical conservation action.

The researchers I ran into during my visit to the department certainly had diverse backgrounds.

Australian Graham Wallace, who is now working for his PhD, gave up a high-flying corporate career in order to be at Brookes.

At one stage he was general manager of a company employing 800 people.

Rather than balance sheets, today his mind is entirely focused on the delicate balance that exists between farmers and primates in Uganda.

Mr Wallace said: "This course is special because it allows someone like me who has passion for conservation but lacks a pure science background to gain practical skills and pursue a career in this field."

A holiday in Borneo, where she was shocked by the loss of habitats, inspired Tricia Parish, from London, to quit her job with a leading finance company. After her year-long course she intends to build a career in conservation.

Prof Bearder believes that whatever the background of his students all have one thing in common - a 'Road-to-Damascus' moment, inspired by the shock of seeing a devastated forest, or perhaps the thrill of seeing a monkey or ape in its natural habitat.

"I think everybody had this flash-of-light experience before they came here. All the students have seen things first hand and have been galvanised into wanting to do something about it.

"When you are physically close to primates it is different to being close to other animals. People love their pets. But it is more powerful because they are like us in so many respects. It's almost like finding long-lost cousins. I believe it allows you to understand yourself better."

Prof Bearder was himself struck by the idea of starting a primate conservation programme at Brookes after running a series of conservation summer schools at the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust.

He ambitiously planned a course to combine the expertise of anthropologists and biologists to look at the threat to primates in the broadest context, with emphasis on their inter-relationship between humans and wildlife in forests.

For it is undoubtedly the destruction of forests, driven by timber demands and agricultural developments, that most threaten the primates' environment. And it is to rainforests where many of the students head to undertake research fieldwork trips.

They go to the Amazon to research woolly monkeys and Madagascar to study lemurs. But they may also go to the Far East to research the illegal pet trade or the Netherlands to examine species roaming freely in the Apenheul primate reserve.

But ultimately, it is what they go on to do after Brookes that is most crucial.

Megan Hull, who was at Brookes five years ago, said: "It was a combination of the courses and experiences at Oxford Brookes that helped me decide to travel to Madagascar where I studied the habitat requirements of the golden-crowned sifaka for my dissertation.

"The opportunity to manage a team of field assistants and guides while researching the lemurs was truly unforgettable."

She went on to work with a captive breeding programmes at the Duke University Primate Center in North Carolina.

For Prof Bearder, after 40 years in the field, the stop-off at Buckingham Palace will be a welcome diversion.

It is the second Queen's Anniversary Prize to have found its way to Brookes in recognition of world-class work.

But the challenge always lies down the road for Oxford Brookes University's monkey man. Transforming idealistic animal lovers into the next generation of skilled conservationists remains the biggest prize.