Growing up in Colombia, I spent my holidays going to the Amazon, snorkeling in the Pacific, hiking the Andes and fishing in the Orinoquia. At the time, these vacations seemed quite ordinary. I would see colorful butterflies flying along the banks of small tributaries of the Amazon, hear all sort of noises made by frogs at night and watch humpback whales migrating in the Pacific.
But I came to learn that this wasn’t normal and, in fact, I was privileged for not only living in one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, but for having amazing parents who loved nature and taught me about it and how to care for it. Therefore, when I had to decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, it seemed natural that I wanted to study biology. I wanted to keep traveling and learning about the beautiful world that surrounded me. At the time, it also seemed that all of this amazing biodiversity where I was born was normal and abundant and I only needed to learn about it, not necessarily work to protect it.
It took a bit of trial and error before I came to a different understanding—one that now shapes my work and my life.
As an undergrad student in Colombia, I had the opportunity to travel to pristine forests in the Amazon, Pacific and Orinoquia, but also to very degraded and fragmented forests in the Andes, where I fell in love with primates. My first research project centered on evaluating how natural geographic barriers shaped the genetic diversity of Brown Spider Monkeys in Colombia, one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world. I approached this question as a geneticist and evolutionary primatologist but left this project realizing that what I cared about, and what I wanted to learn more about—the monkeys and their habitat—were disappearing at an accelerated rate. I knew I needed to do something.
Most of the field sites I visited for this project consisted of small to medium fragments of forest surrounded by cattle ranching farms, where sometimes we were lucky to find spider monkeys. Other times, though, we heard the local community saying, “Oh yeah, we used to see Choibos (aka spider monkeys) here, but not anymore.” And that is when it hit me: Sure, I can be a geneticist or a primatologist and become an expert in these areas. But I realized that to have the kind of impact I wanted to have on my professional journey, I needed to also be a conservationist. I needed to be more than a person who simply liked primates, but a person who was part of the efforts to save them—a part of the solution, rather than the problem.
Thus, my PhD research centered on understanding how primates responded to the fragmentation of their habitat to help identify habitat corridors that could help animals move through the landscape to find resources. I started my research with the hope and expectation that my results and findings were going to have direct implications for the conservation of tamarins and would directly prevent their extinction. I figured I’d go to the field, follow the monkeys, collect DNA samples, go back to the lab, analyze the DNA, find some cool results, communicate them to relevant stakeholders for their implementation and…success! But this process was a little bit more complicated, it turns out. It just took me one field season to realize that just collecting DNA and modelling some stuff in the computer wasn’t going to do much.
The rate at which I was seeing the forest disappearing simply did not match the rate at which I was collecting data, and I felt helpless. If I wanted to make a change, I needed to tackle and understand the problem from a different lens: that meant not just looking at the problem from the monkey’s perspective, but truly understanding it from the community’s point of view. If cattle ranching and intensive land use are the major threats to primates, I needed to know what’s at stake not only for primates but for cattle ranchers and the local community. What do they care about and believe in? Why should they even care about primates?
Since then I have embarked on one of the most fascinating, difficult, enlightening and transformative experiences of my life. I decided to start a research and conservation project to evaluate the viability of Silvery Brown Tamarins, an endemic and endangered primate of Colombia that lives in habitats that are highly degraded as the result of cattle ranching. I realize how straightforward this idea/project sounds: research + conservation = success! However, it has taken me many years (and will take me many more to come) to truly understand the complex relationship humans and wildlife have, and the multiple ways we can approach it.
Which brings me to the nature of my work in my home country today. The success of my project has really depended entirely on the community’s support and friendship. There is no successful field season if you work alone. And there is no fun, worthwhile and amazing field season if you don’t interact with and learn from the people with whom you are living. And I don’t mean my fellow field assistants, students and colleagues. I mean all the amazing local people I lived with in my field sites, worked with and who end up becoming my family and mentors. They were a key component of being in the field not only because I was working with them (and they ended up becoming the subject of my study), but simply because they taught me so much that no graduate degree or long-term research project could have taught me. Thanks to their friendship, love and teachings I am a better researcher, conservationist and human being.
And most importantly, I now see my country through a different lens. I do not feel any more like a foreigner in my country, like an outsider telling them what to do and how. Instead, I feel like I am one of them trying to improve their lives, my life and the monkeys’ lives.
(All photos by or courtesy of Lina Maria Valencia)