Five years ago, two other biologists and I started dreaming about developing a conservation and research program to protect Silvery-brown Tamarin populations living in degraded habitats in Colombia. In order to make this idea reality, we wrote a strategic plan and a logical framework with our overall goal, project purpose, expected outcomes and activities to accomplish them. At the time, it all seem quite theoretical and abstract until…voila! The funds were in the bank account and we had to start not only to plan, but also to develop and successfully implement our project.
Despite all of the time that has passed, all the changes, the adjustments, and the steep learning curve it took to get the project up and running, that moment in time seems like yesterday. And even when we sit down recently to talk with a cup of coffee in hand of the things that went wrong, or not as planned, and even better, of all the good things that happened that we were not expecting, we could only smile and feel like we accomplished what we set out to do. Or at least a big part of it—life isn’t perfect, of course, and in conservation nothing is perfect.
Last month I had the opportunity to go to the field after completing the first cycle of our project. As soon as I stepped foot on the ground, my first thought was “Oh man, I hope the forest is still there!!” Working in private land, and more specifically in cattle ranching farms, there is always the uncertainty about what is going to happen to the forest. If one day the owners need to build a fence, then they can just go to the forest and log the trees they need.
And believe me, no matter how much you work with the community, how much you raise awareness of the importance of keeping the forest intact for erosion control and water supply, there is always that fear that you weren’t heard and that the forest is gone. And with the forest gone, the monkeys are gone, and all of our efforts to protect them wind up in the trash. So going to the field, and checking your project is always scary; in the end you don’t want your biggest fear to be true: “My work and efforts were fruitless.”
However, as I was getting out of the car once I got to the field site, I heard the words “Oh look, the micologas—aka monkey chicas—are back!” And this not only made me laugh hysterically (I guess I am a monkey girl!), but gave me the huge satisfaction that our work is now recognized and the members of the community are aware that tamarins live in their forests. After not being in the field for 1.5 years, we not only saw the forest intact, but we saw that the tamarins are in good shape. New infants are present in the groups, which indicates that populations are growing. We also saw that some of the banners and outreach materials we used were in fact being displayed and used to attract tourism into the area.
But for me, the best thing was hearing one community member telling the others in our bus ride back to town, “Yeah, in these forests we used to see spider monkeys, but not anymore. It’s probably because they are as endangered as the tamarin and we need to protect them. Right?” And then he turned and looked at me!
These small results in my opinion are the best possible kinds of updates from the field. No, we have not yet persuaded all of the cattle ranchers in the area that they need to implement more sustainable practices. And yes, we are only working with a small community. But our small project is clearly bringing small happy endings, and with these small contributions we can hope to save the species.
My update from the field gets better: seeing two of our interns presenting the results of their research at the International Conference in Conservation Biology in Cartagena, Colombia. These two young Colombian women biologists presenting for the first time at an international conference what they are passionate about and love is a signal of how much progress we’ve made and a symbol of hope for what’s to come!
(All photos by Lina Maria Valencia)