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IFLScience Meets: Carolyn Thompson On Studying The World's Rarest Primate And Rehabilitating Thieving Orangutans

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Rachael Funnell

Social Editor and Staff Writer

clockMay 21 2021, 17:43 UTC
Carolyn Thompson

Narrowly avoiding ghosts, black mambas, and stampedes of wildebeest – all part of the rich tapestry of primatology. Image courtesy of Helene Birot

As a PhD student at University College London and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Carolyn Thompson is currently a London-based researcher and educator – but her path into primatology took a geographically diverse root. First charmed to the order of animals by a miscommunication between herself and a macaque, Thompson now specializes in gibbons including the Hainan gibbon, the rarest primate in the world. Here, she tells us that while working with primates might not involve all that much interaction with animals (at least, not on purpose), you do sometimes find yourself running after hose-wielding orangutans.

What do you do?

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I am a primatologist (a scientist who studies non-human primates including monkeys, apes, and lemurs/lorises). I am currently a PhD student at University College London and ZSL’s Institute of Zoology studying small ape (gibbon) decline in Asia. As a part-time PhD student, I also teach alongside my degree as a Higher Education lecturer.

What did it take to get here?

A lot of perseverance on a long and convoluted journey!

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I grew up in Scotland, Indonesia, and Norway surrounded by outdoor adventures and wildlife. During a trip to the Sacred Monkey Forest in Bali, Indonesia, I had my first ever primate encounter. I saw long-tailed macaques “smiling” at me (four-year-old me did not know this was a threat display) and I fell in love with our hairy cousins.

My “ah-ha!” moment to study primates came a few years later however, when my grandad, who was also living in Asia, rescued a macaque from a market. I learned about primate conservation issues, including hunting, pet trade, and habitat loss. (It is important to note that although my grandad had good intentions, rescuing a wild animal from a market is discouraged as it only fuels the trade).

At school I pursued subjects that seemed relevant to a career in primatology: geography, to understand natural processes and anthropogenic factors impacting our environment; psychology, to understand human attitudes, motivations, and actions; and biology, to learn about animals and associated behaviors.

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A school’s career advisor encouraged me to steer away from the sciences however, stating that these were not my strengths. This was a pivotal point in my career as I meandered away from my goal. As a lecturer and advisor now myself, I actively encourage my students to pursue any subject that they are passionate about because determination and enthusiasm are often worth more than high grades.

Nevertheless, I followed this advice and went to the University of Manchester to study a BSc in Geography. I quickly realized I was studying towards the wrong degree. They say everything happens for a reason. Had I not gone to Manchester, I would not have made the life-changing decision to do another BSc in Life Sciences with the Open University. I chose my degree and university more carefully this time. I wanted a university degree that would allow me to earn part-time and simultaneously travel to gain hands-on experience in primatology.

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Adult female and infant Southern Bornean gibbons (Hylobates albibarbis), Indonesia. Image courtesy of Carolyn Thompson

Alongside my degree, I worked for various institutions, sanctuaries, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Namibia, Cameroon, United Kingdom, Malaysia, and South Africa. The experiences not only confirmed my chosen career aspirations, but also highlighted both good and bad conservation practices.

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I later completed an MRes in Primate Biology, Behaviour and Conservation with the University of Roehampton. This was my dream degree (which was reflected in a “Distinction” grade) and taught me research skills including data collection methods and statistical analyses. For my thesis, I studied the impact of tourism on Ring-tailed lemur behavior in Madagascar and became very interested in human-primate interactions.

Attracted to organizations that adopt a holistic approach to conservation, I worked for the Borneo Nature Foundation in the peat swamp forests of Indonesia for more than two years after my masters. I managed a small team and the running of three long-term primate behavior projects.

It was here that I was introduced to the gibbons, the smallest and rarest of the apes. Realizing some of the most threatened gibbon species existed in China, I decided to design and pursue a PhD studying human-gibbon interactions.

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I applied to doctorate programmes and conservation grants to fund my intended research. Alas, due to the highly competitive nature of conservation funding, I was unsuccessful. Frustratingly, one institution said I was “too focussed” for the doctorate programme who prefers to take on students who are still deciding their research direction. Another funding body said they could not support work where the animal population was below 200 individuals. The three gibbon species I wished to study had global population sizes below 150!

Instead of giving up, I launched a crowdfunding campaign to support my doctorate research. The campaign had astronomical success making approximately £20,000! Thanks to my other incredible funders, Arcus Foundation, I started my PhD in October 2017. To support myself further, I regularly lecture and previously worked as a Museum Engager in UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology.

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Ring-tailed lemur troop led by females. Image courtesy of Carolyn Thompson

Tell us more about the gibbons and your PhD research.

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My PhD investigates small ape (gibbon) decline across China, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Most people have heard of the great apes (orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos) but few have heard of the gibbons.

Gibbons are the smallest of the apes known for their territorial songs, coordinated duets, acrobatic locomotion, and small family group sizes. There are 20 gibbon species distributed across Asia. Sadly, 19 are on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss, pet trade, hunting, and used in traditional medicines.

I focus on three species: the world’s rarest primate with only 30 individuals remaining, the Hainan gibbon; the recently discovered Skywalker Hoolock gibbon; and a transboundary species, the Cao vit gibbon.

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I use an ethnoprimatological approach to my research (combining biological and social methods), which basically means I not only record gibbon behavior, but also interview local communities surrounding gibbon habitat to understand the main drivers of decline. My research hopes to inform local conservation management for sustainable coexistence.

What's the most common misconception about your line of work?

That I cuddle primates!

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Most primatologists study species in the wild where a 7-10 meter distance is adhered to. I can spend days in the field without even a glimpse of a primate butt! For my PhD, I also spend most of my time working with local communities surrounding gibbon habitat and therefore have little interaction with the primates themselves.

When I first started my career journey, images of researchers/carers handling primates was common practice – I am sure everyone has seen iconic images of Jane Goodall hugging a chimpanzee. However, 60 percent of primates are now facing extinction and one of the main threats is hunting for the pet trade. Images of humans cuddling primates can be detrimental if the context is unknown.

This year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Primate Specialist Group Section for Human Primate Interactions published Best Practice Guidelines for Responsible Images of Non-Human Primates.

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Skywalker Hoolock Male. Image courtesy of Carolyn Thompson

Funniest moment on the job?

In 2006, I worked for a primate sanctuary that rescued orphaned orangutans who were victims of the palm oil industry. The orangutans go through different stages of rehabilitation until they can be released back into the wild.

My team and I were taking a break one day and playing cards with our backs turned to the sanctuary door. Suddenly, we heard a loud “BANG!” and all spun around to see three juvenile orangutans standing in a line, each holding part of a hose and threading it out through the front door.

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Realizing they were busted, the orangutans hastily picked up the hose and then legged it out through the door and into the forest. We spent the entire afternoon trying to get the hose back!

Any memorable missteps or hairy moments?

Where do I begin! I have had my fair share of memorable mishaps, and as a result, there is not one that springs to mind, but several hairy moments:

  • I was almost bitten on the head by a highly venomous Black mamba snake in Cameroon.
  • I scarcely avoided a wildebeest stampede in Namibia. Thankfully a giraffe called Klippie came to my rescue.
  • I have had several ghostly encounters in the forest where colleagues have claimed to see an old woman following me.
  • I have tripped over a Malaysian sun bear on the way to an orangutan nest. I am not sure who was more startled!
  • I have been reported as a terrorist!
  • I have witnessed a tug-o-war with a python.
  • And finally, I have had a bug lay an egg in the sole of my foot. Thankfully, I found it before it hatched!

I am currently in the process of writing a book about all these fieldwork fails. One day it might be published.

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It doesn't hurt being something of a primate yourself when working as a primatologist. Image courtesy of Bernat Ripoll Capilla

What do you never leave the house without?

Due to the above, I am a very superstitious person and never leave the house without my Nepalese prayer-engraved bracelet.

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In my backpack, I always have my trusty SILVA compass, penknife from my Swiss homelands, and a snack. I am also a huge fan of a carabiner.

What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?

Do not underestimate yourself – determination and passion are so valuable in this field. Network widely and reach out to organizations or academics who inspire you. Ask them for advice – everyone started somewhere!

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You can follow Thompson's conservation research into rare primates on Twitter and Instagram.

 


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