Name: Rebecca Smith
Age at interview: 28
Country of residence: Paraguay
Languages spoken: English and Spanish
Advice to other women: "Don't be scared. Don't over think. Take a chance".
Can you tell us a bit about what it is you do?
So basically what I am doing is studying Capuchin monkeys in the Atlantic forest of Paraguay. I want to use them a flagship species because they are an animal people can easily relate to. If we can work out exactly what it is that they need to survive in fragmented forest then we can use it as an example for people who do not know much about conservation – this is what they (the monkeys) need, so this is what we need to protect.
So you’ve been working in Paraguay for the past four years, and when you landed in Paraguay you didn’t speak any Spanish? So can you tell us a little bit about what its’ been like for you as a person coming into that environment and working in a remote community with very little understanding of the local cultures?
Yeah, it was a very big culture shock at first….mainly because I think there was some bit of my brain that thought some people would speak English (laughs)…I was wrong. It was difficult but not unbearable because being in the volunteer house there were still people and the main language we spoke was English. But, I just couldn’t be the person that moved to someone else’s country and refused to learn the language and understand the people a bit better. And I just felt really, really stupid when everyone was talking and I couldn’t understand. So yeah, it was difficult and a little isolating at first but it was a good motivator and I don’t think I would have been able to learn another language if I had not that push.
Being thrown into it?
So obviously we are dealing with different cultures and different relationships with women generally, and you’re a white woman from a privileged background coming into that community. How did people respond first to you trying to learn Spanish, were they supportive? And then (were they supportive) to you generally working in that environment?
Yeah they were very very supportive and I think it’s because where we were, Spanish isn’t their first language either. It’s something they have had to learn as well and I think they just appreciate the fact that you were trying. Yeah, there was never any, sort of any hostility to mistakes or anything like that. I’m not sure if being female made that bit easier because people looked at you were like “aww, you’re trying at least”. But yeah it was a very supportive environment and people wanted to help you learn.
Can you expand on that a little bit? I guess a lot of people (not from South America) don’t realise that the native languages in South America are not Spanish in a lot of cases, as is the case in Paraguay. So can you tell us a little bit about that language and the local community there? Just to paint a picture of where you have been working.
Yeah so one of the official languages of Paraguay is Guarani which is the indigenous language. Paraguay is one of the only countries in South America that still has an Indigenous language as one of the official languages. And where we lived near Laguna Blanca, the majority of people around there, it was their first language. I think they (the local community) start learning Spanish in schools when they’re about 8 – younger people can understand (Spanish), but the older generation doesn’t, they don’t speak Spanish. When you’re working in the community you need an interpreter if working with people over a certain age. But even if then, it wasn’t as difficult as you would think as they were so friendly and so nice.
As a primatologist you’re focusing on monkeys, their movement and behaviour, but obviously you are doing a lot of conservation work as well and I know that you’ve been running education programs with the local community. So given the cultural and communication barriers, how has it been communicating those messages?
Quite hard. I think without the help of the local people that work for the organisation as well, I just don’t think you can do it. I don’t think education programs work as well unless you have local people involved in the teaching. You can’t just come in as a foreigner because it looks like you’re just telling the local people how to think. We always had the forest guards and Griselda, a woman who works for the organisation. We had links to the community through them and they were the bridge that helped the message get across to the community. It also had the added benefit when you’re teaching children; they are looking up to someone they know, they went to the same school as them and they’re thinking, “I can do that too”. Which is a huge deal for those children as there are not many out of the box opportunities, and to see people from their community getting to do things that they never even imagined, it makes a big difference for them.
So I ask this from your perspective, acknowledging that it would be good to speak to a Paraguayan about this, but as an outsider’s perspective, what does the life of a child look like in terms of opportunity growing up?
Um, not great really. The education system in this country is awful. They only go to school for four hours a day. If it rains they don’t go. If the teachers have a meeting, classes are cancelled. What they actually learn when they are there is really, really limited. It’s one of the things I learned during a project recently. We were trying to teach the kids about Paraguay’s monkey species. To see what they were learning, at the start of every week I asked them to write down what they had learned about monkeys and the exercise didn’t work because so many of them were illiterate. I mean some of them were 11 or 12 years old.
So when does school end for these children? Do they start working at a particular age? Or is it a continued education system but not a very good one?
Well things are changing now, I don’t know if this is still the case but until recently you only had to be in school until you were 12 and then you could leave. But when they can afford to, more people are starting to go to the university. So the limiting factor is not whether they want to do it, it’s whether they can afford it. It’s sad.
To paint a picture of the place where you are at, you’ve been working at a remote reserve called Laguna Blanca. I know that illegal – well I say “illegal” - but hunting by local people on the property that has been used for conservation has been a issue for the staff where you work for quite some time. Have you found that your message of conservation has helped prevent this? Or is that a much more complicated issue? You’re dealing with local communities that are poor and hunting is for food sources, not just for the sake of hunting. Have you been able to bridge that gap between conservation because it’s important but also the needs of the local community?
I think so because it did quite drastically decrease over the 7 years that the organisation was there, it really went down, and in the last couple of years, most of the people that have been coming in have been coming into collect medicinal plants, not to hunt animals. And we have been told recently by members of the local community that people have not been hunting the animals out of respect for what we do because they understand that we want to protect the animals so they think that it is worth not hunting them.
So off the back of that (achievement), as a primatologist, is there anything so far that you’re particularly proud of that you’ve done so far with your career? You’ve been studying an animal that hasn’t really been studied before in this part of the world. What do you think has been your biggest contribution so far that you’re most proud of?
I think getting the name of the country back into the primate literature and primatology community. Last year the International Primatology Society meeting, I was the only person who worked in this country out of 1500 people at the meeting. There was a lot of surprise, like “Paraguay?! Really?!". Because this country only has 5 species. There are all these surrounding countries such as Brazil, Peru that have a lot more monkeys and a lot more species and a lot more forest left. It (Paraguay) doesn’t get that much attention, and it’s been 30 years since anyone as done any work here worked on primates. So I think just, even just making people remember that there are monkeys worth conserving in this country.
Yeah, that’s a huge gap of time, and out of 1500 people being the only person! That in itself shows how important your work is. And as a woman and a primatologist, what is your experience being a primatologist? Is it a field that is quite equitable to women, or have you had any experiences or challenges because of your gender?
It’s a field that is quite female dominated, particularly in field work. I mean there are a lot of men as well, I do know a lot of guys, but for example my Masters course was 21 women and 3 guys. So it is quite dominated by women. I think that the biggest challenge for female primatologists is that a lot of the countries where you find wild primates are very patriarchal countries – which Paraguay is no exception. It is an extremely patriarchal country and you don’t get taken very seriously if you’re female.
And given that it is a female dominated profession, what’s your experience with supportiveness? Do you feel you’re part of a community of people? Are you all supportive of each other or is it competitive like a lot of scientific fields can be?
Mostly people are really supportive. It’s actually one of my favourite things about it. It seems like everyone seems to get that we’re all working for the same thing. It doesn’t matter what country or species it is, everyone is just working toward conservation. A problem that I have with conservation and science in general, I don’t like the competitiveness that there can be that you can find, because really everyone should be working together… because really the goal is the same for everybody. It shouldn’t matter how we get there. I think when you narrow it down to the field of primatology, it does feel like that (supportive). Everyone just wants the outcome of conserving the habitat, animal and ecosystem.
You work remotely, how do you maintain and foster those relationships while you are in the field? Do you communicate with people on line? Do you go to conferences? How do you maintain those relationships? I use in the field as an example, but I guess that for anyone that works in science it can be quite isolating depending on what you do.
Definitely on line. Yeah, I recently started going to conferences as well. I’ve been to 3 in the last year which can be quite intimidating but good fun. Yeah, but mostly online. And I find that when, like if I have a question, or even reaching out to people you’ve never met, you know they’re the expert and you want to ask them a question on a subject. People are always delighted to answer, delighted to help which is really nice.
So everything we do requires a level of confidence. I guess confidence is something that women can be lacking, particularly in a professional setting. You just spoke about approaching people and asking them questions, how do you develop confidence in yourself? What would be your advice on fostering confidence in yourself?
I don’t really know, because it’s something I’m not really very good at! (laughs)
(laughs) She says unconfidently!
…I feel like it is something I have to work at every day and……and some times I am completely fine, like well no, this is a question I need to ask and this is the person I need to ask, and other times I hide behind the pillar in the corner because even though I really want to ask the question, I just cant do it…and I’m not really sure what the difference is. I think I get too inside my own head sometimes and just panic. I need to force myself to remember that most people do want to help so..... that you shouldn’t be that scared because most people will just be happy that you asked.
You’re working in quite remote locations, you’ve worked in other South American countries and Africa before this?
Yes, I had an internship in Panama and I worked in Namibia.
So how do you balance your family and friends and social life in a job that keeps you away from home?
It is hard…and I’m terrible at keeping in touch with people. It’s a lot easier now I have a smart phone and Whats App! Before when I had a sort of 'shatterproof brick' (old style phone), it was harder. Skype and Facebook were the only way. I try to go home twice a year to see everybody. But it’s definitely the hardest part of living like this, because you miss everything. You miss births and deaths and weddings. You do miss absolutely everything. So that is really difficult. But it’s worth it at the same time because everyone at home understands as well, why you’re doing it and what it means to you. Everyone is really supportive.
Have you…I mean you just said that everyone is really supportive which is fantastic, but have you ever had anybody make negative comments about the path you’ve chosen and the work you’ve decided to do?
Yes. It is really hard when you hear that sort of thing. I think it comes from a place of they just miss you, I guess as difficult and upsetting as it is to hear them say that, you can kind of understand why they’re saying that.
But that must be quite hard too? At quite a young age you made a decision to do this very big thing that would take you away from your family. Do you remember what it felt like to make that decision? Or did you just always know that it was something you wanted to do?
I think I always knew I would do it. I knew there was nothing at home that I wanted to do…and when I went away to volunteer for the first time at 19, that was it, I knew that was what I would do…and I think everyone at home knew that as well when I came back. They knew I wouldn’t stay after that.
Have you always wanted to be a primatologist? Has it always been the path you felt you wanted to go down?
No, no. I wanted to be a vet and didn’t get the ridiculous grades you need to get in, and then when I first volunteered in Namibia I wanted to work with large carnivores.... and had an absolutely horrible experience with the baboons that they had and didn’t ever want to see another monkey again!.... and then went back the next year and had to work more with baboons, and that was it. After spending a lot of time working with them and I stopped getting bitten by them, that was when I decided that was what I wanted to do.
I bet that kept your parents on edge working with baboons? Have you had any scary experiences in the field given you are working with wild animals?
Um, yeah, but never actually with the animals I’m working with, it’s nearly always been nearly stepping on venomous snakes! (laughs) yeah never anything with the ones I’ve been working with.
So there will be women listening to this or reading this transcript that are wanting to be a primatologist or at least do something field work related. What was your education leading up to where you are now? Did you do anything education wise in addition to your volunteer work?
Yeah my undergraduate is in zoology which didn’t really specialise in anything. But my Masters was Primate Biology, Behaviour and Conservation…and that was just the perfect stepping stone to get into this….and I wouldn’t have wanted to step into a job like this without having done that because it sort of laid the ground work and prepared me for everything really…the field work but also the writing side and all that.
Obviously that (the Masters) is very important for your job right now. In terms of the volunteering, when moving into a new career there is this balance between needing to have an education and having experience. How valuable do you feel those volunteer experiences are to become a primatologist?
Very. Very. I wouldn’t have gotten into my Masters if it wasn’t for the volunteering that I had done. I wouldn’t have got in. I didn’t enjoy my under grad degree, it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be and I just really didn’t like it and I don’t think I would have got into the Masters without the experience I had. But also, I think to live on a field site you need to have a certain understanding of what that means and I think coming in to live on a field site permanently without ever having volunteered on one is a mistake because it really is not for everybody. It is very difficult because you don’t have a social life. It’s the same, like your job and your social life and your family, like everything, it’s the people that you are there with and it's really intense and if you don’t have practice with that, it’s not even just about the work, it’s about the practise of the life itself. I think that is just as valuable as everything you need to learn about the animals and the science.
What do you think is the biggest misconception you’ve experienced about what you do that you would like to set right for anybody that wants to be a primatologist? Is there anything that you get frustrated at that you’d like to set straight?
I think people think it’s easy. Um I think people have seen that photograph of Jane Goodall reaching out her hand to a baby chimp and that’s what you do. You just walk out there and that happens. I don’t think people….I don’t think people appreciate that it is not a safari, and that its hard work and it's long hours and you’re not sitting inside an air conditioned jeep, you’re crawling under thorns and getting stung by wasps…and really, when you actually describe to somebody what it is you do it sounds awful. It sounds absolutely awful and people think why would you do that? But for….for that moment when you find them (the monkeys) and you get to watch them and you get that insight into their life it’s just worth it. It’s just absolutely worth it.
Just to inform our listeners and readers, when you started there (the reserve in Paraguay) the monkeys were unhabituated, which means they hadn’t had any human contact. So this has been a huge thing for you and ties into what you were just talking about. What was it like habituating these monkeys and where are you are at now with them?
It was a bit of a nightmare really. When I first arrived I would see them anywhere from, anywhere between 30 seconds to 2 minutes once every 2 weeks. Because it doesn’t matter where you are or how quiet you think you are, you can’t sneak up on them. They would just leave. They would just go and you wouldn’t know where they had gone. The only way to change that is to have neutral exposure to them so they realise you’re not going to hurt them. And they recognise faces, so every time they see someone new they react to that person as if they are a threat. It took about, I think it took 2 years until I was able to spend an hour with them, and now the only limiting factor to how much time I can spend with them is how difficult the environment is to actually move in, because they’re so fast and the undergrowth of the forest is so spikey. The only thing that makes me lose them now isn’t because they’re running away from me, it’s because I can’t keep up. Yeah, they’ve gone from screaming and running away to, I’ve had them come right down and try to steal my backpack before.
You have volunteers that help you, how do you balance that? Do the volunteers understand that it may not be an easy thing to do and that they may not see a monkey in every tree?
I think it’s something that even when you tell people, they listen but I don’t think they really believe you. They nod and smile and say “yeah, I understand, I understand”, but you can always see the slight disappointment in people’s faces the first time they see them and they do just run away from them. But that’s how they respond to everybody the first time and then the 2nd time they realise well that person didn’t hurt me before, I’ll have a look at them. And they'll start coming right down. And it almost makes it better because the first time it’s almost like they’re being told, no this isn’t easy, you need to work for it. Then the 2nd time they get the reward.
You’re a leader of volunteers and interns who come to the reserve that you have been working at, how have your interactions with those volunteers been? Other than convincing them that things take time, their interaction with you as a figure of authority, has it been easy? Have you experienced anything negative or even positive in those reactions?
The vast majority of interactions have been really positive. Especially now I’ve been here so long. But it was harder at the start because when you're new, it’s hard to convince people you know what you’re talking about. There have been occasions when people just don’t want to listen. I guess you get that anywhere, people sometimes think when they’ve only been in the country for a day that they know better, but it’s not like that for the majority of people. The vast majority of people who come out want to learn and recognise that the best way to learn is to listen to the instructions of the person who has been there a long time.
What about yourself, who do you look up to as a source of inspiration or motivation?
This is really cheesy, but probably my mum. Just because, I think the actual moment was when I worked in Namibia and she came out to visit. Where I worked was an animal sanctuary and it was basically her worst nightmare. On one of the final days, she came up to me and said “alright, take me into the baboon camp”. And I was thinking this is the worst idea and I said to her “they’re going to climb on you, they’re going to pull your hair, they’re going to bite you, they're going to rip your clothes, they’re going to go to the toilet on you and you’re going to hate it, why do you want to go in there if you’re going to hate it?” and she said “ well no, this is what you do, this is why I’m here, so show me what you do, take me in there”. And I was like…” ok, but don’t scream!”. And she didn’t. She sat on the floor in with them and let them crawl all over her…and it was just, well really weird but, knowing that this was something that made her really uncomfortable and was something that she never imagined in a million years that she could do, but she was there and she wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to do it or she would regret it ….and she wasn’t going to have that regret and even though it terrified her she did it.
Is she aware that you remember that so clearly?
I think she remembers the situation, but not what I took from it.
What about yourself? What’s next for you? You've achieved a lot so far. You’ve published a couple of papers with more to come, you’ve got projects in the pipeline and you’ve just started a PhD – do you have any plans for where you want to be or is it to continue what you are doing and find out as much information (about Paraguayan monkeys as you can)?
Yep, pretty much just continue. I mean my PhD is another 4 years so I haven’t really thought past that yet.
Reflecting back with the experience you have now, is there any advice you have for your younger self?
Probably just to get the confidence a bit quicker. Yeah, just to get over the fear of it faster.
What about for other women who hope to pursue primatology or field biology?
Just again, not to be scared. Almost don’t over think it….that sounds like terrible advice (laughs)… but I applied for this job without really thinking about the fact that I had to live in Paraguay. The fact that I had to live here didn’t really occur to me at all until I was already here and I was sitting in the bus station in Asuncion (Paraguay’s capital) and I was thinking, hmm, what have I done? But if I had thought about it too much I would have given an excuse, “well I don’t speak Spanish and I can’t learn and I’ve never been to South America” – I would have given a bunch of excuses and not done it and that would have been a mistake.
So basically take a chance?