An interview with Mrinalini Watsa: new organization gives first time students a research and education opportunity in the Peruvian Amazon
While conducting doctoral research on tamarin reproductive biology in the Peruvian Amazon, Mrinalini Watsa realized she needed help in the field. Rather than hiring seasonal assistance she, along with Gideon Erkenswick, decided to create a life-changing non-profit organization, PrimatesPeru. The new NGO would allow students to conduct field research in one of the most biodiverse, yet threatened, places on Earth.
“Gideon and I both realized that there was no way we could accomplish all that we wished to do without asking for help – and so PrimatesPeru was born,” Watsa told mongabay.com in a recent interview.
PrimatesPeru’s students are made up of people from a variety of backgrounds, a wide range of ages, and stemming from all over the world. Rather than selecting based solely on prior experiences, PrimatesPeru is most interested in a willingness to learn and pursue accomplishments after completion of the course. This allows for the organization to help others, while others help them.
Gene Estrada, perched in the limbs of a mid-sized tree, during tree-climbing lessons as a part of a field course. Later he would summit an emergent tree, nearly 30 m tall, once his training is complete. Photo credit: Gideon Erkenswick Watsa
“Both Gideon and I remember what it felt like to want to join a field project – to view the requirements and see that prior experience was a must – and to feel the frustration that one could never get one’s foot in the door because no one wanted a first-timer,” Watsa said. “So we made a pact to accept those who demonstrated keen interest and a sense of integrity, and it was the best decision we made.”
The program’s original research focused on genetic chimerism in wild tamarins, a fascinating phenomenon where an individual can essentially have more than one set of DNA caused by the fusion of two zygotes. Previously this phenomenon had only been studied in captive primates, which have limited genetic diversity. “So, in order to be really certain of the effects of chimerism, one has to study them in the wild,” Watsa noted.
Although much of the focus is still on tamarin biology, PrimatesPeru has expanded to studying other aspects of primates and even offers hands-on experience in other branches of zoology including ornithology, entomology, mammalogy, herpetology, and botany. Ultimately, whether one studies tamarin feeding ecology, tuberculosis in small mammals, parasites in primates, or anything in between, they will be exposed to PrimatesPeru’s strict ethical standards, “which does not allow for destruction of life, even that of an insect, for the purposes of teaching,” according to Watsa.
However, studying primates in southeastern Peru is easier said than done.
Brian Saway observes leaf cutter ants in an exercise on ant behavior, which have remarkably carved out a visible path that leads to the colony’s nest. Photo credit: Mrinalini Erkenswick Watsa
“You have to first habituate them to human presence, then convince them to consume some kind of food bait (in our case a banana), then conduct a capture-and-release program on them to give them individual identities and collect genetic samples noninvasively, and then completely alter your working day to fit their waking hours,” Watsa explained. To add to this, contrary to common belief, Neotropical primates do not normally eat bananas. “Not only is the banana an Asian fruit, but it is not at all natural to their forest and even though they were starving, they were very hesitant to even try it!” she added.
Despite the difficulties that may be associated with tropical field research, Watsa believes that “there’s no more challenging or rewarding existence than that of a field scientist,” especially in a place as impressive as the Amazon rainforest.
“In those moments when you have slid down a ravine, lost your backpack, accidentally landed on some ants who are not amused, and realized that you have yet again been outwitted by a 300-gram primate, you will look up to see that you are now amongst a group of gorgeous trumpeters, and you will laugh and pick yourself up and try to find your monkeys again,” said Watsa.
Although PrimatesPeru is not an official conservation organization because they do not have a full time presence in Peru and do not directly participate in any conservation projects, they have a definite indirect impact on rainforest conservation in the region. The Amazon Conservation Association, which runs PrimatesPeru’s main field site, El Centro de Investigación y Capacitación Rio Los Amigos, or CICRA, relies on fees for continued protection – many of which are provided by PrimatesPeru. In addition, PrimatesPeru provides hands-on education, showing their students the importance of tropical rainforests.
The processing tent set up at dawn in anticipation of the health assessment of a group of tamarins at CICRA. Within the tent, a team of five researchers, including students, will work with a group of 3 to 8 tamarins in a single day. Photo credit: Ishaan Raghunandan
“Ultimately, we share in one very important goal with the Amazon Conservation Association, and that is the raising of awareness of the importance of conserving the region and the simple fact that we can bring 60 to 80 new faces to their site each year means that we are able to send that message out to that many new people a year,” said Watsa.
Despite its recent establishment, PrimatesPeru’s alumni have gone onto achieve success.
“[The students] go on to do a whole range of things after our program, and we’re proud to recommend them to future employers,” noted Watsa. “One alumn managed a large spay-and-neuter program for many years, while others have joined graduate schools (both Masters and PhD programs), become veterinarians, turned traitor and gone off to study primates in Madagascar, or worked on improving conditions for animals in captivity. We are so proud of them all and excited to grow this network of caring and compassionate individuals.”
With the recent creation of PrimatesPeru’s umbrella organization, Field Projects International, and a scholarship program, Watsa and the team are poised for growth into a larger and more impactful organization. Watsa has plans for a wildlife film course, taught by experienced filmmakers, and possibilities for courses to take place in India in the future.
In a 2014 interview with mongabay.com, Mini Watsa discussed PrimatesPeru’s beginnings out of a crowdsourcing fund, how wearing all the contents of your suitcase on your back can lead to unimaginable rewards, and the goals for the future of the organization.
Traveling to CICRA up the Madre de Dios River in southeastern Peru with research assistants and principal investigators. Photo credit: Ishaan Raghunandan
AN INTERVIEW WITH MRINALINI WATSA
Mongabay: What is your background?
Mrinalini Watsa: PrimatesPeru was founded by Gideon Erkenswick and myself, Mrinalini Watsa, in mid-2009. At the time, Gideon was a sociology major working in non-profit development, while I was a graduate student embarking on the major data collection phase of my research on tamarin reproduction and genetics in Southeastern Peru.
Since then, I have completed my doctoral research on tamarin reproductive biology and I now split my time between postdoctoral research for the Melin Molecular Primatology Laboratory in Washington University in St. Louis and non-profit management and development via PrimatesPeru, which is now an incorporated non-profit. Gideon returned from 10 months in the rainforest, forever altered by the experience, and is now conducting his doctoral research on parasitology on the same population of tamarins.
Mongabay: Why primates and why Peru?
Mrinalini Watsa: The organization was begun in the hopes of transforming what was initially a single student’s doctoral research into a long-term research project that collected data on a population level. The site in Peru where the work was to take place is called El Centro de Investigación y Capacitación Rio Los Amigos, or CICRA, and is managed by the Amazon Conservation Association, who have provided us with fabulous support over the years. The original research project investigated a fascinating phenomenon found in callitrichids (diminutive primates called tamarins and marmosets, endemic to Central and South America) called genetic chimerism.
Chimerism is a product (unintentional or not, we still don’t know) of habitual twinning (more than 85% of the time) in callitrichids. These twins are typically fraternal, which means that two zygotes were fertilized by two separate sperm cells. Each embryo is therefore quite distinguishable from the other based on its genetics. However, early in development, the outermost layer of both embryos develops a sort of fusion, which results in a shared blood flow between them. As the blood supply now intermingles, upon occasion, a few cells slough off from one embryo and attach to the other.
Students gather around as a motion-sensitive camera trap is placed in the forest on a commonly used trail. Photo credit: Ishaan Raghunandan
In other animals, this can cause all kinds of side effects, from infertility to birth defects that result in one fetus dying, but in callitrichids, remarkably, the new cells are often accepted. These cells then become a part of the embryo, despite having originated from the sibling, and twin infants are successfully born that are basically (genetic) combinations of each other. So when you fingerprint a callitrichid, you get a muddled signal, consisting of both self and sibling cells. Most incredibly, if the cell that moved over from one embryo to the second then became the cell that gave rise to all of the eggs or sperm for the second embryo – it is actually biologically feasible that the second twin, in its lifetime, gave birth to its sibling’s babies and not its own!
These and other remarkable possibilities that surround chimerism have inspired both Gideon and I in keeping this research project alive, five years after we first began.
I also began conducting research on this phenomenon in wild callitrichids because, thus far, it had only ever been studied in captivity in one species in particular. Captive populations make for incredible study subjects in terms of the kind of access one can have to the animals, but they are often founded on a few individuals, which creates a strong genetic bottleneck. That means that most captive colonies of marmosets or tamarins are all very much like each other in terms of their genetics. So, in order to be really certain of the effects of chimerism, one has to study them in the wild.
I ended up picking Peru over other locations initially for an unusual reason – the then director of the field station, Nigel Pitman, responded to my query to come to visit in three hours flat. He was so incredibly helpful and such a fount of knowledge and advice that I conducted a pilot study at CICRA in 2008. I’ve never had reason to leave since then, and our work now is well-established at this site.
Two pumas captured on a camera trap during the summer 2014 research season, the offspring of a pregnant cat noticed on other traps a few weeks earlier. Photo credit: PrimatesPeru
Mongabay: What is the mission of PrimatesPeru and what led to your decision to start the organization?
Mrinalini Watsa: In 2009, when Gideon and I basically moved all our earthly possessions into a friend’s basement and decided to move to CICRA and live there for 10 months, we were facing the daunting task of attempting to study as many sets of twins we could find at the field site. However, studying primates in the wild is no easy task – you have to first habituate them to human presence, then convince them to consume some kind of food bait (in our case a banana), then conduct a capture-and-release program on them to give them individual identities and collect genetic samples noninvasively, and then completely alter your working day to fit their waking hours.
To top it off, these animals are tiny – about the weight of two and a half apples each – and they enjoy living under the rainforest canopy and sometimes in it, which is usually very backlit. One of our students once commented that it was much like trying to follow black rats running around at the top of twenty-meter high trees. To top it off, and this might be quite a surprising fact to most people, but South American monkeys do not eat bananas by default. Not only is the banana an Asian fruit, but it is not at all natural to their forest and even though they were starving, they were very hesitant to even try it!
Gideon and I both realized that there was no way we could accomplish all that we wished to do without asking for help – and so PrimatesPeru was born. First, a crowdsourcing effort brought together enough funds at a much-needed time, right in the middle of the global recession. And second, a small tentative call for help on the internet resulted in a flood of requests to participate from so many qualified students that we were almost forced to structure ourselves better into a fully functioning field research organization to accommodate the students who wanted to come to join the project. We were blown away by the interest, and after the first season in which we worked in eight wonderful students, we were also blown away at how effective and productive they were, and how much we were able to give to them in terms of an experience like none other.
Over the next five years, we focused on firming up an administrative setup to support student interest in this research experience, and today, we are able to bring in 20 research assistants and nearly 45 other students on field courses to the Peruvian Amazon.
A view of the rainforest canopy from a 60 meter tower at CICRA, watching the sun set and birds fly home to roost. Photo credit: Ishaan Raghunandan
Mongabay: Which aspect of primate biology is your group most interested in?
Mrinalini Watsa: Today, our work has expanded to incorporate a large variety of research aspects, and although most of them focus on the tamarins, we now work with the remaining primate species at this site as well. The tamarin research focuses on space use, feeding ecology, demographics, reproductive biology, genetics, vocalizations in the context of inter-species communication and anti-predator behavior, infant care, and health and disease.
We are also working on a primate community health project that attempts to assess the parasite load present in all primate species at the site, and the likelihood of overlap between primate species in the types of parasites they carry.
We are also about to embark on a large collaborative project on identifying the origins of tuberculosis, where our research group is collectively searching for tuberculosis in ancient DNA from hominid fossils, several extant primate populations, as well as armadillos and other small mammals that are thought to be reservoirs for the disease. On our part, PrimatesPeru will begin sampling for tuberculosis from small mammals and the tamarins at CICRA next year (2015).
Students can thus pick from three to four research projects each year, some that bring them in close contact with the primates for the annual health screening, and others that get them following up to 13 groups of tamarins at the site. The really great thing is that their participation never ends at that point – they then become part of an ever-growing alumni network that spans students with interests in wildlife biology, veterinary science, graduate research, and more. Many of them remain as volunteers with the organization, and participate in data analyses conducted remotely from their homes, since participants have joined us from all over the world (eight countries and counting!) at this point. These long-term volunteers get trained in database management, statistics, and even participate in authoring publications and reports on our findings.
Mongabay: Where specifically does PrimatesPeru offer courses? Why did you choose these locations?
Mrinalini Watsa: We currently offer courses at CICRA, but our future plans involve expansions to several different locations. The most exciting of these, is the option to begin doing some courses in the incredibly biodiverse forests of Kerala, a state in southern India.
The courses themselves are quite unusual in that students spend 92 percent of their time or more outside a typical classroom setting. They get hands-on experience in a variety of aspects of natural history – learning ornithology, entomology, mammalogy, herpetology, and botany – with the additional advantages of being on site where long-term research is conducted on some primate species. For example, the tamarin research involves placing radio collars on one individual per group each year, and so during the field courses, we are able to train students in radio telemetry – or how to locate animals using the signals given off by their collars. In addition, the courses offer them the opportunity to track these identified and habituated primates, and get closer to them than they would ever be able to do otherwise. They learn to navigate off-trail, climb into the canopy of the tallest rainforest trees, and to respect our strong code of field ethics, which does not allow for the destruction of life, even that of an insect, for the purposes of teaching.
So our primary location for courses is at CICRA, but in expanding to other sites we consider factors such as access, authenticity or the pristineness of the environment, local researchers and existing research projects. Wherever possible, we try to use the data collected by the students on the course to complement datasets maintained by the field site in question.
Mongabay: Your website stresses that research as a tropical scientist is often difficult and uncomfortable, but it is worth it. Can you elaborate on this?
Mrinalini Watsa: Tropical field research is both painful and rewarding and to us, the rewards far outcompete the pain – but this isn’t everyone’s take on the situation. Attempting to reach your fieldsite with technical equipment causes obstacles from the very beginning – weight limits on flights or complicated conversations with customs officials who have never heard of radio collar tracking equipment. On our trip in 2009, our airline refused to check in an extra bag for each of us, despite our being willing to pay the excess fees. So we re-packed in the airport and ended up wearing several pairs of trousers and T-shirts, one inside the other, our hiking boots over multiple layers of socks, and carried over 60 lbs each as hand baggage.
Once at the field site, we spent five months coaxing the tamarins into eating bananas, which tested the very limits of our determination and patience. Hours of our lives, and those of the rest of our team, were spent crawling through nail-biting climaxes as tamarins sniffed, licked, but never actually consumed a banana. Once that obstacle was surmounted and they learned from each other that bananas were wonderful, they had to become accustomed to the baited traps. Only when they were perfectly accustomed would we capture them, to conduct a thorough examination, and release them the same day. It was absolutely critical that we be able to follow them after the capture process, which transformed the entire protocol we used.
The new protocol, which is currently in review in a primatology journal was created by a joint efforts of students and ourselves, to effectively ensure that the health examination would not result in the animals fearing us in any way. To accomplish this, we carry all of our equipment into the forest, to the baited site, which is located in the home range of the target group. It takes five people eight hours to process a group of tamarins, and on at least two-thirds of the days we are out there, conditions are not ideal for capture.
In short, we make ourselves extremely uncomfortable in order that the animals be minimally disturbed. At the end of six weeks of days that begin at 4 AM and end at 9 PM, we will have completed health checks on about 70 animals across two tamarin species that year. To us, the ultimate reward comes at two specific moments – first, when an animal that has been captured in a prior year, re-enters the trap in a subsequent year without hesitation and second, when the animal is released after processing, and it goes directly back into the same trap in which is was captured that very morning, to feed contentedly on bananas, without fear of its observers.
In between all of this, there is the sheer joy of waking up to the melodious melee of birdcalls each morning (567 species and counting at CICRA!), quickly locating a sleep tree of the focal group for the day to welcome them as they wake up, following the endless soap opera of their lives, returning with too many stories to share with one’s team of rare encounters with other charming creatures, and finally going to sleep to the soft whooping of a night monkey outside your window. In those moments when you have slid down a ravine, lost your backpack, accidentally landed on some ants who are not amused, and realized that you have yet again been outwitted by a 300-gram primate, you will look up to see that you are now amongst a group of gorgeous trumpeters, and you will laugh and pick yourself up and try to find your monkeys again. It’s a series of ups and downs, but there’s no more challenging or rewarding existence than that of a field scientist.
Mongabay: If someone could only take home one skill or piece of knowledge from PrimatesPeru, what would you want it to be?
Mrinalini Watsa: I would want it to be the idea that our backyards are connected – a beautiful phrase that I learned from Nigel Pitman, who lived for five years at the site and together with his wife, raised two little girls there. I would like for students to never once consider their lives or fates to be separate from that of the rainforest or the other wildlife on the planet. I would want them to always consider to give back in some way, even if field biology never ends up being a part of their lives. I would also want them to consider all aspects of the world around them and to realize that they need not be in the rainforest to enjoy nature. I would hope that they would be able to see the fascination in an ant colony moving into their kitchen, instead of considering it solely a nuisance to be eradicated. Most of all, I would hope that they could spread their appreciation for all life to the others around them – not by being critical of others – for that rarely results in change – but by celebrating the joy in living a considerate life. Living life with compassion, and acknowledging the right of other species to a peaceful existence on this planet, can only come from humbling yourself – and I hope that their experience with PrimatesPeru does that for them.
Field team 2014, exhibiting their excitement at posing for the team photograph at the end of the field season at CICRA. Photo credit: Ishaan Raghunandan
Mongabay: What is the typical background of your students and volunteers?
Mrinalini Watsa: Our students and volunteers are a varied bunch, and the one thing that ties most of them together is the fact that they have never ever done anything like this before. Both Gideon and I remember what it felt like to want to join a field project – to view the requirements and see that prior experience was a must – and to feel the frustration that one could never get one’s foot in the door because no one wanted a first-timer. So we made a pact to accept those who demonstrated keen interest and a sense of integrity, and it was the best decision we made. We really believe that all of these students can do everything the program has to offer, irrespective of their backgrounds, and we invest time in them, which pays off in so many ways, not just to the benefit of the project. Our students range from ages 18 to 54 (yes! we have no upper age limit if you are willing!), and the bulk of them are current undergraduates, or recent graduates. They have majors that include international studies, biology, ecology and evolution, anthropology, and veterinary science. They go on to do a whole range of things after our program, and we’re proud to recommend them to future employers. One alumn managed a large spay-and-neuter program for many years, while others have joined graduate schools (both Masters and PhD programs), become veterinarians, turned traitor and gone off to study primates in Madagascar, or worked on improving conditions for animals in captivity. We are so proud of them all and excited to grow this network of caring and compassionate individuals.
Mongabay: What are the major threats to Peru’s primates?
Mrinalini Watsa: The major threats to Peru’s primates are the same that other species in the area face. Where we work, the single most egregious threat has been gold mining, which utilizes mercury to extract gold from the silt of a tributary of the Amazon that flows right by our site. Given the remoteness of the area and the abundance of gold, not to mention the ever increasing, consumer-driven, price of gold, there is a definite aura of the Wild West to some parts of southeastern Peru.
The mercury contaminates the air and the rivers, while the beckoning allure of gold without much effective government supervision has tempted people to pour into the area from far and wide to make their fortunes. Forest is cut down, rivers polluted, and animals hunted to keep these people alive. Many come from areas without forest, and have scant respect for the land they now live in, but this is by no means a product of the greed of one segment of the population. They are merely surviving and have the right to do so as well. This makes it a very complicated problem indeed, and as of very recently, the government has begun the formalization of mining permits in a manner that has indeed reduced the amount of illegal mining in the area. However, artisanal gold mining still remains, until today, one of the largest threats to the wildlife in the area.
In other parts of the country, other threats include palm oil plantations, oil mining, agriculture, hydroelectric power, and the pet-trade. Peru’s challenges are not that different from those facing other rainforest giants such as Brazil, but we are ever hopeful that it will find solutions to many of these issues before its biodiversity is threatened much further.
An emperor tamarin (Saguinus imperator) waits for its identity collar, the finishing touches to which are being conducted in the background. All team personnel wear gloves and masks to prevent any kind of disease transmission from humans to the primates or vice versa. Photo credit: Ishaan Raghunandan
Mongabay: How can a volunteer and education non-profit organization like PrimatesPeru improve conservation of Peru’s natural areas? How about with the social aspects of the area?
Mrinalini Watsa: We are not by definition a conservation organization because we do not have a constant presence in Peru, and we are not involved in the direct conservation of any particular habitat. That kind of conservation in the area is being addressed by a number of remarkable organizations, such as Fauna Forever and the Amazon Conservation Association. However, we have a strong indirect impact on conservation that we are proud of and that we are committed to.
Amanda Murti and Mary Prestifilippo rejoice at locating a test radio collar during the radio telemetry module of the field course – they will eventually go on to track wild primates wearing radio collars once they learn how to operate the telemeters using larger more visible targets. Photo credit: Mrinalini Erkenswick Watsa
The Amazon Conservation Association, which runs CICRA, is reliant on funds brought in by visitors to the site to provide it with protection. For example, the ranger station they established at the mouth of the Los Amigos River prevents access to some 360,000 hectares of rainforest within the buffer region of Manu National Park. By consistently bringing students to this site, in reliable numbers, we ensure that it remains financially viable. Over 40 percent of our program revenue, for example, is transferred directly to the field station for on site fees. We also share our findings, sightings, and research with them, which allows them to justify leasing the land each year from the government to remain a conservation concession.
Ultimately, we share in one very important goal with the Amazon Conservation Association, and that is the raising of awareness of the importance of conserving the region and the simple fact that we can bring 60 to 80 new faces to their site each year means that we are able to send that message out to that many new people a year.
One program we are most proud of that is just kicking off this year is our scholarship program. Our upcoming field course now has four students who are attending on PrimatesPeru scholarships that come from Brazil, Mexico, and Peru. This means that nearly a third of the course consists of students on scholarship. Our ultimate goal would be to raise funds to support scholarships to students to attend both our courses and our research assistantships at this level. We might not get there this year, but we are certainly going to give it our best shot!
Mongabay: Which PrimatesPeru accomplishment or moment are you most proud of?
Mrinalini Watsa: I think we will always be most proud of our students – every year, we take a team picture at some point in the summer, to which each group brings its own particular flair. I have always felt most proud of our accomplishments at that moment – knowing that no matter how difficult it has been for these students to leave their comfort zones and come to the middle of the rainforest to be challenged every day, they will always have great memories and wonderful camaraderie with the rest of their group. Whatever they do in the future, I know that the time they spent with us will count, even in a little way, and I cannot but help feel really thrilled by that!
The three principal investigators in season 2014 – (left to right) Mrinalini Watsa, Efstathia Robakis, and Gideon Erkenswick – wait for tamarins to enter the traps. Mrinalini and Gideon are operating strings that manually control trap doors, to avoid any unintentional captures, while Efstathia is recording tamarin vocalizations for a study of alarm calls and interspecies communication. Photo credit: Ishaan Raghunandan
Mongabay: What can we expect for the future of PrimatesPeru?
Mrinalini Watsa: We can guarantee that our future holds a lot of hard work and some expansion into new sites and projects. We are very excited to announce the formation of Field Projects International, set to launch in January, which is to be an umbrella organization to PrimatesPeru. While PrimatesPeru will continue to work with all things Peruvian, FPI will incorporate other sites and research interests that go beyond Peru and primates alone. We are to launch opportunities for teaching also to other field naturalists who would like the chance to share their expertise but have not the structural foundations to do so.
One of the most exciting collaborations to come forth next year is a course in wildlife filmmaking, taught by Robin Cox and Keshav Sishta, both experienced filmmakers. Robin has assisted us in the past when our research on emperor tamarins was featured in BBC One’s Monkey Planet, earlier this year. This course will be the ideal opportunity for someone to gain experience from both nature filmmakers and experienced biologists – to emphasize both technique and encourage serious discussions on the ethics of filming wildlife. We think that this discussion is extremely important in light of the Discovery channel’s latest production on anacondas, a portion of which was filmed at CICRA.
Monkey Planet trailer for BBC One.
Full disclosure: Mini Watsa is a contributor to Mongabay under the Mongabay Reporting Network. Her work with Mongabay had no influence on this interview.
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