From animal care to project management: Charlotte Daniels’ path to protecting Great Apes

Have you ever looked back on your life and wondered how you ended up where you are now? You too? Join Charlotte Daniels, then!

Charlotte is a Primatologist based in Nairobi, Kenya. She currently works as a United Nations Volunteer for the UN Environment Programme, working on the Vanishing Treasures project and supporting the Secretariat of the Great Ape Survival Partnership (UN-GRASP).

If you’re wondering how she ended up in Kenya, working for the conservation of Great Apes… just keep reading and we’ll tell you everything!

First, let’s start from the beginning…

It all started with Charlotte’s undergraduate degree in Zoo Animal Management. She had always known she wanted to work with exotic animals. However, following a few short-term contracts in UK zoological collections, she quickly realised that zoos – whilst valuable contributors to conservation – were not the industry for her to fulfil her professional ambitions.

Zoos may have been out of the question, but her dream of working with wild animals, especially chimpanzees, was still very much alive. She just needed to find another way to fulfil it… and she did exactly that!

If by now you’re thinking ‘When did she become interested in chimpanzees and other Great Apes?’… According to Charlotte, there’s no inspirational story (she wishes there was), except for the fact that she just always liked them from a young age. She’s always considered them fascinating animals with incredible personalities. We can’t really argue with that, can we?

After completing her undergraduate degree and wanting to gain working experience with chimpanzees, Charlotte applied to volunteer for 6 months at Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Centre in Cameroon, a member of PASA (Pan African Sanctuary Alliance), which oversees and accredits sanctuaries in Africa.

Living in the deep rainforest in a (very) basic wood shed, although challenging, has been one of the best experiences of her life. Charlotte assisted in caring for the chimpanzees and other tasks to keep the sanctuary running.

Charlotte during her volunteer stay at Sanaga Yong.

Moving back to the UK, Charlotte got a job as a chimpanzee caregiver at Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre, one of the largest reputable primate sanctuaries in the world. She spent the next 4 years of her life there.

Although a lot of people think she had the best job in the world, it wasn’t always that glamorous. As Charlotte says, “Most of [my] time was spent cleaning enclosures and the rest of it was spent preparing feeds, administering medications, observing the chimpanzees’ behaviour and working on their rehabilitation”.

It was extremely rewarding, but very difficult at times – both physically and emotionally. Nevertheless, it was a great experience and she misses the time spent with the incredible animals.

Charlotte with the chimpanzees at Monkey World.

Working for the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) 

We now know how it all started, so let’s continue to Charlotte’s initial steps with the United Nations Great Apes Survival Partnership (UN-GRASP)…

Although Charlotte loved her job at Monkey World, she wanted to do more for the conservation of these animals. Thus, she decided to pursue a master’s in Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes University. Her dedication and determination led her to complete her studies part-time while working full-time at the sanctuary… during the COVID-19 pandemic!

While developing her thesis on illegal ape trade, she got in contact with the UN-GRASP programme manager. After an initial Skype call where Charlotte asked what opportunities there were for early career primatologists, she was invited to apply for an internship position. Not only did Charlotte get the internship, but she was also given a position in the Biodiversity, People and Landscapes Unit after it. She is now in her second year at the job!

Currently, Charlotte is a Programme Management Associate. Have you ever thought about what a day working for the UN may look like? Well, according to Charlotte, her days never look the same. Aside from supporting the management of projects – ranging from wildlife health monitoring to illegal trade – sometimes, you may find her doing administrative work (and maybe chasing one or two people down for financial reports…).

On other days, she might be developing contracts for partners and engaging with them on their progress. She also conducts research to produce technical papers and attends international events to discuss the future of Great Apes’ conservation. Talk about exciting roles, right?

At the UN compound in Nairobi.

Working on the front lines vs project management: which one does Charlotte prefer?

Charlotte has been debating this for some time. She really misses being in the field, however, she doesn’t consider her previous role as being on the front line. Even though she misses it, she loves her current job.

Whilst she had never previously had an office role (and hated the thought of it) she has been learning a lot and realising how valuable the work can be. Even the most basic things have been great to learn for her. For example, how to properly formulate a diplomatic email – which she reads 4 to 5 times before sending (that’s the imposter syndrome for you!). It’s as we’ve been told all our lives… it’s all about the simple things!

Charlotte is planning on staying in this role for some time. However, she is not done with fieldwork. In the future, she would like to work for an NGO – such as the Wildlife Conservation Society – where she can gain more experience working directly with communities and implementing projects on the ground. Let’s see what the future holds for her!

Charlotte giving a presentation on illegal trade database during Great Ape symposium in Uganda.

Working for the United Nations Environment Programme may seem like a dream job, but not everything is easy peasy…

“We have to constantly find funding to keep our projects running, and there is pressure from donors to deliver”. Hurdles, such as waiting for approvals or people to respond in a timely manner, can often slow down progress.

Charlotte explains that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many field projects came to a stop, and whilst work is slowly back underway, the pressure to achieve project outcomes is higher than ever.

At a workshop with a local community in Nkuringo, Uganda. Credit: Juvenal Mukeshimana.

Pathways to working with Great Apes (without breaking the bank)

I know… you’ve read all this and are wondering “Where’s the advice for someone to try to follow a path similar to Charlotte’s?”. Just sit back and relax because that moment has finally arrived:

What advice does Charlotte have for someone wanting to volunteer hands-on with Great Apes, but who cannot afford the majority of the available options? For her, that’s a tricky topic, as in her own words, “Some may say that conservation is for the privileged because many people simply cannot afford to pay to volunteer in most of the conservation projects available”.

She’s not wrong, but the fact is that most of these sanctuaries rely on volunteers for income to support their projects. Charlotte suggests looking at the PASA website for sanctuaries searching for volunteers, such as the project in Cameroon where she volunteered, for which she paid around 300$ for 6 months (not including flights and VISAs). Going through PASA also means you know the sanctuary is reputable, and not exploiting apes for profit.

Another piece of advice from Charlotte for those who can’t afford to travel for opportunities is to contact organisations who may need help remotely, for example, for their communication channels.

Keep in mind that sometimes you may have to find alternatives to get into the organisations you may want to work for. You may manage to help them within a certain area which may not be your end goal, but this contact may be important to fulfil your ambitions in the future.

Find a contact for the organisation you are interested in and email them, being honest with what you want. Don’t forget to pitch yourself when contacting them! Tell them what you can do and how you can do it! Also, don’t forget to read about the organisation and its work.

Charlotte also advises you to take advantage of any animal facility close to you. Email them and ask if you can help in any way in any role they need. Animal husbandry skills are transferable, don’t limit yourself to one specific species – Charlotte’s first job was working in a reptile and tropical fish shop!

And now… what’s more important? Experience or education?

That’s a major question but Charlotte believes experience wins the fight. We may be taught a lot in a classroom, but we won’t know what it’s really like until we are actually in the field (whatever that field is), doing it. “When you see things first hand, rather than reading about it in a book, you really come to understand the context of the conservation issues you’re trying to solve.

Charlotte handing out education certificates at Sanaga Yong.

Charlotte is more than willing to help any of you who may need help to get started in the conservation world, especially with Great Apes. Feel free to reach out to her because she’s been where you are, and she knows the importance of having people willing to help you reach your goals! You can connect Charlotte on LinkedIn.

And, in case you were so absorbed reading this inspiring piece and didn’t notice them, here’s a recap of important links for you to follow Charlotte’s great work for the Vanishing Treasures project and the Great Ape Survival Partnership (UN-GRASP). Plus, don’t forget to check the websites of Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Centre, PASA and Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre to know more about their projects and how you can help!

Charlotte Daniels is an example that you can get anywhere, even to places you never dreamt of. Just keep doing your best, look for opportunities and fight for the ones you want. Who knows… you may end up working with Charlotte in Nairobi!


Author Profile | Rita Soares

Rita is from Portugal and has a MSc in Biology: Biodiversity, Conservation and Restoration from the University of Antwerp. Her path in Biology was not immediate: a gap year led her to volunteer at an animal sanctuary where she found her true passion. Today, her focus is on animal behaviour and welfare. At Conservation Careers she hopes to help people who are lost in the conservation world, just trying to get a chance to use their skills to preserve our wildlife.


Interviews, Mid Career, Wildlife Carer, Project Manager