How a miniature monkey is changing Northern Colombia’s relationship with nature

Have you ever caught yourself feeling too small to make a difference? It’s a common experience among conservationists and, considering the severity of global issues including biodiversity loss, resource exploitation, and climate change, it’s not surprising we feel overwhelmed.

However, focusing on individual conservation stories it’s easy to see big changes can come from small beginnings. And who could be a better mascot for the small but mighty, than the catalyst for this particular conservation story: Colombia’s cotton-top tamarin.

Known locally by a suitably small name; the tití, these tiny monkeys weigh just one pound on average and are found only in one small region of tropical forest in Northern Colombia.

In the Northernmost corner of the tití’s range lies the city of Barranquilla where Rosamira Guillen, director of Fundación Proyecto Tití, grew up.

“City kids like me were completely detached from nature.”

Colombia is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, however this asset may sometimes go unnoticed by city dwellers. Living in Baranquilla throughout her childhood, Rosamira’s interest in nature was not particularly nurtured by her education.

“There was no environmental education back then,” she explains. “We had the basic natural science classes, but not so much about wildlife.” Even her school books featured animals from other continents, but no Colombian species.

Studying architecture at Universidad Autónoma del Caribe in Barranquilla, Rosamira became interested in combining architecture with climate and environmental science, and learning about ‘nature-sensitive’ planning and design. She earned a masters degree in landscape architecture, through a Fullbright scholarship with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. On returning to Colombia, Rosamira’s first job involved redesigning some exhibits at the Barranquilla Zoo.

It wasn’t until work began on the cotton-top tamarin exhibit that Rosamira, then in her twenties, first discovered this charismatic primate. She was shocked to learn that, though she had never even heard of the species, it is endemic to her very own homeland and, sadly, Critically Endangered.

A cotton-top tamarin in a tree carrying two baby tamarins on its back.

A cotton-top tamarin carrying two baby tamarins on its back. Credit: Joao Marcos Rosa.

“It’s our responsibility to do everything possible for the species to thrive.”

There are two main forces driving cotton-tops towards extinction: habitat destruction and illegal wildlife trade. Titís are particularly vulnerable to habitat loss since they only inhabit one specific region. Like many tropical forests, those in Northwestern Colombia are suffering deforestation for industries like cattle ranching, large scale agriculture, and mining, among others.

Meanwhile, their charismatic appearance and endearing size have made cotton-tops a popular target for the illegal pet trade. Often sold as babies, they are bought by locals due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of the species.

As the monkeys grow, they become more difficult to control and, realising they do not make good pets, people release them or hand them over to authorities. Although sometimes authorities confiscate illegal pets, a lack of funding and research has meant there is no official rehabilitation program for ex-captive tamarins.

Rosamira’s fascination and fondness for cotton-top tamarins stayed with her during her career at the zoo. In a twist of fate, she was later appointed as the zoo’s director. This led her to connect with Proyecto Tití, a research program on cotton-tops, and its founder, American biologist Dr. Anne Savage. Rosamira decided the tití would be the zoo’s flagship species, and over the next seven years dedicated herself to raising awareness through environmental education.

Anne Savage wanted Proyecto Tití to become a Colombian NGO and needed a co-founder to help with the transition. With her passion for cotton-top tamarins and her long-term experience with leadership, Rosamira made the perfect candidate.

Rosamira Guillen, who talks about careers in conservation leadership in this article.

Rosamira Guillen. Credit: Federico Pardo.

“The best decision I ever made!”

Rosamira volunteered as executive director at Proyecto Tití for four years before taking on the role full-time. Her work as executive director is centred around funding, strategy, and progress monitoring.

The organisation has four main objectives:

  • To protect, restore, and connect forests- providing habitat not only for cotton-top tamarins but for entire ecosystems.
  • To educate locals about tamarins- their importance and uniqueness, and why they shouldn’t be kept as pets.
  • To support communities- by offering alternative employment opportunities to reduce dependence on logging and pet trading, and by promoting more sustainable livelihoods.
  • Research- to monitor health of tití populations, recovery of forests, and public attitudes towards conservation issues.

Proyecto Tití relies on grants, awards, donations, and international partnerships for funding. It’s crucial to showcase the organisation’s work to potential supporters to secure funding and credibility. Rosamira sets goals for each area of the project’s work, plans strategies for how to achieve them, and reports their success back to supporters.

It’s a challenging but hugely rewarding role, she relates. The highlight of her job is getting to escape the office work and visit field sites to monitor the progress of education programs, forest restoration, and research.

“Conservation is full of challenges… but when you see the results of
what [the team] are doing in the field, you feel grateful and pumped up to continue. That’s why I love going into the field every so often.”

“The work you do is not only benefitting one species. It goes way beyond, to whole ecosystems, communities, and regions.”

The hard work of Rosamira and the team has certainly paid off. Proyecto Tití has made huge progress since its foundation. Twenty years ago, when Rosamira joined the project, it had only five staff members and one field site; today there are three field sites and the team is forty people strong!

This growth is matched by the project’s conservation achievements. Recorded incidents of trafficking titís has significantly decreased in areas covered by education programs. In the next few years, there are plans to take education projects to more urban areas, and across Colombia.

Public visibility of tamarins has increased, including in cities. They appear in murals, posters and, of course, the Baranquilla zoo. Four public, protected areas of forest habitat have been created, totalling over 5000 hectares. Funds have also been raised to double that area in upcoming years.

On top of these successes, Proyecto Tití has made ripples beyond the species it set out to protect. Forest restoration provides a lifeline to numerous species, and biodiversity has visibly thrived in the restored areas.

“When we’re protecting, restoring and connecting forests… the reason is cotton-tops, but that helps all of the other beautiful wildlife,” Rosamira explains. The team has had the privilege of seeing wildlife rebound thanks to their conservation work. “The other day we saw a porcupine, which I hadn’t seen in the past, and also snakes and beautiful birds…”

A healthy ecosystem also benefits people. Cleaner water sources, fewer natural disasters, and opportunities to make a sustainable living are just a few advantages local communities have gained through the protected forests. For example, all the Proyecto Tití field assistants are hired from nearby communities, fostering sustainable incomes, greater connection to the local environment, and a platform to promote sustainability in the community.

A local artisan holding up a handmade stuffed toy tamarin and smiling.

Local artisans in the village of Los Límites crafted Colombia’s first cotton-top tamarin
stuffed toys, promoting awareness while also earning extra income for the community. Credit: Carlos Capella.

“I think in conservation, you do have to be an optimist.”

The Proyecto Tití team has made an amazing impact over the past 20 years. However, Rosamira admits it is challenging work, requiring a lot of dedication. She emphasised the importance of passion and remembering the positive impact you are capable of having. “There are many challenges, you have to be passion-driven to be able to overcome the challenges.”

Rosamira added that optimism helps to remind us that small actions have the power to incite big change. “Challenges are many but every grain of sand you put on the pile adds up. Even though sometimes we feel our work is small-scale… it is making a difference for a community.”

Rosamira recommends using existing skills to one’s advantage to access the conservation sector. She shares that, while she never studied natural sciences, what she learned as a landscape architect has been very useful. “It’s planning … something that you want to make real. As an architect, you design a building and then you build it. That train of thought has been very helpful with conservation.”

Value in conservation can come with skills developed across many professions. “Conservation needs them all! It needs lawyers, communicators, scientists, educators, social scientists… the more diversity you have, the more chances of success- because you look at things from many different angles.”

Remember, everything must start somewhere. Building sustainable communities could start with trying to preserve one, small monkey. A career directing impactful organisations could start with a simple passion for nature.

Find out more!

A cotton-top tamarin in a tree, wearing a silver radio transmitter on its back.

A wild cotton-top wearing a radio transmitter for research and monitoring. Credit: Juliett González.


Author Profile | Freya Brodrick

Freya is an aspiring conservationist with a passion for environmental journalism and storytelling. She spends her free time volunteering remotely for environmental organisations, writing articles and managing communications. Freya is from the UK but loves to travel (as sustainably as possible). Her other hobbies include sketching and analogue photography.


Interviews, Senior Level, Organisational Manager