Primates and family ties: Working with our closest relatives

In the world of primate research, few scientists get the opportunity to research both Chimps and Bonobos (our least studied close relative) in the wild.

Here researchers Miguel Adán Pascual and Daiane Galdino talk about their incredible field experiences in the African forests. They also discuss finding fieldwork opportunities together as a couple, as well as making life plans now they have a beautiful baby on the scene.

Miguel and Daiane first met while they were both completing their master’s degrees in Zoology in Madrid, Spain. Both knew they wanted to work with primates, so after a period of taking short-term positions – where they spent time gaining relevant skills and experience – they decided to start looking for primate-specific work in Africa or South America.

In December 2018 they made the move to Africa for a seven-month project – the first time they had worked together in the conservation field.

Chimpanzees in Sierra Leone

What did the roles involve?

The couple found a position with Tacugama – a chimpanzee rescue centre in Sierra Leone, Africa, with extensive community outreach, education and research projects. Here they were primarily based on an unstudied river island in the provinces of Sierra Leone for the duration of their project.

The project aimed to collect data to demonstrate that there was a population of wild chimpanzees and pygmy hippopotamuses on the island, as evidence to encourage the government to declare it a protected area.

As Field Coordinator, Miguel’s role involved building a dedicated team of local workers and training them to research the area. Together they set up camera traps to confirm chimpanzee presence, and also undertook a variety of other survey techniques including transects. The area was located between two protected areas, and If they were able to demonstrate that the two critical species were present, then this area could act as an important corridor between them.

While Daiane assisted Miguel in setting camera traps, completing surveys and collecting data for the project, she also helped with the outreach and education components of the programs to engage the local communities.

“I feel proud that in Sierra Leone we could demonstrate that there were chimps and pygmy hippos living on that island. I don’t know what the government did after us, but we were able to show them that these endangered species were there and I feel proud that the work was useful.” – Miguel.

Miguel and Daiane with the local community in Sierra Leone. Credit: Miguel & Daiane.

What was your experience in finding work together?

“We were aware it could be difficult to find a placement with two positions, so we took the chance to just apply for one – we never applied to anything that had two positions, actually. So we both tried to find a job hoping that the other might be able to show their usefulness or experience, and maybe the employer would be interested in having the two of us.” – Daiane.

When applying to work with Tacugama, both Miguel and Daiane were searching online for different positions. While Miguel was interviewed for the position of Field Coordinator, he spoke to them about Daiane and the possibility of her being employed as well.

Although initially they only intended to hire Miguel, he told them that he really wanted to work with his partner, and after a couple of weeks Tacugama got back to them with an offer to employ them both. Daiane explained, “I went to be his assistant actually. I was more like a helping hand, but we were both employed.”

Bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

The project in Sierra Leone was a short-term one and finished after only seven months. Consequently, they decided to look for further roles while they were still in Africa rather than returning to Spain. Once again both Miguel and Daiane applied individually, and once again it was Miguel who received a response first. He was invited to interview for a position researching Bonobos with the highly-regarded Max Planck Institute.

“When I did the interview, I was actually applying for what became Daiane’s position.  But they said that with my experience with camera traps and team management, they had another position that was perhaps better for me.” – Miguel.

Once they had explained the other position, which did in fact suit Miguel’s specialisms, he mentioned to them that Daiane, his partner, also had relevant experience. However, unlike their experience in Sierra Leone, while Miguel introduced Daiane to the organisation, they were impressed and suggested she apply for the original role.

She was hired based on her CV, experience and interview, and ultimately their roles were within separate projects. So, while they were based in the same research location, they had their own unique roles.

Miguel setting camera traps as part of his fieldwork in the Congo. Credit: Miguel & Daiane.

What did the work involve?

As part of the day-to-day tasks, Miguel set camera traps and led surveys in what he described as challenging conditions (the habitat was quite different from where they had researched chimpanzees). Daiane was hired by the Max Planck and Robert Koch Institutes to be in charge of the Bonobo brain project – set up to study the different morphologies of the brains of all great ape species.

Within the project Daiane was trained to conduct necropsies on deceased bonobos – which, she says, thankfully (in some respects!) were rare to come by. She was also trained to record behavioural data on the four communities of habituated wild bonobos, and to check the health of the bonobos – collecting urine, faeces and hair samples as well as undertaking other non-invasive scientific research.

The best thing for me, Daiane explained, was, “getting to know those animals and to have the opportunity to contribute to protect them and to learn from them.”

For Miguel too, it was memories of the animals that stood out…

“Staying there with wild bonobos was amazing. All these species, you know, you can learn about them from books or at the zoo, but to see them in the wild is incredible – and to see how they behave. So many things you’ve read before, but everything is new when you see them!” – Miguel.

A Bonobo in the forests of the DRC. Credit: Daiane Galdino.

What were your highlights in Africa?

For both of them, it was their time in the DRC which really made an impact. Miguel explained that on a personal level he was proud of how well they did in what was a tough situation and a very new kind of challenge.

But what they also found special was interacting with the local people they met while living and working in such a remote location for the year and a half of their study. In fact, the location was so remote that the project requires researchers to take a break from the research site every couple of years or so.

“To stay there with local people, who are always inside the forest, and don’t know anything about Western society, who don’t even see concrete or cars. To learn from them, spend time with them, chill with them was magical.” – Miguel.

And for Daiane? It is all about helping to increase people’s environmental consciousness and education, as “without learning we cannot win”. Like Miguel, she agrees that protecting the wildlife is as much about working together with local people as the animals.

“If you can teach one of them, just one person, take them to the forest and show them the importance of protecting the animals, that is a win, you know.” – Daiane.

Daiane with trackers in the DRC as part of her research. Credit: Miguel & Daiane.

Daiane shared that a lack of community engagement is how conservation sometimes goes wrong – as people have lost their vision. She explained that some in conservation forget why they are there and people get lost in publishing articles, getting recognised, or getting hired by the best university.

She says she has seen a lot of competition within the conservation field, and that this can be a problem. “Conservation can be simple,” she says; “you are there to teach people, and more than that to learn from them – and nobody is better than anyone else, you know”.

Daiane’s passion for the place, their experiences, the animals and the people is undeniable – ‘I can go on and on and on … ,’ she laughs, ‘I miss it so much. For me the best part was to be there and to learn from them and be a family, and teach them the little I know, that’s all.’

A key question for couples: would either Miguel or Daiane have gone to the DRC alone if the other had not been offered a position there?

There was some hesitation in Miguel’s voice as he answered…

“With Sierra Leone I could say no, because we had other options – there was also a position in Colombia, and other places. But for this, I don’t know. It’s a very tricky question because Bonobos are very special apes … So I don’t know if I would accept it or not. Luckily we didn’t have to make that decision!” – Miguel.

He emphasised that in the DRC in particular there would have been a lot to consider in this respect. It would not have been simply about the separation, but the lack of infrastructure to be able to communicate. The location is remote with no connectivity to support a long-distance relationship.

Is there any advice that you would give to couples in particular looking for field research positions together?

Daiane was the first to offer some advice based on their experiences:

  • Be aware of exactly what you want to do. Just as they had known that they wanted to work with primates, Daiane explained, you cannot just go in blind looking for positions and take whatever comes to you. You need to have some idea of what you want to focus on.
  • Having a similar background to your partner can help, or at least having similar interests so that your skills can then complement each other in the field.
  • Flexibility is very important. Daiane admitted that they were very lucky and that it won’t always be the case that you both find paid work. It may be necessary, to start, for one of you to offer your experience on a voluntary basis.
  • Professionalism is key. “You are going to be a couple in your free time – but above that you need to be professional”, she says. She acknowledges that an employer may have concerns about employing a couple, as if anything goes wrong in the relationship it can compromise the project. So you must demonstrate your professionalism at all times.

The areas they have worked in were ‘in the middle of nowhere’, where communication and resources were limited, and the work itself could be difficult and tiring. Daiane concluded, “You have to be safe, professional and clear about what you want to do – both as a couple and as an individual as well.”

Miguel and Daiane at camp in the DRC. Credit: Miguel & Daiane.

More general in his advice, Miguel emphasised that in going to these remote locations you need to be open-minded to the local cultures, and open to learning about the people there.

“You go there for conservation, but to help preserve those spaces you have to understand the people. You cannot go to a place and simply say “don’t hunt there” and not understand why they are doing that.” – Miguel.

He also added that as well as being passionate about the work that you are doing, you may also need to find your own way to where you want to be:

“Many times you know what you want to achieve, but you need to find another way to get there. You know that you want to arrive at point B, but there is no road to point B – you need to find the way yourself. You need to be proactive and passionate about what you are doing.” –  Miguel.

Leaving the forests and starting a family

Throughout our conversation their love of life in the forest was palpable. However, Daiane explained that after a year and a half in the DRC, when they were on the required break from their research, she became pregnant – a new and exciting challenge for them to adapt to.

In response, the couple returned to Spain, where Miguel is working for a private environmental consultancy and Daiane is currently a ‘100% mum’ – a whole new primate adventure! She is staying at home with their daughter at least until she is old enough for Kindergarden.

What does your work involve now?

Working as an ecological consultant, Miguel has transferred his surveying skills to a very different environment, with an emphasis on birdlife. Miguel explains that when a company wants to do construction on an area of land, he will undertake in-depth research and surveys – for perhaps one to two years – focusing on bird species.

Once the surveys are completed, the consultancy submits a report to the government, which then decides if construction will be allowed, or if measures should be put in place to compensate.

What’s the best part of the job?

While Miguel readily admits this is not his dream role, the positives about the role reflect those in his work abroad. The best part, he explained, is that he can stay in the field researching animals – the thing he really likes to do. Miguel also sees how governments are becoming more interested in ecology, and how construction is evolving to have less of a negative effect on birdlife and biodiversity.

“There is still a lot that needs to be changed in the long term, but it is changing. The government is more interested, and more importance is being placed on the environment. Surveys are important in order to say if the structures should be there or not, so it is a positive thing.” – Miguel.

The report recommendations are often followed, and in many cases when it says that an area is ecologically important, the government does say no to the proposed development. “The government takes what we say seriously,” he assures me; “it’s nice because they hear you.”

Bonobos. Credit: Miguel and Daiane.

So, what does your future in conservation look like?

While Daiane’s focus is currently on their young child, she is also looking to the future.

“To be honest, in the future I would like to find another project, maybe in another country. Not in Africa, of course, we need to bring up the baby, and the places we have been to in Africa, in our opinion, are not the right place for a young child, as they don’t have appropriate health care and resources.” – Daiane.

She acknowledged that they are fortunate to live in a place where they have the resources that they do, but her goal for the future remains to return to the forest and to do conservation work, and to meet and teach people. “Maybe in South America”, she considered. “Not now of course, but yes in the future – maybe in 3 years or so.”

And from your experience, do you think that would be possible?

“Yes, I think so. I’m from Brazil, so I believe South America has more resources, and often the forest is more accessible. In half an hour you can be back in a city, you know, In the Congo we couldn’t do that. In South America we could get to a hospital if we needed – in the Congo that would be impossible.” – Daiane.

And, as for Miguel, while he reiterated how much they loved Africa, with regards to the question of future plans he is open-minded.

“I cannot say. I don’t know. I am working in a totally different area than what we were before, so for now I’ll continue in that position. But let’s see what life brings us!” – Miguel.

To follow Miguel and Daiane, connect with Miguel on Linkedin and follow Daiane on Instagram @dainegaldino.


Author Profile | Claire Tyrrell

Claire is a wildlife enthusiast and keen amateur conservationist, and has volunteered long-term in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centres across Africa and Asia – largely working with primates. Having worked in the TEFL industry for quite some years (teaching, writing and editing) she now works for the National Trust in visitor welcome and volunteers when possible for the Hampshire Wildlife Trust.

Connect with Claire on LinkedIn.


Interviews, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Scientist