Working in Brazilian wildcat conservation with Flavia Tirelli
Flavia Tirelli is a Brazilian research scientist and conservationist focused on mammalian carnivores especially small wildcats. After completing her Masters at Federal University of Rio Grande o Sul (UFRGS) and her PhD at the private university (PUCRS) in Brazil, Flavia continues to follow her passion by monitoring wildcats and addressing issues of human-wildlife conflict that threaten them.
Flavia has since led the Geoffroy’s Cat Working Group and other community initiatives to heal human-wildlife conflict and conserve these rare carnivores. The key to Flavia’s success is community engagement and diversity within the conservation space and we talk all about her experiences as an ecologist in Brazil, and her advice for other people looking to follow a similar profession.
Born in southern Brazil where the temperate Atlantic rainforest meets the grasslands of Pampa, Flavia (she/her) was surrounded by exceptional biodiversity from a young age. Flavia explains:
“When I was very young, my grandfather always told me about the wildcats that lived in our areas and I was so curious about all of this wildlife around us, so I studied biology and graduated in 2007.”
Following this, Flavia did her Masters which finished in 2010 and then her PhD in zoology which she submitted in 2017. Today she is a collaborator professor at the Federal University in Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil where she advises masters students and PhD candidates, and works in the conservation of small wildcats.
“I’ve been working with the small wildcats since 2005 before I graduated my PhD, so I started as a researcher and fell in love with the study of their ecology, their diet and movements, habits, habitat selection and more of this kind of information that we can get from small wildcats.”
“One of the interesting things about the area where I am from, is that because of the mix of habitats, there are animals that are in the limit of their distribution in both grasslands and temperate forests which is very interesting – and we have eight species of wildcat here!”
As she was doing her PhD field work and speaking with local people throughout this area, Flavia realised there was often conflicts between the community and wildlife – and that distrust arose from a lack of knowledge of these species. And so, Flavia began working with environmental education, to share the importance of local wildlife for the community.
“So, I start to work with conservation when I notice that this environmental education is very important where I was working, and so I turned in that direction and today I’m part of NGOs here in Brazil such as Pró-Carnivoros Institute that focus on carnivorans conservation.”
Flavia is also the leader of the Geoffroy’s Cat Working Group (GCWG), and works on the conservation action plan for small wildcats where we discuss the actions we need to focus on in order to decrease the threats that impact on wildcats.
Addressing wildlife conflict with community engagement
“I think most ecologists love to be in the field alone, feeling the forest or the environment, but at the same time, it’s important to show the local community what you’re doing in order to get the best result.”
For Flavia, engaging the community in the field work she is doing to monitor wildcats is an important part of their conservation. She explains that when you are doing field work, especially when you are on private properties, you need to explain to people what you’re doing and ask for their permission – but this process is important for building relationships and knowledge of wildcats:
“You have to tell them what you were doing. Like what is this equipment, oh this is a camera trap, it makes movies about wildlife – and they are very curious. So, you explain you’re monitoring wildlife to do, say, density estimates and as you are talking with people and telling them and showing videos and they are so happy – they say wow, this cat lives here. I can’t believe it!”
“When we start to talk, people are interested and want to help – they call a friend to help us in the field. And so, these people are from around the area, so you already are doing education, conservation, and building trust within local communities!”
Flavia knows the importance of having local conservationists or researchers from the area where you are working and offering help for wildlife conflicts.
“People always trust a little bit more in people from their area than people from elsewhere and they tell you stories, teach you things that you don’t know because you don’t live exactly in that area and start to open to the conflict which is my objective – to understand if they have conflicts or not.”
“If they share they have problems with domestic animals like chickens, then I ask, are you okay? Do you know if some cats or other animals took them? And if he says, yes, I know there is a cat there, I ask if I can put up a camera up and then we can see if it’s the cat.”
If it’s a wildcat, Flavia and her team can find grants or money in the budget to help address these conflicts by building coops, sterilising dogs or taking other actions to mitigate the impact.
For Flavia, real science and conservation doesn’t just involve the tools like the camera traps or the audio recording devices. It’s all about those conversations, that engagement, and building trust with local people so that they can help conserve these wildcats as well.
“It’s important for conservation and also for building sustainable economies – and we can help communities to increase economically and also improve sustainability.”
In this way, everyone has a role to play in wildcat conservation and Flavia says a key to their success is in supporting an interdisciplinary team.
“We are learning all the time and when you don’t know things, it’s important to have a team with different focuses and expertise – everyone can help everyone and everybody can teach everybody.”
Working as an ecologist in Brazil
From Flavia’s experience, it can be incredibly challenging to find paid work in wildlife research in Brazil – instead you have to create your own job in a way and carve a niche out for yourself and your research as a professor or lecturer as well as a researcher.
“There’s just a few companies that hire researchers so this can be problematic for many graduates who finish their Masters or PhD with nothing, no job.”
To work within wildcat conservation, Flavia must also work as a collaborator professor in the university. Another option can be government-funded fellowships for conservation and wildlife research although these aren’t very common due to disinterest from the government in this field.
Most money for wildlife research in Brazil comes from grants and in this way, Flavia says you must submit your project and put aside a salary in order to create your own job within your passion and your region.
Flavia’s advice for a career in wildlife research
For Flavia, the first thing is you need to be focused and know what you want. Although careers in other fields may be more stable or easier to maintain, Flavia is a firm believer that you should always follow your passion!
“I think my main advice is to follow what you really love and try hard to focus on that. Like write proposals for grants. Explain what you are doing. Sell your project in a beautiful way – in the way that you see it. You are the best person to show how important your ideas are that will maintain you financially and at the same time you can do your work and explore with your research project.”
“The wildlife need someone passionate like you to help them. So, it’s an important job and it’s important to show people that it’s important.”
Keep in touch
Want to hear more from Flavia? You can send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her adventures on Instagram @flatirelli. You can also find out more about the Geoffroy’s Cat Working Group on their website or Instagram.
Author Profile | Susie Stockwell
Susie Stockwell (she/her) is a field ecologist, science communicator and creator of the blog and podcast, #itsawildlife, a platform to support people on their journey to work their dream job in wildlife science or conservation. Based on beautiful Menang country on the south coast of Western Australia, Susie is passionate about finding novel solutions for wildlife conservation and opening up the space to promote engagement and involvement for everyone interested in pursuing this career.
Main image credit: Felipe Peters / Geoffroy’s Cat Working Group.