The Pros and Cons of Being a Primatologist

When you hear the word ‘primatology,’ there’s a good chance you’re picturing either Jane Goodall nose-to-nose with a chimp, or Sir David Attenborough huddled amongst mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

But beneath its romantic portrayal is a field so challenging, so diverse and so close to our own hearts (and DNA) that it couldn’t possibly be covered in just one interview. Instead, I asked three primatologists at different stages of their careers to give us the good, bad, terrifying and unforgettable realities of primatology.

Meet Kaitlin Wellens, PhD Candidate at George Washington University in the United States, Dr Kathryn Shutt, Programme Manager – Liberia with Fauna & Flora International in the UK, and Dr Alejandro Estrada, Senior Research Scientist at the Institute of Biology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Mother and infant mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.

Mother and infant mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Credit: Edrin Kondi.

It’s hard not to be awed by the connection between humans and non-human primates. What initially drew you to this field?

Kaitlin: I was first exposed to the field of primatology in my sophomore year of college, when I took a Human Reproduction class taught by Dr. Sonya Kahlenberg, a primatologist working with wild chimpanzees. I fell in love with learning about primates and pretty immediately knew I needed more.

Dr Shutt: I had a strong “Aha!” moment when I went to see gorillas in Uganda on my gap year. I just fell in love with the forest and coming face-to-face with these primal animals. At that same time, a friend was talking about research where chimpanzees were starting to walk upright. I just thought, `Wow, why, what!?` The questions about their evolution and biological changes just fascinated me.

Dr Estrada: When I was about 12 years old I spent a lot of my spare time off school and homework at the Mexico City zoo watching their collection of monkeys and apes. Fortunately, I lived only a few blocks away from the zoo and this made my visits an easy and regular routine. This is when my interest for primates was born. Later I became determined to become a primatologist.

Mother and infant mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Credit: Edrin Kondi.

Mother and infant mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Credit: Edrin Kondi.

How long have your worked in the field of primatology? What does your current job involve and what is your main focus?

Kaitlin: After my sophomore year of college, I interned at the Philadelphia Zoo and later at the Perth Zoo in Australia, working on studies on tamarin behavior. This was a great way to start learning the methodology involved in taking data, but I knew I wouldn’t be fully content until I got to work with primates in the wild. When I graduated from college, I headed off to the jungles of Palenque, Mexico for five months to study wild howler monkeys with Dr. Sarie Van Belle. This was where I first learned all the ups and downs of field work, but most importantly, that I was hooked, and this was not just a post-college adventure, but a career.

Now, six years later I’m in my third year of a PhD program at George Washington University. I am currently in Tanzania completing the field portion of my dissertation research, collecting behavioral data on wild chimpanzee mother-offspring relationships. I am interested in how maternal effects, such as maternal rank, behavior and proximity, influence juvenile chimpanzee social development and physiological stress responses.

Kaitlin Wellens observing chimps in Tanzania. Credit: Kaitlin Wellens.

Kaitlin Wellens observing chimps in Tanzania. Credit: Kaitlin Wellens.

Dr Shutt: I did my undergrad in psychology with a biology and anthropology minor. Between my second and third year, I volunteered in Borneo with a orangutan rehabilitation and release project and did my undergraduate thesis on orangutan behaviour at a local zoo.

During my research MPhil in primatology and conservation biology at the University of Roehampton, we had an introductory lecture on using hormones from poo. I was like, ‘Wow, I love poo!’ So I did my master’s thesis on social interactions and stress hormones with Barbary macaques in Gibraltar. Afterwards, I volunteered in a chimpanzee sanctuary in Cameroon for eight months, then got a paid position with ZSL in Gabon – where I was thrown in at the deep end of habituation for tourism as a habituation supervisor and then project officer.

I had some concerns around what we were doing without protocols and without knowing the impacts of habituation, which led to my PhD at Durham University. In early 2014, I joined Fauna & Flora International (FFI) first as West Africa Programme Coordinator and now as Programme Manager – Liberia.

Credit: Dr Kathryn Shutt/WWF/Durham University.

Credit: Dr Kathryn Shutt/WWF/Durham University.

Dr Estrada: I have been working as a primatologist for more than 30 years. I am a research scientist at the Institute of Biology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. I completed my PhD at Rutgers University in the USA. I was lucky to have been offered a job at the University of Mexico shortly after I finished my degree.

However, when I landed at the Institute of Biology in the main campus in Mexico City, I asked for my research position to be relocated at a university research field station located about 800km southeast of Mexico City by the Gulf of Mexico coast, in the mountainous and tropical rainforest region of Los Tuxtlas. The Director of the Institute of Biology asked me, “But why do you want to go there? There is nothing there but the tropical rainforest reserve owned by us (the Institute of Biology). Here you have an office and, if you want, we can provide you with additional space and a lab for your own use.”

I responded, “Thank you for your support and offer, but the reserve has something you do not have here, howler and spider monkeys. I need to be there to study them.” Fortunately, he understood my interest and vision and worked all the academic /administrative procedures so that I could move to the field research station Los Tuxtlas as its first resident scientist.

This how it all began and I have not left the field since then. This allowed me to develop my primate field research in full and, later, led me to expand to other areas of southeast Mexico, including the Yucatan Peninsula and northern Guatemala.

Dr Alejandro Estrada.

Dr Alejandro Estrada.

What is the worst or most challenging part of being a primatologist?

Dr Shutt: Often you’re away from your friends and family for long periods of time. At the same time, although you feel like you’re isolated from the world as you know it in these camps and remote places, you have literally no privacy. You live in very basic conditions and shower in streams and waterfalls – which sounds amazing until you just want to have a wash without people coming in.

In most primate range places there is a risk of tropical diseases and I’ve had just about everything (thankfully not Ebola) that one can get. You’re out there thinking, in some ways it’s so great to be so at one with nature, but you actually wake up dreading that you’re going to be run down by an elephant or bitten by a snake.

On top of that, there’s a feeling of guilt when you leave that surprised me. When you work somewhere for a long period of time, you form very strong relationships with the people and the animals – and then you just disappear, as much you can try to stay in touch. It gets heavy, leaving all the time.


Credit: Dr Kathryn Shutt/WWF/Durham University


Dr Estrada: From my view point, there is no worst part, but there are many challenges. For one, data banks on behavior, ecology and biology still are quite poor for the majority of the 600-plus species and subspecies of the planet`s living primates. Their habitats and populations are also rapidly declining as a result of human activity such as oil extraction, hydrological projects, conversion of forest to pasturelands, road building, hunting and the illegal pet trade.

Primatologists face these challenges on a daily basis. Study groups and populations may disappear from one field session to the next, signalling local extinction of species. In some cases even long-term study sites such as protected biosphere reserves and national parks are under pressure. But primatologists are resilient and try to meet these challenges by also investigating the social dimensions of conservation in primate range countries such as population growth, poverty, expansion of urban areas and regional and global economic demands for goods and services.

Wild primate in a treetop

Studying wild primates is a race against time as their habitats and populations rapidly disappear. Credit: Kaitlin Wellens.

What is the best part of being a primatologist?

Dr Shutt: For me, it’s sharing incredible wildlife encounters with incredible people. I worked with Bayaka pygmies for 18 months in the Central African Republic and they’re one of the most special groups of people I’ve ever come across. I felt so privileged to have had sat beside them in the forest every day observing gorillas and understand that part of their world – it felt like I jumped through a keyhole into another planet.

Dr Estrada: The best part of being a primatologist is being able to observe and learn in detail the behavior of the species of interest. While doing this one also gradually gains an intimate knowledge of the tropical rainforest and of its other inhabitants (plants and animals). Every day there is something new to discover about the behavior of our fellow primates and about the forest. Over time, you become aware that every day in the forest is like a well-orchestrated and delicate symphony in which primates play their own particular role along with other animals and plants. Human intervention can bring such symphony to a quick stop.

Black howler monkey in Palenque National Park, Mexico.

Black howler monkey in Palenque National Park, Mexico. Credit: Pauline Gabant.


Tell me about a terrible experience you’ve had in the field.

Kaitlin: One really frightening experience I had was when I was following a chimp before dawn. We were walking along a path that drops off steeply to one side when suddenly the chimp darts off to the other side of the path and into the bushes. I am still surprised that my instinct kicked in to just follow her, but luckily it did, because two seconds later two enormous bush pigs charged down the path. I screamed out to my field assistant who was behind me and we both managed to avoid being crushed. Another time I got several bees stuck in my hair and was stung repeatedly in the head and face.

Dr. Estrada: My only terrible experiences have been the few cases in my professional life in which I witnessed the disappearance of forests as a result of human activity, knowing that the monkeys that I had been studying were also gone.

Black howler monkey in Chiapas, Mexico. Credit: Kristi Foster.

Black howler monkey in Chiapas, Mexico. Credit: Kristi Foster.

Read about what it takes to be a primatologist, how to find career opportunities and what experiences are most valuable in part two of this blog post.

Editor’s note: Dr Shutt has been successfully cured of all tropical diseases and Kaitlin suffered no lasting harm from bees or charging pigs.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Wildlife