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Interview with Fiona La Mendola - Primatologist and Conservationist

September 15, 2018

Interview with Fiona La Mendola - Primatologist and Conservationist

Fiona La Mendola, primatologist and conservationist, has spent years traveling and volunteering to improve the conditions of wildlife and primates worldwide. Gorilla Socks caught up with Fiona to hear more about her journey and to spotlight the work being carried out by activists fighting for animal conservation.


What made you so interested in primatology in particular?


While I always loved wildlife and primates in particular, it was when I volunteered at the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education (CARE) in South Africa that it became a career option. There, I was the primary care-giver of an orphaned baboon whose mother had been killed in a car accident. Even if I had cared for other baboons before, I had never been a full time human surrogate mother. The part of the process that I loved the most was when Niro, the orphan I was caring for, grew bigger and older and it was clear that this wild animal does not belong with humans. When you truly love a person, an animal, or an entire species, you want what is best for them. For wildlife it means leaving it free. After three months, the staff at CARE found a surrogate baboon mother and her adoptive family that would be suitable for Niro to be integrated with. Now, over a year later, Niro is happy in a big baboon family and in a few years, they will all be able to be released in the wild. This experience taught me the importance or the rescue/rehabilitation/release process and its complexity. You can’t just rescue and release a primate, there is a lot of science that goes into it and this led me to getting a degree in the field of primate conservation. 


When did your passion for conservation originate? Is it something you’ve explored for some time now?


As mentioned above, raising Niro is what triggered my decision to study primates and specialize in their conservation. However, I had always been passionate about wildlife and primates thanks to my parents who allowed me to travel throughout my childhood and always promoted ecotourism and wildlife watching in natural habitats. It is often a misconception that if you want to work with wildlife, you have to be a vet or work in a zoo. That’s what I thought as well until I volunteered in primate sanctuaries and realized that this passion could turn into a career. 


Why did you choose to not further explore topics related to your undergraduate degree?


When I was ten years old, I read a book about Jack the Ripper and was fascinated by the character. Ever since, I knew I wanted to work in criminology and in the social field. Stubbornly, and thanks to the support of my parents, I graduated twelve years later from the University of Montana in the U.S.A with a criminology and sociology degree. To me, every human being is capable of the best and worst. I wanted to rehabilitate inmates to allow them to exit an ever-so-flawed prison system in the hope of a better future. Unfortunately, it is difficult to obtain working paperwork in the U.S. and this specific field seemed to be prioritize U.S. citizens. When I first volunteered at CARE, the same year of my graduation, I realized that if I were to rehabilitate inmates, I would spend my life waiting for my time off work to go rehabilitate primates. After I realized that, it was an easy transition. 


What work are you involved in right now, and what makes it important?


At the moment I am finishing up my final master’s dissertation about the work I did in Gabon where I investigated the educational impact of the visits at the Projet Gorille Fernan-Vaz (PGFV) and how to optimize it. The PGFV rescues gorillas from the bushmeat trade and attempts to improve conservation through environmental campaigns and educational activities. I also got the chance to participate in the organization of activities with families from nearby villages thanks to the WAZA Nature Connect Grant they obtained. Until I finish the course and move on to my next professional adventure, I keep in touch with various primate conservation projects through social media and my friends working there. Conservation is a small world and a big family at the same time!


As a master’s student, what does your academic research investigate?


Doing the Primate Conservation Master of Science at Oxford Brookes University was one the best decision of my life and I cannot recommend it more. The professors are inspirational and well-respected in the field but there is a true bond and familiarity between them and the cohort, which makes learning fun. We get to choose our classes and the topics we write about, but they encourage us to broaden our spectrum and open our mind to other issues and points of view. We learn about human-wildlife interactions, captive management and rehabilitation, research methods, conservation education, wildlife trade, genetics, and get to conduct a research study independently. This year, we even got the chance to participate in the Primate Society of Great Britain conference in London with Jane Goodall and some of the world’s most inspirational researchers.


Are there any academic papers that you’ve read which highlight key issues you think we should be paying more attention to?


Two papers that I found interesting and challenging in that they discussed a point of view opposite of the majority were: 

  • Laudati (2010): This paper offers a much-needed critical view of ecotourism in Uganda that can be applied to many other countries. It highlights the occasions in which ecotourism has a negative social and economic impact on locals’ lives. Their argument is that Bwindi National Park has become a tourist attraction that is being kept somewhat wild and untouched to contribute to foreigners’ ideas of primitiveness. Unfortunately, this also means that this system contributes to local poverty and dependence on the, most often international, organizations that create and monitor conservation policies and decisions.
  • Kasereka et al. (2006): This study involves solely the eastern lowland gorillas living in the Kahuzi-Biega forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It discusses the connection between gorilla habituation and poaching. While habituation of gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega started in 1970, the eastern part of the country still suffers from the presence of armed forces and conflict in the area where gorillas live, making it particularly difficult to enforce anti-poaching and conservation laws. To conclude, the authors suggest that habituation of eastern lowland gorillas should not be expanded to other groups, especially since political unrest is still current, to prevent more gorillas from being vulnerable to poaching in case protection is compromised in the future.


What are your long-term goals as a primatologist?


The great thing about this field is that you constantly learn. Researchers are always making great discoveries that can teach us how to better repair the mistakes humankind is making. In the long run, I hope to never stop learning and in the same way, I hope to be able to pass on this knowledge to others around me, especially those who follow my work virtually but cannot physically follow me. As for a more personal goal, I would like to work in the conservation of eastern lowland gorillas in the D.R.C.


Do you have any global goals - for instance, would you like to encourage the wider population to take more of an interest in conservation, or would you be more content with focusing on your own personal work in conservation?


I always say that if you work in silence, you aren’t truly making a change. Being a true millennial, I did not escape the dependency to technology and social media. Fortunately, I believe that it can be a true asset for conservation education and environmental awareness. In the long-run, I am hoping that by sharing my work and stories about my travels through beautiful images, it will inspire more people to see environmental work as something that is as important as it can be ‘cool’. I constantly learn from the online community and it has created some great online bonds! I even found you guys! Ultimately, I believe that education is power and that outreach is the key. Social media is a great tool to achieve both. 


Have there been any major road blocks that you’ve had to overcome in your journey towards becoming a primatologist? Or has this been a relatively smooth experience?


The major obstacle that constantly comes up in my life, and always might, is the difficulty to be a conservationist and an environmentalist in all aspects of my life. Before becoming more environmentally conscious, I was ignorant about a lot of issues and from a selfish point of view, life was easier. Once you start learning about ecology you open your eyes on a whole new, realistic, and depressing world. You realize that every thoughtless act you make such as buying water bottles at the store instead of a filter and a reusable bottle has a major impact on our environment. Rapidly, you start seeing all the things that we are doing wrong and could easily change so you try to educate the people around you, which can sound annoying and judgmental at times. I never wanted to be aggressive in my journey to be an environmentalist because I am still not perfect and am still ignorant about the impact a lot of my choices have on our planet. I will add that constantly traveling and being environmentally conscious is a struggle. When you are always on the go and are always in different places with different resources and services, it is tough to carry around your Westerner vision of what should be done. Sometimes you have to adapt by using plastic bags, not recycling, knowing that your trash is going in a hole in the ground a few meters away, etc. At least we try, right?


I can see from your Instagram page that you’ve been travelling. Were you involved in any voluntary programmes while away from home? If so, could you tell me about them? Their goals, what they accomplished - and most importantly, what you did while out there.


In the last few years I have had three amazing homes in between visiting my parents in France and Argentina. In 2015 and 2016, I volunteered at CARE, a baboon sanctuary in the South African bush. This experience changed my life, as I mentioned earlier. The CARE staff rescues, rehabilitates and releases Chacma baboons and recently, they started an amazing educational program with local schools and communities. Besides being a primary care-giver, I was a tour guide for the small-scale ecotourism that was being initiated, I worked on enrichment with other volunteers, cared for the other orphaned baboons, and created a fundraiser for enclosure upgrades and weekly enrichment. 

In January 2018, I volunteered at the only primate sanctuary in all of Argentina, Proyecto Carayá. They rescue and rehabilitate black and gold howler monkeys and capuchins. The director, Alejandra Juarez, even dedicated part of her land for rescued street dogs. Working at Proyecto Carayá taught me how to conduct daily intra-group observational research as well as women’s power. Alejandra has been running Proyecto Carayá alone for over 20 years along with her two daughters. Their work has reached a point where it is truly making a change and raising awareness about howler monkey conservation in Argentina on an international level. 

Finally, for my final master’s dissertation, I conducted a research study in Gabon at the Projet Gorille Fernan-Vaz. There, I studied the educational impact of their sanctuary visits, ways to optimize it, and helped with educational activities with the communities of the nearby villages. The PGFV allowed me to participate in so much more than I had originally planned. I was able to truly connect with and learn from the Gabonese people about their local fauna and flora. Dr Nicholas Bachand, the PGFV executive director, works hard to encourage sustainability and capacity-building in the hope to achieve their goal of curving the bushmeat trade in Gabon. 


To stay up-to-date with Fiona’s animal rights activism, follow her Instagram at @allblackdahlia.

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