Amanda Harwood

Name: Amanda Harwood
Age: 30
Job Title:
Primate Release Project Manager

How did you get into the world of primates?

I get asked this question a lot, and I never really have a definitive answer. This might sound like a very typical, cheesy answer to this question, but since I was little I just loved primates. My childhood bedroom was covered in pictures of them; I must have every stuffed animal monkey out there; my Bat Mitzvah (the Jewish right of passage when you turn 13) was primate themed. I think my parents thought, and maybe hoped, that it was just a phase, like when kids say they want to be a ballerina or a cowboy. But nope! I stuck with it. And soon my college dorm room was plastered with primate pictures and stuffed animals.

During my time at university, I chose to study Classics, which is the history, literature, archaeology of Ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt. Not what you expected, right? But I spent all my free time, every summer holiday, working with primates. My first real hands-on, up close and personal, experience was when I was 19 and travelled to South Africa to work at a baboon rehabilitation centre. It changed my life almost instantly. Every dream I ever had was validated and reaffirmed as the passion for these monkeys consumed me. I kept returning back to Africa, and back to baboons, many times. But I also wanted to see what else was out there in the primatology world. So I travelled around the world trying my hand at field research, zoo work, and rehabilitation with various species, ranging from capuchin monkeys in Argentina, to gorillas in San Diego, to orangutans in Borneo.

After a few years of trying different things, I decided it was time to keep expanding my knowledge and go back to school. I spent a year in Oxford, UK getting my Master’s in Primate Conservation (finally a subject matter more applicable!). It was very refreshing to study with and be surrounded by people, other students and professors, who shared my interests and wanted to talk primates all the time (my friends from back home can only handle my talking about monkeys for only so long!). I did my MSc dissertation research on baboons, whom I just kept coming back to, in Botswana. Soon after returning home I was lucky enough to get hired for LWC’s 2015 baboon release!

What does your job involve?

As the release manager, I am in charge of this year’s baboon troop release into Kasungu National Park. This involves the actual release of the animals, and then post-release monitoring and data collection to see how the baboons are faring in the wild. It involves using radio telemetry, GPS tracking, behavioural observations, and ecological and environmental observations. I know each baboon very well (I probably spend more time with the baboons than I do other people!) and carefully monitor their behavior, health, social interactions and rankings, food they are eating, sleeping sites they choose, encounters with other wildlife, etc. I basically follow the troop all day through the bush and take notes and collect data!

Can you describe a typical day?

6:00 am—Leave for the field. I head to the release area, picking up a DNPW scout on the way, who accompanies us to the field. The release site is about a 40-minute drive up a bumpy dirt road into the bush. Always a fun ride. 6:45 am—Start tracking the troop using the radio telemetry. Depending how close or far they have slept from the road, finding the baboons can be either easy or rather tricky. 7:30 am—Find the baboons! Now that it’s pretty cold in the mornings, the baboons like to lounge in their trees in the sun warming up from their cold night. This makes mornings nice and relaxed, and great for taking photos and collecting data. Upon finding the baboons, I first do a census to make sure all the members of the troop are still there and look for any injuries or illnesses. I also collect data on where and with whom they are sleeping. 7:30 am-5:30 pm—Data collection. As I follow the troop around the bush, seeking out various food and water sources, I collect data in 20-minute individual focals (I follow a single baboons for 20 minutes and record his bahaviours). During this time, I also record where and how far they have travelled on my GPS, and continue to monitor anything that might happen out here in the bush, including any encounters with other wildlife or other wild baboon troops. 5:30 pm—I leave the troop after they have settled in their sleeping trees for the night (knowing where they sleep also makes it easier to find them again the next morning!). I head back to the road and the car, drive back to camp, take a shower (a hot one if I have patience and light a fire), cook dinner, recount the day with field assistants or the camp manager or any visitors, and then usually it’s an early bedtime!

What are the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge would probably be the long days. It takes a while getting used to waking up early every day and spending all day on your feet in the hot sun. But I immediately forget about all that when I’m hanging out with the baboons.

What has been your highlight during your time here?

The absolutely best thing was the actual release. After working with captive primates, mostly baboons, for so long, it was always a dream of mine to see some released. So the actual release, when the slide door was opened and they all ran out, and then all these baboons that, mostly, had traumatic beginnings in life, were now running around free in their natural habitat was the most amazing thing to be a part of.

Second to that, just living in a National Park, in the bush, where it’s quiet and beautiful and there is lots of wildlife just roaming around, is one of my favorite things.

How does Kasungu National Park differ from your hometown?

Kasungu NP differs from my hometown in EVERY way possible. I’m from Los Angeles, California, a bustling metropolis of about 10 million people. Out here, I live in a tent with 1-2 other people in camp, no electricity, no hot water, no tv, no air conditioning, no wi-fi. But also no smog, no traffic, no office jobs, and plenty of outdoors, sunshine, birds, elephants, wildlife, a beautiful view, and of course baboons! California, however as a whole, is great and has countless wonderful outdoors-y places to go. It’s the best state with deserts, mountains, forests, beaches, cities; it has everything. So, in that regards, Kasungu doesn’t seem so far out there. But LA itself, is a true sprawling concrete jungle. And while I do sometimes miss the modern conveniences of home, and of course various foods, I wouldn’t trade here for there for anything.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to get into primate research?

I would say try your hand at as many different things as possible, to see where, what, and which species suits you best. Don’t be afraid to try something completely new that your family might think is completely insane. Travel around; there’s nothing like working in another country with their indigenous primates. And of course, come out to Malawi and be a volunteer research assistant!! You’ll learn an amplitude about living in the bush, field research, and primates; a great start for any budding primatologist!