Leader for Nature: How Chiara Klein Helped Protect a Precious Primate
Updated: Jun 20, 2020
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The heat and humidity would sometimes feel oppressive as Chiara Klein bushwacked through thick brush in the Brazilian rainforest, often taking on steep climbs. Every now and then she’d hear a primate’s call among the chirping of exotic birds—the call of the special little monkey she’d traveled all this way from the U.S. to help save.
This primate is the golden lion tamarin, and it’s easily recognizable by its flowing mane of bright orange hair that almost looks gilded.
These beautiful and social creatures are not even two feet long with their tails included and weigh less than 2 pounds (National Geographic). They live most of their active lives high in the treetops of Brazil’s lush Atlantic coastal rainforests where they catch lizards, birds, fruit, and insects while swinging between branches.
Sadly, as the lovely forest homes of these lively monkeys disappear due to human development, so do they. Deforestation and the pet trade into the 20th century took its toll on these charismatic creatures until only 200 were left in the wild by the 1970s (New York Times).
Today, thanks to conservation efforts, there are around 2,500 left in the wild, but last year their numbers suffered a decline due to a yellow fever outbreak. (New York Times)
Experts say for the tamarin population to be self-sustaining, they need large areas of a connected rain forest. The widening of a major coastal highway that already segments the tamarin habitat known as BR-101 threatened to isolate populations further.
In the Spring of 2019, Klein helped an organization that is playing a vital role in restoring populations of the endangered golden tamarin by creating the first forested overpass in Brazil, complete with canopy connections that will allow tamarins and other animals to safely cross BR-101.
“The tamarin overpass—the first of its kind—is crucial for golden lion tamarin conservation,” Klein said via email. “In addition to their susceptibility to yellow fever, habitat destruction is one of the greatest threats facing the species.”
But it wasn’t always easy to help with such a revolutionary project. Klein shares the intricacies, difficulties, and rewards of this work for Need for Nature’s first Leader for Nature profile.
Critical Conservation Connections
Klein’s introduction to conservation work came from working as an environmental educator on North Carolina’s Outer Banks for an outdoor education facility. When she began researching graduate schools related to ecology and conservation work, she reached out to Dr. Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology and a national leader in the study of modern-day extinctions (Duke.edu), about becoming involved in his conservation work.
Pimm founded the organization Saving Nature with a new approach to saving species on the brink of extinction. The nonprofit uses not only the latest science and technology resources but also supports local people (SavingNature.com).
“His organization, Saving Nature, works to raise funds to enable local, on-the-ground conservation organizations in various countries to purchase land so that they may create wildlife corridors and connect fragmented land,” Klein explained.
Klein started working on social media for Saving Nature. However, when she later decided to ask about joining a field team, she found herself working on projects in Brazil—which is how she came to be involved in the overpass project.
While a forested overpass on its own may sound like a conservation silver-bullet, there is much more that goes into such a project than simply building it.
There’s a lot of data that goes into the overpass's location, and Klein was part of a team gathering this information. A tool they often used to reveal the connections between tamarin habitat is the camera trap.
“Camera trapping is a really critical part of habitat connectivity work, as it allows us to see which animals travel through which sections of forests and corridors, and with what frequency, thereby enabling us to work to reconnect the most important pieces of land,” Klein explained.
Successfully placing these cameras to capture images of the tamarins and other creatures is its own “art form,” Klein said. The ideal locations, Klein shared, are near areas where various animal paths meet, and they must be disguised well enough that poachers and others might not want to take them down or tamper with them. However, enough of the camera must also be showing to capture critical shots of endangered species like the golden tamarins.
Sometimes even when everything is taken into account, Klein said there could still be issues.
“You may still end up not getting great footage from a particular camera—maybe the camera gets knocked askew in a storm or an animal knocks it down or poachers cover the lens or remove the equipment entirely,” she explained. “So there's a lot of factors that go into camera trapping!”
A lot of Klein’s work also involved working with two undergraduate students to check on the cameras and fix them by repositioning or changing the batteries.
Klein’s work didn’t stop at just placing and maintaining crucial camera traps to determine tamarin movements. She also helped to document large swaths of forested areas Saving Nature is working to connect using a camera that takes extremely high resolution, panoramic photos called a GigaPan. This remarkable camera allowed them to capture an entire site, in detail, in only one image. The GigaPan worked by combining thousands of individual photos called gigapixels.
However, as advanced as the camera is, it involved some work to find the right spot to place it to capture these important images. Klein said it often involved hiking to high areas where the forested landscape could clearly be seen below.
The camera also required special positioning with a tripod. That wasn’t always easy to get right.
However, the photos it captured are continuing to play a vital part in the data needed to successfully connect and reforest tamarin habitat.
The Overpass’s Lasting Impacts
While Klein was working on research to support the overpass, it looked like little more than exposed plots of land on either side of the roadway with materials piled around it and construction vehicles anticipating an imminent project.
She recalled a member of the Associação Mico-Leão-Dourado (Golden Lion Tamarin Association), a nonprofit that buys land for tamarin habitat, complaining about the slowness of the overpass’s construction.
This isn’t just good news for the tamarins, but for a variety of plants and animals that depend on the biodiversity of the Brazilian forest ecosystems—even humans! The overpass will likely support the health of forests surrounding BR-101 that exist in a watershed that’s important to local human populations.
“The health of the forest as a whole impacts human survival in addition to impacting animal survival,” Klein explained. “The BR-101 overpass will ideally help support the profusion of biodiversity necessary to maintain a healthy forest ecosystem overall.”
Looking Toward the Future
While the overpass may sound like a win-win for people and animals that Brazilian officials will be quick to replicate, it’s not quite that simple.
Conservation organizations spent years tangled in lawsuits and negotiations to make the tamarin bridge possible. This often stalled construction.
“The bureaucracy of the systems involved are complex, like in many other places, and that leads to tensions between various priorities that often take years to negotiate,” Klein explained.
However, on a more positive note, she said she believes Brazil is in a unique and exciting position to start embracing more conservation initiatives like the overpass.
“Brazil is a huge country attempting to develop rapidly and so they are poised to be able to make a lot of really wonderful conservation decisions, as long as they choose to prioritize it,” she said.
Klein is back in the U.S. studying at Duke University to achieve her master’s in Environmental Management with a concentration in Ecosystem Science & Conservation, and she’s also dedicated herself to a master’s project on red wolf conservation.
In a way, her work has come full circle. She still works with Pimm and she followed her passions for teaching and education by signing up to be a Teaching Assistant in his class on Big Cat conservation this past semester, specifically teaching students about analyzing data from camera traps. She has also enjoyed working at a children’s science museum for the past two years.
Klein’s ultimate goal is to secure a job that is related to important conservation work through education and community organizing.
“I want to be able to inspire, educate, and facilitate communities to take care of their environment," she says.
What You Can Do
There are some simple ways to play a part in supporting Saving Nature’s critical work to preserve species and ecosystems.
Klein said donations are particularly helpful because they allow the organization to buy land that’s used for species conservation by saving habitats from human development.
Everyday citizens can also make conservation work easier for organizations by pressing politicians to support conservation work—no matter where they may live.
“By making this clear as constituents, we can help influence political decision-making that will clear the path for amazing conservation organizations to do the work that they need to do,” she said.
The Takeaways for Conservation Work Worldwide
The work of environmentalists can be frustrating because while there are often immediate needs to save species and habitats, efforts to save them can take years of baby steps and complexities, Klein explained.
However, she also said the impact of the work makes it incredibly rewarding. She knows her efforts and the work of organizations like Saving Nature are at least giving ecosystems and animals that are at risk of disappearing hope for a safer future.
Even more heartening, often organizations like Saving Nature and the Golden Lion Tamarin Association will join forces—like with the forested overpass that will soon reach across BR-101—to amplify their passion and efforts.
“The path is rarely straightforward and most of the time, it requires taking really small steps over a very long period of time,” Klein said. “Which, when you feel the sense of urgency that most environmentalists do, can be extremely frustrating and disheartening! The remedy to this, I think, is to recognize that you're not doing the work alone; that there are so many wonderful individuals and organizations around the globe putting extremely hard work in to make things happen.”
So no matter how difficult and isolating conservation and sustainability work can be at times—even if it involves trudging through untamed Brazilian rainforest on steamy days—Klein is certainly proof that with dedication and determination, every effort adds up and is part of something much bigger: a brighter future for all creatures on this planet.