Carolyn's gone ape!

Carolyn Thompson was told at school she wasn’t good enough to study sciences. She persevered anyway and is now studying forgotten apes around the world.

I grew up in Indonesia, Scotland and Norway, with a big emphasis on outdoor activities. When I was little my mum used to take us to the forest and tell us myths and legends about the monkeys.

I was hooked and knew I wanted to work with primates.

Mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata) rehabilitation_Panama_Odile Thompson-1.jpg

But when it came to choosing A levels, I was advised against sciences – I think the school was trying to be tactful. I was disheartened and went on to study geography at the University of Manchester, but I knew in my first year it was the wrong decision.

My mum had suggested I give the OU a try, so I did a taster module in life sciences and I discovered independent learning really suited me. I was so excited and I went on to study a BSc in life sciences (now biology). This helped me get on to a master of research in primate biology, behaviour and conservation at the University of Roehampton.

Primatology is really competitive and I realised I needed field experience, so during my degree, I also worked to pay for my flights to go and volunteer.

I worked in a chimp rehabilitation home in Africa. I’d be frantically finishing essays as giraffes wandered past – it was surreal. I had no choice but to be super organised. When I graduated, one of my first jobs was on a research project on orangutans, gibbons and red leaf monkeys – every primatologist’s dream. But I found myself managing 30 former head hunters from Indonesia who’d never had a female scientist as a boss.  I tried to learn their language and they ended up being some of the best people I’ve ever worked with.

Caring for orphaned Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus)_Malaysia_Carolyn Thompson-1.jpg

Field work is gruelling – in Borneo I’d get up at 3 am, have a bowl of rice then head into the forest. We’d track gibbons – they have a beautiful haunting song – and log their behaviour each day. Quite often we’d be on our feet until 7 pm, and in rainy season, we might be waist deep in water.  When data gets collated you begin to see trends.

I’ve had difficult moments – I’ve been peed on by a baboon, but my toughest trip was in Cameroon, tracking a rare species of gorilla. We’d live off the land, working with ex bush meat hunters. We’d eat mushrooms or they’d take a giant mole rat, hack it up and throw it in a pot. You didn’t look at what was in your bowl – it might be a tail or paw.

Washing in a river, I had one of my scariest moments. One of our team threw a rock just above my head. It hit a black mamba – had it bitten me, I could have been dead within two minutes, they told me.

I became interested in researching gibbons – they are the forgotten apes, living in the shadow of cousins such as orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees.

I’ll be researching a rare species of gibbon living in an isolated forest between China and Myanmar. I took two years trying to find funding. I was really struggling until someone suggested trying a crowd funding campaign and I made £17,000.

Studying a newly discovered species is an incredible opportunity. Many gibbons are on the brink of extinction because of loss of habitat, illegal hunting and the pet trade.

Careers, UniversityWeb editor