Protecting wildlife in the Andes

Marcelo Mazzolli (Brazil, 1999) is a wildlife scientist specialising in the ecology of large felids (cats). Since completing his Chevening Award at the University of Durham, he’s worked as a researcher and consultant in some of the most beautiful and remote places in the world.

Starting out – Projeto Puma

I have always been fascinated by wildlife and the wilderness, so choosing a profession was relatively easy for me. My interests led me to study biology at university, but it wasn’t until my second year that my passion really ‘awoke’. One day, I couldn’t wait any longer; I had to leave for the hills and set up camp to look for endangered species and hear the accounts of local villagers. Colleagues and lecturers learned of my interest and put me in touch with the environmental authorities, who asked me to go and investigate claims of attacks by lions on local livestock.

Marcelo tutoring students from Oswego New York State University in the use of GPS (Global Positioning System) to record features during a Projeto Puma expedition in the Brazilian Amazons.

Following this, Projeto Puma started as an organisation to deal with livestock depredation incidents that were emerging across Brazil. Although free-ranging herds of sheep were being reduced as a result of predation, we discovered that pumas were making a recovery in south Brazil. We began to run courses that informed people about the local wildlife, and these courses gradually developed into volunteer expeditions.

Expeditions in Projeto Puma are an immersive experience, lasting from 1 to 2 weeks in duration. Volunteers learn how to identify species and how to collect data, and it is done in such a way that the information collected can be converted into scientific publications. It is very rewarding to share with everyone the experience of building an interpretation of the ecosystem that slowly emerges in the form of charts and maps spread all over the walls of our camp ‘office’.

During expeditions, tracks are a great source of information on species’ presence. Left: The track of a puma (Puma concolor); Right: Student using a customized, real size track catalogue, to identify tracks by herself.

Global connections

As a scientist, you are part of a global community, and so my work soon took me beyond Brazil. I went to the UK for two reasons. One, science is usually communicated in English, so it is essential to read and write well. Second, I wanted to expand my horizons and share my experiences with others.

When I arrived in my faculty, my supervisor informed me that the Chevening scholarship was very prestigious and would be a great help to my career. With his help, I was able to further develop a scientific mind and my writing skills. I worked hard, processing the data I had brought with me, in addition to working with the faculty to jointly publish the data that they had been holding for three years. This was a huge step in my career as at that time I was not able to get my paper’s published in English as a solo author. Publishing is so important for scientists as it means that peers and journal editors will recognise your work. This is crucial for building your career as a researcher.

When I returned to Brazil, I enrolled in a PhD to continue my learning. I also published a paper resulting from volunteer research done in Oman as part of the Arabian leopard project. It was an international collaboration between the government of Oman, Shell, Land Rover, and Biosphere Expeditions, a UK-based organisation for whom I worked as a consultant. Our team surveyed the Dhofar mountains (where frankincense comes from) to determine the habit quality for the Arabian leopard. Very few organisations and professionals can make use of data collected by volunteers and have it published in prestigious scientific journals, so I’m very proud of what we achieved.

New horizons

I am now in Peru, where I recently founded a new business, a travel agency named Nature Andes which, apart from wildlife expeditions, offers a range of other travel experiences in Peru, including hikes and visits to historical places. I am very excited because I love the mountains and the open spaces, and in the Andes you have it all. I am developing an expedition plan to search for jaguars, pumas and Andean bears at a site that encompasses the Puna (alpine meadows) and both tropical and subtropical forests. All other alternative expeditions of this nature normally take place in the deep jungle, whereas my idea is to be in between the jungle and the higher, cooler mountains.

I take my work as a wildlife professional seriously, but I absolutely believe in having fun too. What is life if we cannot enjoy ourselves while working? It seems common sense, but it is amazing how people can believe that serious work cannot be performed while also having some fun. Let’s do both!