I am currently at an engineering conference. No, I haven't lost the plot - I am presenting some of the education work I do on bio-inspired robotics with underprivileged school students. Being at this conference has been an eye-opener and made me appreciate my recent trip to the 27th International Primatological Society Congress in Kenya. For primatologists this biennial conference is a key date in our diaries. Primatology conferences always boast diversity, equality and the most senior of researchers are always happy to mingle with the little guy. It is at such conferences that I bonded with Jane Goodall and Ian Redmond (Dian Fossey's protégé); both of whom are warm, friendly, and always happy to offer advice and/or chat over a glass of wine (or three!).
Between the 19th and 26th August, thousands of primatologists took over Nairobi; the capital city of Kenya. I had visited Kenya briefly with my parents many blue moons ago so I was excited to see Nairobi again. I flew with my good friend, Soph, who also happens to be an ex-masters student of mine from Borneo. On the way to the airport she texted me saying "Don't worry - the facepaints are packed!". We hadn't seen each other in almost a year so we talked and drank the plane dry of gin for almost nine hours! Halfway through the journey we painted each other's faces before a random passenger called Dorito (yes, like the chip) asked for a cat face to go with his cowboy hat he was wearing (I swear I don't make this stuff up!). The plane was filled with passengers wearing primate-themed items of clothing. Seated in our row was also a well known primatologist who I had literally emailed the week previously about publishing in his journal - it was very hard having a serious, professional conversation when I had a "pill bug in an ecosystem" painted on my cheek. Luckily, albeit baffled, he was amused by my appearance - and has since followed me on Twitter, so I can't have made that bad of an impression!
Being recognised in any field is such a confidence boast and an appreciation of your work. Whilst sipping gin and face painting on this nine hour journey, a woman in front of me turned around and asked, "I'm sorry, are you Carolyn Thompson? Do you study the Skywalker gibbon?" I was completely flabbergasted and nodded enthusiastically. "I knew it!" beamed the woman. "I follow you on Twitter!" She was just embarking on her own PhD journey studying lemurs. We have since become friends and hope to meet up in Madagascar if I happen to supervise more students there in the future...
I stayed in a homestay next to the United Nations (UN) building (where the conference was held) with Soph and my other good friend, Becca. I know Becca from my masters at Roehampton - she is super bad ass and is the only primatologist in the whole of Paraguay! The homestay was super cozy and the family who ran it were very attentive, fun and happily turned a blind eye to our late nights and Kenyan beer tasting in the garden. The garden was teeming with wildlife: birds of prey and even a Guenon monkey! It felt like home. The area was very safe which is unusual for many pockets of Nairobi. Our neighbourhood didn't have much to offer unless you wanted to hang out in the Botswana or US embassies.
I wasn't presenting until Thursday, so between Monday and Wednesday I attended numerous workshops and talks on ethnoprimatology (looking at the relationship and interactions between humans and non-human primates using quantitative and qualitative methods). They were incredibly useful for my PhD. I also attended two poster sessions and mingled my face off with old colleagues - and new! As you can imagine, the UN grounds were stunning. There were even free-roaming monkeys that visited the conference - very fitting!
Thursday soon arrived. GIBBON DAY. Two of my supervisors had organised a big gibbon symposium (the last one was four years ago in Vietnam). They always present rare but wonderful opportunities for us gibbonologists to get together and see what everyone is working on. I had asked a few non-gibbonologist researchers I looked up to to attend. I was so pleased to see two out of the three faces in the crowd. Also in the crowd was the executive director of a huge funding body. We had equal numbers of male and female speakers from seven different countries; us gibbonologists like to boast a lot of equality and diversity! My talk titled "The importance of adopting an interdisciplinary approach when investigating the human-gibbon interface in China and Myanmar" was well received. A few hours after the gibbon symposium, I was approached by the executive director. They were impressed with the whole symposium and were very interested in potentially funding the Myanmar side of my project. Watch this space!
I took Friday off and visited the Karura Forest Reserve next to the UN compound. We went on a guided tour and saw a duiker, Black and white colobus monkeys, and lots of animal poop (which fascinates any zoologist - hence the photos).
Soph and I later visited the David Sheldrick Elephant Sanctuary. Baby elephants everywhere! I can never get over how hard and rough their skin is. The sanctuary is world-renowned for their elephant rehabilitation and protection. They have a whole orphan project where they rescue baby elephants from poachers and deforestation. Before leaving for the UK, I adopted this little guy (below).
On our flight home, Soph and I scared our fellow plane passengers with our face masks. It is hard looking this good, folks! Ha-ha.