Meet the team: Dominic Wormell
Dominic Wormell joined Jersey Zoo as a keeper in 1989 and is now Head of Mammals with a particular passion for South American monkeys. Dom shares with us some insights into his work, both here at Jersey Zoo and further afield in Brazil.
When did you start at Durrell and what inspired you to want to work here?
I started working with Durrell back in August 1989. I vividly remember cycling up from the harbour with all my possessions in a rucksack and a couple of bike panniers. I was incredibly tired after spending the night on the boat and after arriving at the manor house where I was to live, I had to get straight to work and help clean the orangutan enclosure.
It was during trips up to Scotland to visit my uncle Peter, the warden on the isle of Rhum, that I really decided that I wanted to work in conservation. He would take us out in his boat around the Hebrides counting seals and occasionally we would come across huge basking sharks. Later he started restoring large areas of the great Caledonian pine forests, and this made a huge impression on me. I remember thinking to myself what a fantastic way to earn a living, so years later in 1988 when I saw a summer school course on endangered species conservation at Jersey Zoo advertised, I applied. The course was totally inspiring and really made me think about species conservation in a different way. it opened my mind to what was going on in the wider world and made me realise that zoos are incredibly important to species survival and were going to be even more vital in the years to come.
About 8 months later I received an offer of a job as a keeper, perhaps because of the runs I scored for the zoo cricket team while on the course!
What have been your career highlights so far?
One of the highlights was, with our partners, carrying out the first ever release of a black lion tamarin back into the forests of São Paulo state in Brazil. It was amazing to see our big male Marco, who was bred in the woodland here at the zoo, running and climbing with the two wild females that he was paired with. His time growing up in our little forest training school really helped him fly through the trees like a wild tamarin. We had a lot of dramas along the way, and I won’t say it wasn’t stressful for me and Marco, often searching for him early in the morning when the temperature was little above freezing, thinking the worst and then hearing and see him pop his head up form a huge bromeliad where he had spent the night.
Another highlight has to be seeing the Livingstone’s fruit bats fly round our extended bat house. Seeing them flying and gliding into land is something we only dreamed about back in the 1990s when they turned up at Jersey. The enclosures we had at the time turned out to be too small for these huge bats, the Vulcan bombers of the bat world. So to see so many fly every afternoon before feed time is a spectacle that still sends a shiver down my spine.
And finally, how could I not mention the diminutive primates with real attitude, the pied tamarins, who were shouting obscenities at us as soon as they popped out of their travelling crates from Rio de Janeiro, and still are! The pieds proved very hard to look after and we had to reorganise our management to make it work for them. Catching their eye while cleaning, would often result in a whirlwind rearranging of your hair as they expressed their disapproval at your presence. This gradually calmed down as we got to know them better and we started to have breeding success, and eventually we were able to export some Jersey-born tamarins to Europe and America to secure the population in captivity, which is something I am proud to be a part of.
Tell us about your work in South America.
Jersey Zoo has had a very long history of working with marmosets going back some 50 years, and they were Jeremy Mallinson’s great passion. One of the most important things that I think we do, and something that I care passionately about and want to spend much of my time on, is building up skills and knowledge in these monkeys’ home countries so that these sensitive animals can thrive in specialist centres, looked after by local experts. This is the most effective way to help threatened species recover.
My first trip to South America was to Bolivia in 1991 to look for Goeldi’s monkeys, a species that we held in quite large numbers in Jersey at the time. Camping on the forest floor turned out not to be a good idea, and whenever we turned up at rubber tappers’ settlements to stay for the night, they thought it was hilarious as they knew full well that we would be covered in huge cockroaches as soon as night fell – they sensibly slept in hammocks. I remember daring to turn my torch on one night and look down at my sleeping bag to see it shimmer and glisten as the shiny carapaces shuffled up and down my outstretched body. I decided the best thing was to keep the light off and shut my mouth. The next night I emptied all my insecticide on the floor around my tent. It didn’t work.
Since then, I have been travelling to South America quite regularly. We have been working with the rare Colombian white-handed tamarin, running workshops with local conservationists and zoo staff and setting up the international conservation programme for the species with colleagues in EAZA. More recently we have been focusing on Brazilian species and with Durrell’s Academy, we have been running regular conservation and husbandry workshops to help them build up their own conservation assurance populations of black lion tamarins and pied tamarins.
Other threatened species have benefited as well as a result of running these workshops and recently we were able to help establish the Mountain Marmoset Conservation NGO for two highly threatened marmosets that are native to the Atlantic rainforest.
Do you have a favourite species that you've worked with from South America?
It’s hard to pick a favourite species, so the black lion tamarin and pied tamarin would have to be my joint choice. Both species are wonderful in different ways. The black lion tamarin, the biggest of the callitrichids, is a magnificent looking monkey with an ear-piercing long call it uses to communicate with other tamarins over large distances. They are quite laid back in captivity and when the offspring are born, they have striking colouring that makes them look like they have golden shorts. The pied tamarin is a different animal altogether; they look at you with disdain if your gaze lingers on them or you spend too long close by. If ever there was a tamarin that had a larger-than-life personality, it is the pied tamarin, but they are all individuals and very different once you get to know them.
Do you plan to return to South America when restrictions allow and what will you do on your next visit?
We plan to go back and continue our work as soon as we can. I have heard from our partners IPE that they had to stop all their field work with black lion tamarins while the pandemic was at its worst. Now they have set up safety protocols they have resumed work, preparing for the translocation of tamarins to new areas of forest.
Manaus in the Amazon, home of pied tamarins, has been particularly badly affected by the pandemic and our colleagues who have been working with the pied tamarins have had to stop all their work and help with the effort to cope with the ongoing crisis.
As soon as we get the green light to be able to travel, we will organise a trip out to São Paulo to meet up with the black lion tamarin team and hold another workshop to bring all our partners and colleagues together to work out the next steps.
What are your hopes for the future in the region?
One of the things we desperately need to see in Brazil is a change of government. The present regime has been waging war on the last forests and natural places since it came into power in 2019. And during the pandemic it has taken the opportunity to strip away many environmental protection laws. This is a cause for great alarm and the recent fires that have spread across the Amazon and Pantanal regions have been started by those who want to expand large scale agricultural practice to sell the products on the international market. They are emboldened knowing they will get very little in the way of fines as the environmental agencies no longer have the capacity to deal with the current level of environmental crime.
Despite the bleak political landscape, I am very excited about the black lion tamarin work and the huge reforestation project that is well underway. One ecological corridor connecting the black lion tamarin’s main stronghold with other forest patches has already been planted, and we are helping to fund a second corridor which will be a lifeline for black lion tamarins in other isolated fragments of forest. We have developed artificial nestboxes in the zoo that will provide safe sleeping sites for the tamarins in the new corridors, enabling them to move along them and meet up with other groups. As a result we hope to be able to increase the number of black lion tamarins in the wild – a very exciting prospect indeed.
Posted 8 September 2021