Dr Susan Wiper (pronouns: she/her) is a primatologist and wildlife carer based at the Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary in Liberia, west Africa. Her current role involves the rehabilitation of 140 animals including Pangolins, monkeys and Pottos that have been rescued across the region. These wild animals are characteristic of Liberia’s untold biodiversity and Susan devotes her time to protecting these species and educating the community around their conservation. Susan shares her story as well as the amazing work they are doing at Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary to change the fate of wildlife in this area.
Susan has always had a passion for wildlife and, with plenty of volunteering and putting herself out there to demonstrate her passion, she has carved out a career for herself in the field, spanning the past 25 years!
Susan always loved primates and after travelling extensively across Africa, she completed her PhD in primatology, focused on Golden Monkeys in Rwanda. And, as Susan explained – that’s when her love for primates deepened:
“I feel that primates are so close to us, they’re so interesting, and their social behavior is completely different for different species… Everything about them intrigues me.”
Susan has always found that primatology isn’t all that far off anthropology – from communication to behaviors to social systems. And by studying non-human primates we can learn a huge amount about human society:
“Oh, definitely! When you are looking at primatology, you are not far away from anthropology either. I think we learn a lot from non-human primates about human behavior”
LIBASSA WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
Susan is now based in Liberia at Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary, an organization dedicated to the care and rehabilitation of local wildlife. The Sanctuary was opened officially in February 2017 and now cares for over 150 animals at any one time.
“What drew me to Liberia and Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary is the amount that both the government and the sanctuary actually do towards caring, rehabilitating and releasing the animals.”
Although Liberia has exceptional biodiversity, it doesn’t yet have an established eco-tourism industry, and without this, wildlife conservation is heavily reliant on community engagement.
“Eating of wildlife is very engrained in Liberian culture and so it’s a matter of talking with communities about how animals are so much more valuable alive than eaten, and finding alternatives to eating wildlife from the forest.”
“But I feel that here in Liberia, we are really now trying to get down to grassroots and we’re trying to talk to the communities and they’re the real people that we need to convince and talk to and see what they need in order to keep the animals as they should be.”
“There’s a saying here in Liberia: “small, small”, so it’s little by little and it’s deeply ingrained into the culture. I believe that in order to make changes, we must focus on the youth.”
Although it’s a long, slow process of change, Susan has been working hard to change hearts and minds throughout the community and slow, slow they are seeing positive changes. From educational outreach at schools for World Pangolin Day to community members bringing rescued wildlife into the sanctuary, Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary is expanding its reach throughout west Africa.
The process of wildlife rehabilitation is case by case and can take anywhere between a couple of days and many years. For many species, especially primates, the process of release can also be time and resource intensive. Having recently received some funding, Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary are releasing one of the first groups of orphaned monkeys back into the wild!
“This is the first release of orphaned monkeys back into the wild in west Africa, which is exciting! It’s a very long process because they are all orphaned, they know nothing about the wild. We need to teach them about predators, finding food, where to go and where not to go… so we have a dedicated team of four people that will be following them for a whole year!”
The release will be broadcast on Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary’s website and social media.
THE CHANGING FACE OF CONSERVATION
Having been immersed in the world of wildlife conservation for 25 years now, Susan has witnessed some interesting changes within this space but a frustrating lack of change on the political front:
“I often get frustrated working in conservation alongside politics. I find politicians think of the next few years, the next election and conservation is often put on the back shelf because it’s a thing of the future.”
“Something I’ve seen over the years is the young generation coming forward and saying, “this isn’t good enough” so I’ve seen that as a big change in conservation.”
PLAYING THE LONG GAME
Longevity within the conservation space can be challenging with limited resources and personal pressures like imposter syndrome and erosion of work-life balance leading to burnout. Especially as a wildlife carer, Susan has a constant workload and we asked her about how she sustains herself long-term to keep doing what she does for wildlife. Susan explains:
“That’s an interesting question because you always have ups, but you also have many downs as well. My view here is that we’ve got 140 animals here at Libassa now and my way of thinking is if they weren’t here, I think they might not be alive. So, whatever we do for them is better than nothing.”
“It’s quite basic, as far as being able to do veterinary procedures and all that. But we do the best we can with what we have. The welfare of the animals is always the top priority. And I think that’s what keeps me going.”
For getting started in the conservation space, Susan’s top advice is broadening your experiences and taking opportunities to go the extra mile and work with wildlife:
“I know it’s a very hard field to get into. Even when I started, I did lots of volunteer work. So, put yourself out there, wherever you are in the world, get things on your CV that show you’re prepared to go the extra mile.”
So, although it can be hard to get your foot in the door, it is an incredibly rewarding career path!
“I think it’s an absolutely amazing field. It’s something you have to be driven to do and feel very passionately about which I’m sure most of you [your readers] do!”
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