Regina Ribeiro, 56, is an enigma. She's not online anywhere and she's probably the most famous female birding guide you've never heard of. That's because she is the first professional woman birding guide in Brazil, and possibly in all of South America. She's been leading birding and mammal tours in Brazil and elsewhere for over two decades, making inroads in the male-dominated field of nature guiding in a country and region where machismo is the norm. She downplays the career challenges she's had as a woman, but she is a pioneer.
And she makes an immediate impression on her clients. Of first meeting Ribeiro in 1997, near the start of her career, retired professional wildlife photographer Kevin Schafer was awe-struck: "When we arrived we found this tiny thing, dressed in army fatigues, loaded down with field guides, full-size tape recorder and mic, ready for anything," he says. Schafer and his wife, Martha Hill hired Ribeiro numerous times in their visits to Brazil to photograph primates and birds. The three became good friends and all benefited professionally from the mutual association.
I first heard about Ribeiro from Schafer and Hill, who are friends of mine. Ribeiro seems to me like a legend, and I wanted to talk to her about her work. She was immediately receptive, and talked openly about her life. We wrote back and forth over email between trips she was leading, and below is our interview.
I consider you a pioneer as a woman in ecotourism and bird guiding, and would love to find out more about your perspective from the early years.
Regina Ribeiro: About 21 years ago (1996) when I started my training to become a nature guide in Brazil, birds were my first subject of studies and my main source of inspiration to enter this world. Ecotourism and birding were on its first steps here (in Brazil) and at that time I was indeed a pioneer female doing this kind of guiding. I was in my early 30s at the time.
What was your training?
In college I graduated in tourism business but while there I took a technical guiding course in a different institution called Servico Nacional de Aprendizagem Comercial (Senac). At the time Senac just had cultural guiding courses but nothing for nature guides. Nowadays such nature guiding courses still do not exist here.
I can say that mostly I was self-taught as a nature guide, as I had to dedicate all the rest of my studies by myself. I went back to college and eventually got a post graduate degree in ecotourism and biology at the Federal University of Lavras, Minas Gerais.
My first job as a guide was with Focus Tours. They were a pioneer agency in Brazil based in Belo Horizonte, founded by an American ecologist. Working for them provided me with field training: the knowledge about the destinations, birds and other the wildlife while I was helping lead trips.
During my training and beginning of my career I went through a lot of challenges not only regarding knowledge, skills and confidence I needed to gain but to continue doing all this it was a matter of survival.
What do you mean by survival?
RR: I worked many years with Focus Tours. They supported my training and later on other guides too. For almost two years I traveled with their tours to the destinations they used to offer. So at the beginning I guided only for them.
The issue was they requested me to work exclusively with them but as there was not enough tours for me to make a living I had to make a decision to give up guiding or work with other people too. It is a long story but I eventually stopped working with them.
You've made a living as a guide ever since?
RR: Nowadays, I can say yes. But for a few years I had to do other things to make a living. I have been freelance since I left Focus Tours.
Thanks to Kevin and Marty, I did additional guide training in Costa Rica. They sponsored me to attend training through Horizontes, the best nature tour company In CR. It was an annual course (a week) organized for their guides as a way to update and improve their knowledge in different subjects regarding science, conservation, guiding techniques.
It was one of my greatest experiences as a nature guide, since there were so few guiding resources in Brazil. I was the one foreigner participating with the Horizontes staff guides! I immersed myself into this theme as there was so much to learn and surely a new world has opened up, leading me to a very rewarding path.
How long are your tours and what are the size of the groups you lead?
RR: It varies from a week to two weeks. But average 10 to 14 days. The size of the group also varies from one person (normally private tour) to 10. More than 10 people I normally work with a local guide or co-lead with another guide. Maximum group size would be 12 people.
Who are your clients?
RR: Agencies, operators (from abroad and also Brazil), private clients. The majority come from USA and the United Kingdom. Also clients from Austria, Holland, France, Italy, Russia, Australia, South Africa and Argentina. All ages, too; retired people and active young people depending of the agency profile. Also many professional and amateur photographers.
Any Brazilian clients?
RR: Brazilian? No. I have had only one Brazilian client that lives in USA. I do work with Brazilian operators.
What's it been like working in a field with mostly men? Or working with male clients?
RR: In my own experience, working in a field dominated by male guides has been interesting and positive. I had the guidance of knowledgeable and supportive mentors, colleagues and field professionals that helped me in so many ways.
Even in early days I haven´t run into sex discrimination except in a few occasions when car and boat drivers, would not easily "accept orders" from a woman. As you might imagine, dealing with situations like this helped me build up strength to do my job. I have also been co-leading trips with woman leaders equally with good experiences.
Sometimes a male client will be uncomfortable. Recently I was hired through another operator to guide a male client who was going to spend four weeks touring Brazil. When he learned that his guide was going to be a woman he refused to spend all that time with me and accepted my company only for a week.
Do you get feedback from women about your being a woman? What do they say?
RR: Not exactly but I have a client who I love to work with and she travels all around the world. She mentions that I am the only woman that guides her and she would love if I could join her in trips all over.
What you have observed of opportunities for other women in your field?
RR: The trend has evolved and there are numerous birding and wildlife destinations in the country thus more work opportunities for both men and women. I see a growing number of female guides, especially in local levels but still a small percentage leading trips throughout Brazil or neighboring countries. In addition to that I have witnessed a number of women doing bird photography, promoting birding destinations, participating in courses and workshops for training resident guides.
Meanwhile a lot of curiosity about this (ecotourism) has developed and I've been able to share my experience of ecotourism and bird watching in courses offered locally with college students, resident guides and some other people.
What are you doing now?
RR: Over the years, my focus has changed a bit and I plan and guide photography and mammal tours, with special focus such as Jaguars, primates and conservation projects.
I love what I do and every trip is an endless learning process.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. All photos courtesy Regina Ribeiro unless otherwise noted.