Search for Panama’s elusive spider monkeys

For a brief moment, as hundreds of blue-morphed butterflies gracefully hovered around us, the green of the rainforest was transformed into neon green.

But the dreamlike scene, reminiscent of something out of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” was interrupted by a series of loud cries from the trees above. Staring up at the treetops, I caught a glimpse of the culprit: a pair of orange Azuero spider monkeys searching for fruit.

This extremely rare subspecies is why we are here. After six grueling days spent on a fruitless hike through the rainforests of Panama, we’ve finally found them.

Seeing is just a moment. The sound of crawling from the nearby pasture startled the nimble primates, and they retreated deeper into the safe woods of their homes.

The Azuero Peninsula in southern Panama, a square mass of land that juts out some 50 miles into the Pacific Ocean, is home to the country’s only remaining tropical dry forest, an ecosystem that experiences the dry season more important than the dry season. rain and where moisture is often evaporated. exceed rainfall throughout the year.

In Azuero, the arid forest has been fragmented by livestock-raising deforestation and coastal tree-cutting to make way for luxury homes, leaving isolated forests scattered across a landscape. landscape without trees. These inhabited islands are home to hundreds of species of animals and birds found nowhere else in this country, including the critically endangered Azuero spider monkey.

In a population survey in 2013, primatologist Dr Pedro Mendez-Carvajal of Oxford Brookes University estimated that there are only 145 Azuero spider monkeys left in the wild, making them one of the few remaining Azuero spider monkeys in the wild. rarest primates in Central and South America. In addition to habitat loss, animals that are considered pests are hunted and poisoned by local farmers.

In the fall of 2017, I went to the Azuero Peninsula to work with Pro Eco Azueroa conservation organization that protects the area’s biodiversity and helps local people make sustainable and informed decisions about their environment.

Founded by Ruth Metzel and currently led by Sandra Vasquez de ZambranoPEA has developed a community-driven approach to conservation that includes partnering with farmers to replant trees, working with local teachers to develop lesson plans on conservation and sustainability, and engaging Collaborate with local advocates to promote a culture of conservation and land management.

Outside the surf village of Pedasi, I spent a month with the PEA, spending time between the forest and the sea. Inside, I joined a group of local volunteers and biology students from the University of Panama in an informal survey to document the health status of known families of spider monkeys. I also take pictures that can be used in community educational programs.

Guided by tips from local farmers and students, we spent the day hiking through dense bush and up waterfalls in search of elusive primates. At night, we visit rural schools to show what we’ve found, sharing pictures of wildlife many children have never seen, despite living with the animals. objects in their backyard.

At the beach, I followed the efforts of the PEA and Tortugas Pedasi, a partner organization, to document the stunning Pacific coastline. At the time, conservation groups were trying to gain national protection for the coastal area Pablo Arturo Barrios Wildlife Sanctuarywhile also teaching students about the benefits of marine conservation.

Just as I witnessed in the woods, members of the local community worked alongside these organizations on an impressive exhibition of eco-friendly camaraderie.

The creation of a wildlife corridor – spanning 75 miles and 62,000 acres – on the Azuero Peninsula was one of the first projects initiated by the PEA when it was established 12 years ago. By planting trees on clear landscapes, the corridor will increase the size of the available habitat by connecting several currently isolated forest islands. Once the corridor is completed, PEA hopes that an increase in forest habitat will allow animal populations – including the elusive spider monkey – to expand.

It took several years before the idea gained momentum, as rural farmers doubted the benefits of sacrificing valuable grazing land for reforestation.

“When we first started, we thought it would be as easy as knocking on people’s doors, planting trees and making a difference,” says Vasquez de Zambrano, executive director of PEA. “Of course that didn’t work, so we needed to investigate how to get involved in these communities.”

After discovering that teachers were key to earning the villagers’ trust, PEA initiated a series of educational programs focused on conservation, sustainability and coexistence. During that time, they taught more than 700 students each year. As PEA nurtures a new generation of young environmental activists, parents are beginning to hear and understand the importance of conservation through conversations with their families rather than with strangers.

Vasquez de Zambrano said: “It makes more sense for our children to say that we must reforest and protect nature. “I think working with children has made a real difference.”

Today, more than 400 farmers have pledged land for the wildlife corridor project. Five hundred new acres of trees will be planted on donated land by 2022 alone. And through the collective help of local organizations, students and community activists, the coastal Pablo Barrios Refuge was granted national protection in 2019.

Azuero continues to face serious threats, including the re-establishment of large-scale mining across the region and the enactment of new legislation that could allow development on protected lands. guard. However, Ms. Vasquez remains optimistic about the power of teaching and nurturing new environmental reformers.

“Our biggest impact is how we change people’s minds,” she tells me. “We are creating a culture of conservation – and getting people to become advocates for their own communities.”

Matt Stirn is an archaeologist and photojournalist based in Boston and Jackson Hole, Wyo. You can follow his work on Instagram. Search for Panama’s elusive spider monkeys

Fry Electronics Team

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