AboutZoos, Since 2008


Rewil­d­ing Colom­bian woolly mon­keys – and maybe save them from extinction

pub­lished 23 Decem­ber 2018 | mod­i­fied 23 Decem­ber 2018
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Woolly mon­keys are hard to miss in Colombia’s jun­gles. Now, they face extinc­tion. Mónica Ramírez, Author pro­vided

Authors: Mónica Ale­jan­dra Ramírez; Manuel Lequer­ica Tamara; and Pablo Steven­son

Colombia’s Andes Moun­tains used to be loaded with wildlife, includ­ing South America’s sole bear species, the spec­ta­cle bear, and the moun­tain tapir, which lives only in the world’s high­est alti­tudes. You couldn’t walk a mile in the jun­gle with­out see­ing a woolly mon­key – big, agile and charis­matic pri­mates with pow­er­ful long tails. Now the species is hard to spot. Over the past 50 years, habi­tat loss, poach­ing and smug­gling for adop­tion as pets have all dec­i­mated Colombia’s woolly mon­key pop­u­la­tions. Andean woolly mon­keys are at risk of extinc­tion in the next cen­tury, sci­en­tists say. They have already dis­ap­peared entirely in some parts of Colom­bia.

Restor­ing Colombia’s jun­gles
To save the woolly mon­key, Colom­bian wildlife and envi­ron­men­tal agen­cies teamed up with sci­en­tists like us from the Lab­o­ra­tory of Trop­i­cal For­est Ecol­ogy and Pri­ma­tol­ogy at Colombia’s Uni­ver­sity of the Andes.

In August 2017, we released six cap­tive woolly mon­keys into the forests of south­ern Huila, about a 12-​hour drive south of Bogota, the cap­i­tal. This jungle-​covered region was once home to many troops of these lovely pri­mates. Now they’re con­spic­u­ously absent. We wanted to see if ani­mals born in the wild, cap­tured by traf­fick­ers and con­fis­cated by Colom­bian author­i­ties could learn to live there again. Releas­ing ani­mals who’ve spent time in cap­tiv­ity is risky. Often, they lack the behav­iors nec­es­sary to sur­vive in the wild, such as self-​defense and bond­ing strate­gies. Accord­ing to a com­pre­hen­sive review of wildlife rein­tro­duc­tion pro­grams world­wide, only 26 per­cent are suc­cess­ful. Most either fail out­right – the ani­mals die – or do not last enough to eval­u­ate the fate of the released animals.

A Colom­bian woolly mon­key in cap­tiv­ity. Tatiana Novoa, Author pro­vided

To help us develop a train­ing plan for pro­mot­ing nat­ural behav­iors, we first spent over a year observ­ing dozens of cap­tive woolly mon­keys at zoos and sanc­tu­ar­ies across Colom­bia. We saw that many woolly mon­keys had become com­par­a­tively clumsy climbers, and rather than seek out food they tended to wait for their care­tak­ers to feed them. They had also lost the abil­ity to spot and flee predators.

Hope for woolly mon­keys
After a year of assess­ing their behav­ior, we chose 11 can­di­dates for pos­si­ble rein­te­gra­tion into the wild based on their repro­duc­tive via­bil­ity, strength, health and non-​attachment to humans.

Dur­ing the six-​month reha­bil­i­ta­tion process, we used what we call “envi­ron­men­tal enrich­ment” to instill sur­vival skills among these woolly mon­keys. To reduce time spent lolling on the ground and encour­age climb­ing, we placed the mon­keys’ food high up on plat­forms sim­u­lated trees. We also pro­moted bond­ing by putting pairs of woolly mon­keys together in “social­iza­tion cages,” which encour­ages them to groom each other and inter­act one-​on-​one. To boost preda­tor response, we played sounds made by preda­tors like eagles and jaguars, fol­lowed by other mon­keys’ alarm cries, so that the cap­tive woolly mon­keys would learn to rec­og­nize them as a threat.

A sci­en­tist from the Uni­ver­sity of the Andes observ­ing cap­tive woolly mon­keys as part of Colombia’s wildlife rein­te­gra­tion pro­gram. Mon­ica Ramirez, Author pro­vided

After the train­ing period, the six fittest mon­keys were released into the Huila for­est reserve, an area with ample food and pro­tec­tion from hunters. Two were juve­niles. Four were adults. All wore col­lars that tracked their loca­tion and recorded their behav­ior to eval­u­ate the mon­keys’ adap­ta­tion process. At first, we pro­vided some food for the newly rein­tro­duced mon­keys. After five months they were weaned off entirely.

Cau­tious opti­mism
A year after the six mon­keys were released, two had been recap­tured because they were strug­gling to adapt, spend­ing too much time on the for­est floor and unwill­ing to bond with their troop­mates. Two had gone miss­ing. And two died within months – one after falling from a tree and another of mys­te­ri­ous causes.

Admit­tedly, those aren’t great results.

We think the prob­lem may have been the loca­tion. The Huila nature reserve has enough fruit to feed the mon­keys, but it gets quite cold there. In low tem­per­a­tures, your body uses a lot of energy to heat itself. Per­haps their self-​feeding skills weren’t suf­fi­ciently devel­oped for them to con­sume enough calo­ries. Group cohe­sion was also low in this cohort, caus­ing some indi­vid­u­als to break away from their group – a dan­ger­ous thing to do in the jungle.

The forests of Huila, Colom­bia, where the first cohort of reha­bil­i­tated woolly mon­keys were released into the wild in 2017. Jaime Her­nando Duarte/​flickr, CC BY

Worth the effort
Our project shows how dif­fi­cult it is to restore endan­gered pri­mate pop­u­la­tions. But we need to keep try­ing. Over half of all Colombia’s 30 or so pri­mates species are in dan­ger of going extinct, accord­ing to Diana Guz­man, pres­i­dent of the Colom­bian Pri­ma­tol­ogy Asso­ci­a­tion. Their demise would have severe envi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences. South Amer­i­can pri­mates have been shown to eat, digest and dis­perse each day about 2 mil­lion seeds per square mile of habi­tat – an impor­tant eco­log­i­cal ser­vice for Colombia’s trop­i­cal forests.

Colom­bia does not have enough ani­mal sanc­tu­ar­ies and zoos to house the thou­sands of pri­mates recap­tured from smug­glers every year. Many are euth­a­nized, “rein­tro­duced” into inap­pro­pri­ate habi­tats or even returned to the black mar­ket. The lucky few that are taken into cap­tiv­ity often suf­fer from heart dis­ease, obe­sity, behav­ioral dis­rup­tions and psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age – dis­or­ders linked to a seden­tary lifestyle and inad­e­quate diet.

Com­pre­hen­sive, long-​term pri­mate reha­bil­i­ta­tion and rein­tro­duc­tion pro­grams like ours – which is funded by the Colom­bian gov­ern­ment and the non­profit Pri­mate Con­ser­va­tion, Inc. – are costly. We spend about $5,000 per mon­key reset­tled. But reha­bil­i­tat­ing and releas­ing seized ani­mals is far cheaper, and way more envi­ron­men­tally appro­pri­ate, than keep­ing them behind bars for a life­time. And ours is one of the few pri­mate rein­te­gra­tion pro­grams of its kind in Latin America.

The next gen­er­a­tion of woolly mon­keys
In Novem­ber 2018, we released our sec­ond cohort of six reha­bil­i­tated mon­keys, includ­ing one female mon­key recap­tured last time. This time, we chose the Rey Zamuro nature reserve, in the Meta Colom­bia region. The jun­gle there has warmer weather and likely a greater food sup­ply, and we are hope­ful they can estab­lish them­selves there.

So far, the Meta Colom­bia troop seems to be doing well, par­tic­u­larly in group bond­ing. We’ll keep check­ing in on them all year, learn­ing from their expe­ri­ences to help gen­er­a­tions of rewil­ded woolly mon­keys to come. The Conversation

(Source:This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion under a Cre­ative Com­mons license. Read the orig­i­nal arti­cle.)

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