In Search of Panama Elusive Spider Monkeys – For a while, as hundreds of blue morpho butterflies fluttered around us, the tropical colors of the tropical forest were transformed into neon blue.
But a dreamlike situation, reminiscent of something from James Cameron’s “Avatar”, was interrupted by a series of loud shouts from the canopy above. I raised my eyes to look up at the top of the trees and saw the perpetrators: the Azuero spider monkeys looking for fruit.
These rare little species are the reason we are here. After six grueling days in the jungle of Panama, we finally found them.
The sight was temporary. The sound of cattle coming from nearby pastures terrified the monkeys, and they retreated into the safety of their wooded home.
The Azuero Peninsula of South Panama, a square mile [50 km] away in the Pacific Ocean, is home to the remaining tropical rain forest, an ecosystem that has a more important dry season than the rainy season, where evaporation often evaporates. it rains all year round.
In Azuero, dry forests have been divided into deforestation and cattle clearance in order to make way for luxurious housing, leaving isolated forests scattered throughout the forested area. The islands that inhabit them provide shelter for hundreds of animals and birds that are found nowhere else in the country, including the endangered Spider monkey Azuero.
During a 2013 human survey, wildlife expert Dr. Pedro Mendez-Carvajal of Oxford Brookes University estimated that there were only 145 Azuero spider monkeys left in the wild, making them one of the rarest species of animals living in central South America. In addition to suffering the loss of their habitat, these animals, which appear to be insects, are also hunted down and poisoned by local farmers.
In the fall of 2017, I moved to the Azuero Peninsula to work with Pro Eco Azuero, an ecosystem that aims to protect biodiversity and help local people to make informed and sustainable decisions about their environment.
It was founded by Ruth Metzel and is currently led by Sandra Vasquez de Zambrano, P.E.A. has established a community-based approach to conservation that includes working with farmers to replant trees, working with local teachers to develop curriculum programs on conservation and sustainability, and collaborating with local advocates to promote a culture of conservation and land management.
Based on the pedestrian valley at Pedasi, I spent a month focusing on P.E.A., Dividing my time between forest and sea. Meanwhile, I joined a team of local volunteers and biology students from the University of Panama during a randomized survey to document the lives of well-known families of monkeys. I also took photographs that could be used in public education programs.
Guided by tips from local farmers and students, we spent our days traversing dense vegetation and climbing waterfalls in search of chimpanzees. At night, we visited rural schools to present slide presentations, discussing pictures of wildlife that many children had never seen, even though they lived with animals in their backyard.
On the beach, I followed the efforts of the P.E.A. and Tortugas Pedasi, their ally, who will write about the amazing Pacific coast. At the time, these conservation groups were trying to secure the national protection of the Pablo Arturo Barrios Wildlife Refuge offshore, while educating students about the benefits of marine conservation.
As I have already witnessed in the jungle, members of the local communities work with these organizations on a spectacular display of natural interactions.
The construction of a wildlife tunnel – covering 75 miles and 62,000 hectares – across the Azuero Peninsula was one of the first projects initiated by the P.E.A. when it was founded 12 years ago. By planting trees on pristine plains, the tunnel will increase the size of the available habitat by reconnecting several now remote forest islands. When the tunnel is completed, the P.E.A. hopes an increase in forest habitat will allow the number of animals – including spider monkeys – to increase
It took several years before the idea was developed, as rural farmers doubted the value of sacrificing valuable pastures to plant forests.