The Woolly Monkey (Lagothrix sp.) is one of the largest South American primates, and rarely seen in the Ecuadorian Andes, so our reserve caretaker and photographer Luis Recalde is always excited about his encounters with them. Two months ago he had a close encounter near our Rio Zunac research station, and was able to get some good pictures.
This same troop was also seen and filmed in 2013 by Bethan John, WLT’s Roving Reporter. Here a mother monkey with baby is filmed in slow motion moving across a gap between trees:
This is probably Lagothrix poeppigii, which occurs in Amazonian Ecuador south of the Rio Napo. However, the IUCN Red Data Book lists this species as occurring below 1600-1800m, while our form can reach elevations of at least 2400m and possibly 3000m. There is some informal discussion among Ecuadorian primatologists about the identity of this highland form, which in Ecuador is only found in a few places in the east-central Andes. There is a slight chance that it may be a geographical variation of the critically endangered Lagothrix lugens, currently known only from eastern Colombia, which does regularly reach 3000m. We’ll be collected feces for DNA analysis when the opportunity arises.
Because of their size, Woolly Monkeys are eagerly hunted for food wherever they live. They played in important role on the diets of most indigenous Amazonian tribes, and were especially sought for meat during fiestas. With advances in hunting technologies, increased human population density, and changes in indigenous lifestyle from nomadic to sedentary, Woolly Monkeys have been largely eliminated from areas near human settlements. They have likewise been eliminated wherever there are colonists invading forest areas. Their meat is so desirable that they are even hunted commercially by some indigenous tribes. In the Ecuadorian Amazon this happens even inside national parks. Woolly Monkeys are extracted by some indigenous families to supply the “bush meat” market in nearby towns. Needless to say, the Ecuadorian populations of Woolly Monkeys are crashing.
The Woolly Monkeys of the Ecuadorian Amazon have therefore learned “avoidance behavior” to protect themselves. In areas where there is hunting, they become quiet and slip away when they detect a human. A recent study has shown that Woolly Monkeys distinguish between humans carrying blowpipes (indigenous hunters), humans collecting plant material, and humans that are simply observing; the monkeys adjust their behavior accordingly:
However, the Rio Zunac area has not been inhabited by indigenous tribes for the last couple of centuries, so the Woolly Monkeys here behave differently when they encounter a human. They may not react at all, but sometimes the males actually approach an observer, and may try to scare the observer away with threat displays. This of course would be suicidal for them in regions where there is even light hunting.
Unfortunately, now that many of the neighboring Amazonian indigenous groups have almost eliminated Woolly Monkeys in their own territory, they sometimes make hunting expeditions into the Rio Zunac area and the adjoining Llanganates National Park, specifically targeting Woolly Monkeys, Mountain Tapir, and Spectacled Bear. These expeditions often occur just before fiestas, and usually involve many hunters, who stay in the field for many days. They smoke the meat they obtain in the field, to preserve it until the fiesta. Recently a guard for the national park caught one such expedition and confiscated many smoked Woolly Monkey carcasses. EcoMinga’s guards and the national park guards have recently begun to work together, and we hope that we can protect this trusting local population of the Woolly Monkeys from human threats.
Like nearly everyone else here, even our own guards used to hunt monkeys. In this video, one of our guards, Jesus Recalde (who named his son “Darwin”, by the way), tells Bethan John about the experience that changed him permanently into a non-hunter. That linked video also contains normal-speed video of the same mother and baby Woolly Monkey that Bethan filmed in slow motion in the clip embedded earlier.
Human hunters are not the only thing these monkeys have to worry about. The Andean (Black-and-chestnut) Eagle, Spizaetus (formerly Oroaetus) isidori, also eat these monkeys, and have been seen elsewhere flying through the air with one of these monkeys hanging from their claws! These two species have evolved together for millions of years, so it is not something we need to worry about.
A more insidious potential threat is climate change. There are signs that unusual climate variations are desynchronizing the flowering and fruiting cycles of east Andean trees in Ecuador. Fruits are the main food of Woolly Monkeys, and the monkeys move around to take advantage of mass fruitings of specific species at specific elevations. Desynchronization of these fruiting events may stress our monkey populations, though no one really knows what will happen. Here all we can do is protect the monkeys from the threats that we can control, and hope for the best as climate changes.
We are desperate for operating funds to keep the EcoMinga Foundation afloat. Tax-deductible donations in the US can be made via a dedicated PayPal button on the website of our partner, the Orchid Conservation Alliance:
Donors will need to write the Orchid Conservation Alliance for the tax reciept. Write to Peter Tobias (tobias at scripps’edu); he can also arrange to accept tax-deductible donations by means other than PayPal.
In the UK, donations can be sent to our partner the World Land Trust.
These partners support other worthy organizations besides us; if you want to make sure your donation goes to us, please make sure you earmark it for EcoMinga and let us know. Thanks!