Local communities key to saving the Critically Endangered Mexican black howler monkey

This interview was carried out for the environmental news website Mongabay.com, you can read the original here.

For conservation initiatives around the world, community involvement is often crucial. An additional challenge is how to conserve species once their habitats have become fragmented. A primatologist in Mexico is bringing these together in a celebration of a Critically Endangered primate species: the Mexican black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra). Juan Carlos Serio-Silva, of the Instituto de Ecología, AC (INECOL) – Xalapa, Veracruz, and the Estación de Investigación Primatológica y Vida Silvestre – Balancán, Tabasco, has worked with Mexican primates for 25 years. In 2013 he was part of a team that not only helped to secure the establishment of a protected area for the Mexican black howler monkey, but also engaged local communities in a week of festivities, dubbed the First International Black Howler Monkey Week. Here thousands of locals participated in workshops, tours, educational efforts, and reforestation activities.

Two students enjoy their masks during Monkey Week. Photo courtesy of Juan Carlos Serio Silva.Two students enjoy their masks during Monkey Week. Photo courtesy of Juan Carlos Serio Silva.

“Probably the most important and urgent activity is to promote more environmental education in all places where scientific research is conducted. It is very important to spread the value of wildlife (including primates) and the forested areas where they survive,” Serio-Silva exlained in a recent interview, adding that, “We cannot be only spectators but we must act, researching, protecting, and restoring. Only then will our primate diversity and communities be able to live in harmony.”

In an interview with Mongabay.com, Serio-Silva shares his experiences from decades of primatology research, habitat restoration and connecting communities with conservation.

The students show off their work during Monkey Week. Photo courtesy of Juan Carlos Serio Silva.
The students show off their work during Monkey Week. Photo courtesy of Juan Carlos Serio Silva.

INTERVIEW WITH JUAN CARLOS SERIO-SILVA

Mongabay.com: What is your background?

Juan Carlos Serio-Silva: My initial studies were a biology degree, and later I undertook a Master’s in neuroethology and a Ph.D. in ecology and natural resource management. In all research projects my main interest was to understand holistically the biology of wild primates, so during the Bachelor’s degree I understood aspects of primate behavior, during the Master’s I was working on aspects of their physiology, and finally during the Ph.D. I was looking to identify the role that wild primates have on the dynamics and regeneration of tropical forests.

Mongabay.com: How long have you been working with primates in Mexico, and what is the focus of your research?

Juan Carlos Serio-Silva: I started to study primates in the forests of southeastern Mexico in November 1988, so at this point I have a little more than 25 years studying wild monkeys and hope to have many more to continue “assembling the puzzle” of the biology of these fantastic animals.

Currently, the main objective of our research team is to identify the way in which Mexican primates (black and mantled howler monkeys and spider monkeys) adapt behaviorally, ecologically and physiologically to the serious problems of habitat fragmentation. Thus, our research includes working with monkeys in several projects, for example: a) aspects of nutrition and food selection in different strata of the fragmented forest, b) exposure of wild primates to emerging diseases, c) parasite incidence and exposure to heavy metals, d) loss of genetic diversity by fragmentation of the environment, and e) the use of probiotics for the maintenance of captive animals and subsequent release of wildlife, among others.

The students explore monkey habitat during Monkey Week. Photo courtesy of Juan Carlos Serio Silva.
The students explore monkey habitat during Monkey Week. Photo courtesy of Juan Carlos Serio Silva.

People in local communities are also working hard, and we try to support them in projects that seek to restore habitat to help these primates by placing trees between the habitat fragments to achieve future connectivity. While the trees grow, we have placed a suspension bridge so that monkeys do not have to go down to the ground where they are attacked by dogs or coyotes. We have also worked with women in the communities who have developed crafts related to monkeys and are now obtaining an economic benefit from these activities.

We frequently run different workshops for children to learn about the importance and value of the primates living near their community, and in each workshop “guardians of monkeys and jungle” are appointed to ensure greater commitment to conservation. Of course, all these activities are not performed by a single person, but involve a team of colleagues and students participating with great joy in these activities. Also funding agencies like the National Geographic and the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas of Mexico (CONANP) who funded the PROCER supports the development of these projects.

Mongabay.com: What are the main threats facing these primate populations?

Juan Carlos Serio-Silva: Unfortunately, in Mexico (as in many parts of Mesoamerica) the main threats for wild primates are, in order of importance:

  • the destruction and fragmentation of their habitat,
  • the capture of individuals for sale as pets, and
  • individuals hunting in some places for consumption as bush meat.

Wild monkeys are extremely sensitive to the alteration of their habitat and although they have good behavioral flexibility to temporarily adapt to these changes, the reality is that we are slowly beginning to see their populations affected by isolation and by exposure to events and risks that were not present before (e.g., illness or deaths from collisions on the roads). In many places, these monkey populations are doomed to extinction and that is why in our research we seek the best strategies (academic and social) to mitigate these events.

Mongabay.com: Some steps have recently been taken to safeguard habitat for one Critically Endangered species – can you tell us about the “Sacred Sanctuary of the Black Howler Monkey”?

Juan Carlos Serio-Silva: After many years of identifying the problematic situation of wild monkeys and their habitat, (where always there are human settlements), we have seen that we can only have a positive effect on the conservation of these animals if people are involved with elements of the environment with which they can identify and feel represented. For the above, our research team developed an identity and conservation model for the care of black howler monkeys (Alouatta pigra) and its habitat in the Municipality of Balancán, Tabasco, Mexico. So, after several academic-political meetings (which is truly very complicated by differences in senses of words), the municipal authorities of Balancán agreed to develop a formal declaration, where from October 2013 Balancan, Tabasco is identified as the “Sanctuary of the Sacred Black Howler Monkey.”

This declaration now places this municipality as the only city nationwide to give importance to wild monkeys that are in their territory, and for example, official documents now refer to “Balancán: Sanctuary of the Sacred Black Howler Monkey.”

A fortunate thing is that as well as government representatives of the municipality, we also had excellent support from environmental representatives of Tabasco State Government (SERNAPAM) who supported this proposal from the beginning. With all these initiatives, the idea is to work together with projects to improve the conservation and restoration of habitat and living conditions of these black howler monkeys (maybe with more protected-reserve areas), besides bringing academic tourism projects where local people can support students or researchers to show the location of populations of primates.

The students hard at work on their art projects during Monkey Week. Photo courtesy of Juan Carlos Serio Silva.
The students hard at work on their art projects during Monkey Week. Photo courtesy of Juan Carlos Serio Silva.

Mongabay.com: You recently organized the First International Black Howler Week in Balancán, Tabasco; what did this involve, and what kind of impact did it have?

Juan Carlos Serio-Silva: As part of the celebration for the declaration of Balancán, Tabasco as “Sacred Sanctuary of the Black Howler Monkey,” our research team developed a great festival called the “First International Black Howler Monkey Week” with the support of local authorities, state and federal government (SERNAPAM and PROCER-CONANP respectively), local schools, and communities near the sites where these primates live. A representative of the Primate Education Network (PEN) , an international organization for primate conservation educators, also participated.

This event was held in the month of November and in the future it will be held every year in the town. Among the main activities that took place in the Central Park of Balancán village were: popular lectures given by the students and teachers who have worked on the study site and who have come from Mexico, Colombia, France, Spain, USA, etc. Also, during afternoons and evenings several primate related workshops were offered simultaneously, for children and adults in the same place, such as exhibitions of primate handicrafts made by people in the community, cultural activities such as dancing, singing, poetry, theater, a mural was painted and movies (all primate related) were offered for all the people who were learning about the black howler monkeys and other primate species that exist in Mexico and the importance of preserving tropical rain forest.

During each morning, the main activities were workshops in kindergarten, primary, and high schools across the Municipality of Balancán. Besides this, we established guided tours to explain to visitors the various aspects of the biology of these primates. This was done in the fragments of vegetation that our black howler monkey populations inhabit in the area of “Primatological and Wildlife Field Station Research” located on the Rancheria Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez in Balancán, Tabasco. During such visits, the children had the opportunity to ask about any information that they wanted to know about behavior, ecology, and physiology of these animals and after this they were involved in an activity called “Give a tree gift to the howler monkey,” where each child planted a tree to help to establish forest corridors between fragments and in the future monkeys do not have to get off the ground exposing themselves to risks. In sum, during the week of activities we had the participation of 3,000 – 4,000 persons who learned about the importance of the monkeys directly from the researchers who studied them in the field.

The students show off their work during Monkey Week. Photo courtesy of Juan Carlos Serio Silva.
The students show off their work during Monkey Week. Photo courtesy of Juan Carlos Serio Silva.

Mongabay.com: What do you see as the most urgent conservation action that needs to be taken for the species that you work with?

Juan Carlos Serio-Silva: There are different options to increase the chances of preserving Mexican primates and their habitat. But probably the most important and urgent activity is to promote more environmental education in all places where scientific research is conducted. It is very important to spread the value of wildlife (including primates) and the forested areas where they survive. Besides these actions, we must perform restoration programs to develop vegetation corridors between forest fragments, which connect areas to help animals without having to go down to the ground exposing themselves to predators or be infected by diseases. These activities also provide temporary jobs for local people and will increase understanding of the value of preserving forested habitat on their properties and ranches.

We think that the link between researchers and leaders at all levels should be strengthened to propose sustainable alternatives and follow the “progress” without destroying the habitat of the species. One example of this should be ensuring that road construction companies create “wildlife crossing roads” to help avoid the many deaths caused by vehicles.

In several local sites, health authorities should also conduct sterilization programs for dogs on ranches where there is an incredible overpopulation of individuals. These animals are predators of many species of wildlife, and at the same time these dogs could be vectors for many diseases in the human-environment-primate interface. Finally, the most important thing in all these different conservationist approaches is the organization with all people involved to try to include their interests and reconcile with the value of a better life for the future. This better life may only be obtained by combining productive activities with low impacts on the environment and restoration strategies for what is currently degraded.

Mongabay.com: What are your plans for future research?

Juan Carlos Serio-Silva: After devoting more than half of my life on this planet to study wild monkeys, many times I felt that there is something we have not done well, because forests are still being altered and primates are ever more threatened. When I meet many people in the local communities it seems that the reason for this unfortunate situation is that we had not been working together, and during many years many researchers around the world forgot the responsibility of teaching local communities and people involved in government offices about the importance of conserving the environment and primary species in the tropical forest like wild monkeys. Instead, some scientists said it was not their responsibility, and didn’t return to the communities where they studied, and failed to provide information on the flora and fauna in the local language.

My plans for the future are much more than just undertaking more traditional research with Mexican primates. I wish that every moment I will have to do my research always involves a component of education and conversion of habitat degraded to habitat restored. We cannot be only spectators but we must act, researching, protecting, and restoring. Only then will our primate diversity and communities be able to live in harmony.

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Dawn, dusk, dolphins and downpours

When we could, we would watch twilight rise and fall over the Tiputini river. Getting up in the dark, we would go and sit on the steps rising up from the dock, and then wait as the sky brightened and the forest woke up. In the evenings, tired from the day, we would watch dusk descend. One morning, the hypnotic flow of the river was broken by the quiet breaching and breathing of pink river dolphins. We heard them more than we saw them, and would often turn to see only ripples on the water’s surface, but it was magical to witness their journey past the research station at the start of the day. In the evening, we would watch as woolly monkeys busied themselves in the highest branches of huge trees on the opposite riverbank, finally settling down to sleep, and in the morning we were up before them, and saw them slowly wake up in the morning sun. Macaws would screech as they flew high above the river to their night-time roosts, and bats would emerge when it was almost too dark to distinguish them skittering over the surface of the river.

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One night distant thunderclouds and flashes of lightning, and fireflies close by, added to the drama. That night, in our pitch dark cabin, we listened to the sound of one metre of rain falling over the course of just six hours. The complete darkness meant we were unable to see even a hand in front of our faces, or the outline of our cabin window, and the deafening roar of torrential rain was such that even the loudest scream would have gone unheard. It was a strange, claustrophobic night, we felt blind, deaf, and mute, and each time we woke it was the same never-ending darkness and noise. The light of daybreak and the easing of the rain came as a relief, and we finally slept well in the cool rainy morning, before heading out into the wet and froggy forest in the afternoon.

tiny jungle frogjungle frogtree roots jungly 2 jungly 1 jungle vines 2 jungle vines

One afternoon Jose took us on a long walk through the forest, sharing his great depth of knowledge with us. We knocked on the trunk of a tree that sounded hollow, and learnt it was the balsa tree, with cotton-like seeds. We found blobs of natural rubber, tested the insect-bite soothing properties of one vine, and kept our distance from another that was used on the tip of poison darts. We learnt that termites are great engineers, modifiying not only their nests but also the trees that they build them on, to funnel water away quickly so they avoid flooding.

termites

We saw a sleepy spider monkey lounging on a branch, and a puffbird with a large spider in its beak. We crept up to a clay lick and watched three red howler monkeys silently climb up and away from the clay. Finally, at the end of the walk, and the end of our time with Jose, he took a palm frond, extracted lengths of fibre from it, spun it into a thread, and then wove an intricate bracelet which he presented as a parting gift, now a most treasured reminder of our time in the jungle.

Our return to Quito came far too soon, and we drank in the jungle on our early morning journey back up the misty Tiputini river. It was now much higher, and flowing much faster, after the rain, and the riverbanks were submerged. A small arboreal anteater called a tamandua was battling to swim across the current, and we celebrated this final rare sighting.

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View from the canopy, a rainforest lagoon, and the smallest monkey in the world

The Yasuni rainforest is a wonderland for a biologist. It jostles for position as the world’s most biodiverse place with other sites in the Peruvian and Bolivian Amazon, and Andean lowlands. It is home to hundreds of amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species, over 1000 species of tree, and thousands and thousands of insects. Enigmatic large cats, anaconda, pink river dolphins, ten primate species, bird species ranging from the enormous harpy eagle to tiny hummingbirds, and untold undiscovered species are all here. A visit is a chance to maybe catch a glimpse of some of these, but it all depends on luck. Like stepping into a tropical greenhouse at a botanic garden, it envelops you in humidity and the smell of vegetation, but with a glorious cacophony of insect, bird and frog calls. A hundred shades of green hide almost all animal life to the untrained eye, but with time the animals become easier to see. The noise in the canopy that you initially confuse with leaves in the wind alerts you to monkeys, the forest floor becomes alive with camouflaged frogs and insects, and butterflies dance across your path. Birds are easier to hear than to see, but a hummingbird may pause, hovering inches from your face, as it zips along it’s flight path, and the croak of a macaw means you can catch a flash of red as it flies over the canopy far above. Your eyes become trained to notice movement, and with time you see more and more.

We arrived for a week at Tiputini Biodiversity Station – just across the river from Yasuni National Park proper – full of anticipation. We knew all these species were all around us (and with camera trapping projects run by the station, it is sometimes unnerving to realise just how close some of these species regularly are), but it would be mostly down to luck, combined with the infinite skill and knowledge of our guide, Jose, that would determine what we would see.

We started in the canopy, high above the forest floor, at dawn on our first morning. We set off in the gloomy pre-dawn light, straining to see the trail and not trip over any tree roots. Jose immediately spotted a tiny, perfectly camouflaged frog, by the side of the trail, which set the tone for the following days as he repeatedly spotted birds and animals that were invisible to us. The canopy platform was 45 metres off the ground, in the vast branches of an enormous tree, themselves part of a complex ecosystem supporting bromeliads and climbing plants, birds, insects, and amphibians. To reach it, we climbed a metal tower, which became slightly more nerve-wracking with every flight of stairs. It was a cloudy day, so rather than sunrise we watched the light change and the forest wake up.

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We soon spotted two gangly spider monkeys making their way between the tree tops, some distance away and beneath us. One, after reaching a new palm, re-caught a frond of the previous one while suspended by its tail, making a bridge for the smaller monkey to climb across. Scarlet macaws circled the tower in a spectacular flypast. A hummingbird visited the epiphyte flowers, colourful paradise and opal-crowned tanagers were busy in the tree canopy above us, and a lizard froze and changed colour under our gaze. We spotted a many banded aracari, a puffbird, a bare throated fruit crow, and vultures hunched among bare branches in the distance.

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Back on the ground, we caught sight of our first primate species, the rare and endemic golden-mantled tamarin.

© Flickr user lowjumpingfrog http://www.flickr.com/photos/jenorton/

After a huge lunch and a siesta, we were back on the trails, this time on a slow walk to a lagoon. On the way there we crept quietly off the trail – with Jose whispering instructions – and stood beneath a tree, craning our necks. The inhabitants we were looking for were pygmy marmosets, the smallest monkey in the world. After a short while, a tiny, scrabbling gremlin skittered down the trunk.

Photo by Jim Wolfe

Photo by Jim Wolfe

The pygmy marmosets feed by chewing through the bark of the tree, and lapping up the sap. The tree was covered in pits.  (This video is of the same species, but was filmed by a lodge in Peru)

 

Further along the trail we saw dusky titi monkeys, woolly monkeys, and monk saki monkeys, bringing the first day’s total to six species of primate.

The lagoon itself was ringed by palms, the lower couple of metres of which were muddy from the high water during the rainy season. We paddled quietly across the water in a canoe. Hoatzins, a prehistoric dinosaur of a bird, huffed and crashed about in the branches, and caciques whirred about, noisily building their hanging nests. We also spotted an anaconda, motionless, under some low hanging branches. The most biodiverse place on earth was living up to its reputation.

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Whereas the first morning was spent observing the forest wake up from above, the second found us in a boat, travelling downstream on the Tiputini river. We were heading for a parrot clay lick, a part of the river bank where flocks of parrots congregate each day, to get vital minerals from the soil. boat tiputini

As we rounded a bend in the river we came across a submerged tapir, which lumbered up and out of the water, and disappeared up the bank. Kingfishers, disturbed by the boat engine, seemed to lead the way, pausing on a branch ahead of us only to take off again as we got close. Turtles plopped into the water, and night herons stood guard at the water’s edge. Once in position, we watched as parrots gathered in the cecropia trees above the lick, and eventually, after much noisy chatter, they descended and continued to excavate a small cave out of the bank. Once or twice they were spooked by something, a huge flock rising and circling before returning to eat some more.

On our way back, the boat slowed, and Jose gestured that he had seen something in the water. We were then led a merry dance by three pink river dolphins, noses and fins appearing behind us, then in front of us, but never alongside the boat.

Later that evening we were on the river again, scouring the banks with a huge spotlight, looking for reflected eye-shine of caiman. The jungle at night feels like a different world, and it was cool and breezy on the boat, watching nightjars, and alert for animals on the riverbank. Then it was to bed, to be quickly lulled to sleep by the rhythmic chirps, whirrs, pips, buzzes and croaks of insects and frogs in the absolute darkness. This recording gives a taste of the Amazonian night time soundscape.