Searching for Panama's elusive spider monkeys

For a brief moment, as hundreds of blue morpho butterflies floated gracefully around us, the green hues of the rainforest shifted to neo...


For a brief moment, as hundreds of blue morpho butterflies floated gracefully around us, the green hues of the rainforest shifted to neon blue.

But the dreamlike scene, reminiscent of something out of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” was interrupted by a series of sonic chirps from the canopy above. As I strained my eyes to see into the treetops, I spotted the culprits: a pair of orange-tinted Azuero spider monkeys searching for fruit.

This incredibly rare subspecies was the reason we were here. After six grueling days of unsuccessfully hiking through the tropical dry forest of Panama, we had finally found them.

The sighting was momentary. The sound of cows from a nearby pasture startled the agile primates, and they retreated deeper into the safety of their forest home.

Panama’s southern Azuero Peninsula, a square block of land that juts about 50 miles into the Pacific Ocean, is home to the country’s only remaining dry tropical forest, an ecosystem that experiences a more prominent dry season than the rainy season, and where evaporation of moisture often exceeds precipitation throughout the year.

In Azuero, the dry forest has been fragmented by deforestation due to cattle ranching and the clear-cutting of coastal trees to make way for luxury homes, leaving isolated pockets of forest scattered across an otherwise treeless landscape. . These island habitats provide isolated refuges for hundreds of animal and bird species found nowhere else in the country, including the critically endangered Azuero spider monkey.

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

In the fall of 2017, I traveled to the Azuero Peninsula to work alongside Pro Eco Azueroa conservation organization that aims to protect the region’s biodiversity and help local people make informed and sustainable decisions about their environment.

Founded by Ruth Metzel and currently managed by Sandra Vasquez de ZambranoPEA has developed a community-based approach to conservation that involves working alongside farmers to replant trees, working with local teachers to create conservation and sustainability lesson plans, and partnering with local supporters to foster a culture of conservation and land stewardship.

Based in the surf village of Pedasi, I spent a month embedded in the PEA, dividing my time between the forest and the sea. Inside, I joined a team of local volunteers and biology students from the University of Panama during an informal survey to document the health of known families of spider monkeys. I also captured photographs that could be used in community education programs.

Guided by the guidance of local farmers and students, we spent our days traversing dense undergrowth and waterfalls in search of the elusive primates. At night we visited rural schools to present slide shows of what we had found, sharing images of wild animals that many children had never seen, despite having lived with the animals in their own backyards -court.

At the beach I followed the efforts of PEA and Tortugas Pedasi, a partner organization, to document the beautiful Pacific coast. At the time, conservation groups were trying to get national protection for the coast Pablo Arturo Barrios Wildlife Refugewhile teaching students the benefits of marine conservation.

Just as I had witnessed in the forest, members of local communities worked alongside these organizations in an impressive display of environmentally conscious camaraderie.

The creation of a wildlife corridor – spanning 75 miles and 62,000 acres – across the Azuero Peninsula was one of the first projects initiated by PEA when it was established 12 years ago. By planting trees through clear-cut landscapes, the corridor will increase the size of available habitat by reconnecting several patches of forest that are currently isolated from each other. Once the corridor is completed, PEA hopes the increased forest habitat will allow animal populations – including the elusive spider monkeys – to thrive.

It took several years before the idea caught on, as rural farmers were skeptical of the benefits of sacrificing valuable pasture to regrow forests.

“When we started, we thought it would be as simple as knocking on people’s doors, planting trees and making a difference,” said Ms. Vasquez de Zambrano, executive director of PEA. “Of course it didn’t work out, so we had to look for a way to get into those communities.”

After discovering that teachers were the key to gaining the villagers’ trust, PEA launched a series of educational programs centered on conservation, sustainability and coexistence. Over time, they were teaching over 700 students each year. As PEA nurtures a new generation of young environmental activists, parents have begun to hear and digest the importance of conservation through conversations with family rather than strangers.

“It’s more meaningful when it’s our own children who say we need to reforest and protect nature,” Ms Vasquez de Zambrano said. “I think working with the kids has made a real difference.”

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

The Azuero continues to face serious threats, including the reintroduction of large-scale mining to the area and the introduction of new legislation that could allow development on protected lands. Still, Ms. Vasquez remains optimistic about the power to teach and foster new environmental reformers.

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

matt stim is an archaeologist and photojournalist based in Boston and Jackson Hole, Wyo. You can follow his work on instagram.



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