Over the last fifteen years, 24 critically endangered brown-headed spider monkeys have been taken in and cared for at the Jambeli rescue center in Ecuador. Many of the primates were tragic victims of the illegal wildlife trafficking trade. Now, in a project led by Ecuadorian NGO, Project Washu, in conjunction with the Fundación Jambeli rescue center and the Mashpi reserve, seven of the monkeys have begun their journey to complete rainforest freedom. It is hoped that others will join these pioneers in the coming years.
The area in which the animals have been released was historically the natural habitat of the species, but due to pressure from deforestation, hunting and trafficking, the species have become locally extinct.
So threatened is the brown-headed spider monkey that it is officially classed as “critically endangered” in the wild. As such, not only will this ground-breaking project be an incredible opportunity for those individuals to live the life which they should have experienced from birth, but it offers hope for the future survival of the species, which plays a vital role in seed dispersal in Ecuador’s Chocó region.
“The spider monkeys feed on fruits and, as they travel through the forest, digesting the fruits as they go and passing the seeds, they act as important seed dispersers for many species of plant,” Nathalia Fuentes, one of the lead investigators on the project, tells One Green Planet, “In addition, passing the seeds in their faeces means that the plants are given an extra helping hand in that they are planted in a ready-made fertilizer!”
The disappearance of the spider monkey has greatly impacted the Chocó region and it is hoped that with the release of these seven monkey, a renewed focus on conservation will spawn the return of the once-native monkey population.
The Road to Freedom
In the very first attempt of its kind, rescued spider monkeys Pipe, Pale, Pao, Pipa, Poli, Kiara and Kiara’s baby, Killa, are being introduced into their natural habitat with the hope that, after a period of acclimatization, they will be able to live in complete freedom.
The seven pioneering spider monkeys have been going through all-important pre-release training for life in the wild. This includes developing an understanding of predators and the dangers they pose and learning how to forage and find food for themselves. The monkeys will be fitted with radio collars so that, once released, the team can monitor their progress. In addition to the monkeys’ need to learn about life in the forest, investigator, Felipe Alfonso, told One Green Planet that community engagement will also play a vital role in the project’s ongoing success:
“In order for the release program to be a success, we need to look beyond the needs of the individual animals and address the issues which may impact on their future survival. This means that, in addition to working to help to acclimatize the monkeys themselves to their new lives, we have also carried out extensive community engagement in the area where they are being released to help local people understand what we are trying to achieve and why.”
This remains one of the driving missions of Project Washu, a youth-led organization that was founded in 2011 with the express purpose of integrating research and conservation efforts to project the El Chocó ecosystem.
The team’s deep understanding of the local context and the need to protect entire ecosystems and habitats if any species is to survive informs their approach to environmental challenges in the area. Speaking of the organization’s wider vision for the future.
“The value of an ecosystem such as the Ecuadorian Chocó goes beyond the resources it can provide to humans,” Paola Moscoso told One Green Planet, “This place is home to an incredible diversity of organisms that depend on the conservation of this refuge to survive; many species exist nowhere else on the planet.”
Moscoso goes on to explain, “For this reason, we want to be the bridge that allows an approach towards understanding the importance of the ecosystem’s preservation and an appreciation of nature as a source of life and balance. We firmly believe that it is only by understanding our environment that we can generate a change in lifestyle, thus achieving a balance that allows for the survival of both nature and the people who live in it.”
We hope you will join us in wishing Pipe, Pale, Pao, Pipa, Poli, Kiara and little Killa long, healthy and happy lives in their new rainforest home. You can find out more about the amazing work of Project Washu by visiting the group’s Facebook page or website. Learn more about the Fundación Jambeli rescue center and the Mashpi reserve here.
All image source: Proyecto WASHU