Being cute is prized among humans, but for primates such as the variegated spider monkey (Ateles hybridus) and the cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus), the trait can be costly.
Alba Lucia Morales, of CI-partner Fundación Biodiversa Colombia, admits to thinking the spider monkeys are “the most wonderful in the forest.” They are “big and noisy … the pregnant females are beautiful and the babies are gray and very cute.”
But beauty in these animals is both blessing and curse. Deforestation and illegal wildlife trade threaten many animals, and these monkeys have an added challenge. No one is entirely sure exactly how many are taken each year for the illegal pet trade.
Healthy Forest Habitat and the Wildlife Trade
Both variegated spider monkeys and cotton-tops are found almost exclusively in the forests of Colombia, South America (although the variegated spider monkeys also occur in neighboring Venezuela), where their habitat is under siege by logging and other human pressures. But there is hope – these charismatic monkeys have a cadre of protectors, from CI staff and partners to the local communities that share their forest home.
With their pale-furred bellies and off-white Tintin tufts, variegated spider monkeys evoke both old men and excitable toddlers, and share their habitat with other primates such as howlers, owl monkeys and capuchins. Habitat loss and the pet trade have taken a toll. Currently, close to 20 monkeys – confiscated from illegal traders – are in holding awaiting relocation or reintroduction.
IN DEPTH: Check out the Interactive Primate Tree.
Cotton-top tamarins are smaller than spider monkeys, but they are equally charming, with outsize feet and shocks of wild white hair. They, too, are losing habitat at an alarming rate.
According to Anne Savage, Senior Conservation Biologist for Disney’s Animal Programs, cotton-tops can survive in degraded forest but not isolated forest “islands” that are disconnected from other kinds of habitat. Once, Savage recalls, she received a phone call from field staff saying that workers “were cutting down trees [at the same time] as they were trying to count monkeys.”
“Between 30 and 70 percent of original habitat [has] disappeared,” she continues, “due to deforestation for agricultural purposes, clearing land for cattle grazing or using trees for building materials and firewood.”
Cotton-tops have also been taken for the biomedical trade. And as pets. “They shoot the mother with a slingshot and take the young off her back when she falls to the ground,” says Savage.
Protecting Forests, Monkeys, and People
Because successful conservation requires building healthy human communities, CI and its partners have been hard at work. “Without their support conservation will not be possible,” says Morales. “We have hired people from the local communities as guides or to move the researchers to different places.”
Savage highlights two projects that help local communities. Proyecto Tití teaches villagers to make small “bindes” (traditional termite-mound cookstoves) out of clay, which burn two-thirds less wood than open fires, reducing the need for cutting of trees for firewood. And because plastic bag litter is a huge environmental problem in Colombia, Proyecto Tití is also developing a market for “eco-mochilas” by teaching villagers how to crochet the traditional bags out of plastic instead of cotton or hemp.
“Cotton-tops play an important role in the ecology of the tropical forests,” says Savage, citing their role in seed dispersal and pollination. “We’ve tried to create an awareness of these animals and build an economy around the protection of tropical forests.”
“Forests at Las Quinchas Serranía,” says Erwin Palacios, director of CI’s Caparú Biological Station in Colombian Amazonia, “contain many creeks and small rivers which provide water to local people in the immediate vicinity, but also capture water that benefits rural people living in farther areas of the Magdalena River valley. There is a direct and important link between conserving variegated spider monkeys and their habitat, and human health.”
Put simply, protecting habitat keeps water clean. Protected forests keep climate-changing CO2 out of our atmosphere as well.
The threats facing Colombia’s primates are intense, but so is the effort to save them. Maybe being “cute” has a few benefits after all.
READ MORE: Primates face threats throughout the world.