Monkey Forest Tales: Are volunteer experiences worth it?

In the past some students have asked if volunteers experiences are really worth it. In today’s post I will talk about it from my own experience. My short answer is YES it is worth it.

I’m from a country where social, family and financial pressures make you think that any free job is not worth it. Why? because if you finish your career you need to start working and stop depending on your family, except if your family have some means to support you.

In my case, I have some family support at some times, but not all the time. Some volunteer work I did were using my own resources. I didn’t start doing volunteer work after a few years after graduation. A bit later than many people from Europe, US or Australia who sometimes start volunteering at a younger age.

There are different types of volunteer work, and all give you different kinds of experiences, from administrative, logistic to fieldwork experience. Most important to understand is that these different volunteer experience can give you experiences that can be used in your CV as skills that you bring with you when applying to a new job.

Some other volunteer experiences give you opportunities to meet new people, visit places otherwise you won’t be able to visit, or help to study animals that you are interested on but don’t feel sure you want to expend too much time working on. In all cases, the experience you get will depend on how well you choose where you do your volunteer experience.

As well as when you choose where to study, is important to search about the institution, people, and area in which you are planning to do your volunteer work. In some cases, how much money will you require to do it is another consideration to have in mind. If you have doubts, ask questions, look for people who had made volunteer work with the same organization and ask them questions, research the place you will visit. All that information can help you choose the experience and make the best of it.

In my experience, all volunteer work has challenges. In some cases, those challenges comes from working with people from different cultures and backgrounds, others come from natural conditions of the place in which you have to work and other come from your own personal preferences of how, when and with who you like to work. For me, volunteer experiences are learning experiences that sometimes are need it to really know what is best for me and where I work the best.

So, if you are thinking of doing a volunteer work in science, my best advice is to research a bit first about, conditions, cost, and type of experience you will get and then make your decision knowing that you are not only going to learn about some interesting topic, but also about yourself…

© Copyright Disclaimer. Sketches were made by Cleve Hicks, pictures reproduced with his permission. All pictures used on this web page are protected with copyrights to Xyomara Carretero-Pinzón. If you want to use any of these pictures, please leave a message on the website. Thank you.

Monkey Forest Tales: Some stories from visitors: Exploring the human-wildlife frontier in the Colombian Llanos – Part 3

Day 3                     

With Sonia gingerly favoring her twisted ankle, the three of us headed north in the direction from which we had heard the howlers the day before. Xyomara’s instincts were again spot on: this time we had an unforgettable encounter with three species of monkey sharing the same forest patch: squirrels, red howlers and dusky titis (we had glimpsed a pair of the latter on the first day as well).

The red howlers were not howling this time but contented themselves with languidly observing us from just a few meters up in the trees. Like other members of the family Atelidae, their long prehensile tails truly function as a fifth hand. They even have fingerprint-like ridges on the naked undersides. While the three owners of these expressive organs observed us with somewhat nonplussed expressions, the tails would slither along a branch and then loop themselves over their shoulders or beneath their chins, as if their owners were lost in thought, or they would coil around a branch like an octopus tentacle. Prehensile tails are found only in a few genera of South American primates. It is a mystery to me why they would not exist in their Old World cousins; they seem to be so ‘handy’!

The dusky titi monkeys (Plecturocebus ornatus) showed no such serenity and instead expressed annoyance that we had intruded into their small mutually-defended domain. Although they began their energetic displays separately, soon male and female were in the same tree embracing one another and periodically emitting booming alarm hoots. Their glowering faces were framed by a prominent white band above the eyes, but it was the crimson tinge to the sideburns that most attracted my attention. I was surprised by the titis’ high-energy behavior. Although enchanted by descriptions of their charming habit of entwining tails like teenage lovebirds, I had held a stereotypical image of these monkeys as rather dull, inactive creatures. Today, though, I was impressed by the coordination that was evident in their mutual display, as if to say: ‘you and me against the world, baby!’

Day 4

We stood beneath another chittering group of squirrel monkeys, absorbing their jittery, expressive energy as they hunted beneath leaves for insects and occasional fruits. Perched in a nearby tree, a raptor (Harpagus bidentatus) gazed serenely upon us and our smaller primate cousins. Suddenly, at ground level, a shaggy, slightly disheveled oso hormiguero burst from the foliage to enter the scene. This was a male giant anteater that Xyomara had already captured on her camera traps. A female also inhabits the area, recognizable in the video clips by the adorable baby clinging primate-like to her back.

We felt we were dreaming as this charmingly unlikely-looking creature lumbered through the vegetation in front of us, strode rapidly in our direction, focused its small short-sighted eyes on us, thought better of the whole thing, and lumbered right back into the forest from which it had emerged.

It had been my fervent wish for months to sketch one of these beings. My hands moved rapidly across the paper of my art book without my eyes once leaving the apparition in front of me, capturing the bushy tail and the black stripe crisscrossing the shoulder like a jaunty bandolier. I had never drawn an animal so quickly!

Before our return to camp and a bit further down the trail, we were enchanted by the exhuberant displays of lekking males of white-bearder manakin. According to Xyomara they gather regularly at this one spot in the forest to ‘lek’ for choosy females. For a while we watched them flit around the clearing in their black-and-white glory, creating loud popping sound with their wings that sounded like fireworks, all within a few meters of the barbed wire fence demarcating the pasture. Then it was time to trek back to the farm. 

SONIA: In addition to the respect that the family showed to the wildlife, it was also clear that the domesticated animals in their charge were part of the family, cared for, and able to live relatively natural lives. The chickens and turkeys foraged freely in the yard, the dogs spent the day running alongside horses and grappling with their packmates, and a newborn calf that fell ill was treated tenderly. Each animal played their role in the family; for instance, the cats eat mice, the dogs guard the house, the chicken provide eggs, and the horses provide transportation.

It was clear that these folks cared about wildlife as well. We participated in the rehabilitation of three flycatcher chicks who had lost their parents, ending with these baby birds adopted into a flock of their wild cousins. Another bird who had been rescued by the family continued to hang around at the farm despite being free to go where it wanted.   

Particularly fun for me was when the teenage daughter and young boy accompanied us on some of our forest walks. They knew to be quiet and respectful when we spotted monkeys, and the kid even helped me walk through the forest by holding branches aside for me. To see young Colombians take such an interest in their nonhuman neighbors and to treat them with such respect was an inspiration!

Day 5

Our trip was nearing its end. We had seen all but one of the five resident monkey species: despite two night walks, we had failed to locate Aotus brumnbacki, the night monkey with its big goggly eyes. No matter … 

For our last day, Xyomara had saved the most spectacular encounter for the last. She led Sonia, the two children of the farmhands and me across a wide stretch of pastureland towards a swamp sheltered beneath a cluster of native Moriche  palms. As we picked our way between the cow patties, Sonia pointed down into a deep puddle. ‘Que es esto?’ she asked. I saw only a muddy glob, but Sonia insisted and, looking closer, we could make out the lurking form of a babilla (Caiman cocodrilus), a small crocodilian, which had apparently become stranded in this puddle following heavy rains. Here, native fauna thrived not just in the forest but even in the pasture.

As the gorgeous Antioquian sunset filled the sky, we arrived at the palm cluster. Cows came again rushing to greet us in a massive herd. Xyomara greeted them as old friends and assured us they meant no harm. They peered at us with their liquid brown eyes, hoping for a salty treat. Eventually they grew bored with us and flowed off together in a synchronized swell across the landscape. As the sun began to sink, we settled down to watch the white cattle egrets roosting by the dozens in a tree in the middle of the swamp. We were startled out of our calm by a dizzying and unexpected explosion, a huge swell of flapping rosy color rising up against the dark fringe of forest lining the horizon. Flamingos! Not at all, this was Xyomara’s surprise for us, a flock of scarlet ibises (Eudocimus ruber), gorgeously flaming in V formation across the sky. We were stunned at the sheer exhuberance of color displayed by these most elegant of birds. In the midst of one swirling flock we spotted two errant white herons flying together with their brilliantly-colored cousins. Several more flocks swirled by as dusk spead against the sky. Xyomara clearly relished the effect this had on us; such an unexpected site in the middle of a pasture!

Only one week before, Sonia and I had been exploring the wild Pacific coast of Nuqui. Those dripping ocean-hugging forests presented a diametrical contrast to these hot flat plains, but the biodiversity at both was astounding. The human cultures (Afrocarribean and indigenous Emberra at Nuqui vs cowboys in the llanos) were spectacularly diverse as well. Colombia is a vast and beautiful country full of breathtaking natural beauty. Muchas gracias to Xyomara and the owners of the ranch for letting us peek, so briefly, into one of those rich corners of biodiversity.

SONIA: This was a very special experience, spending time so close to the monkeys and other species in their native habitat. On our last day, for example, we were serenaded by a group of red howlers as the sun rose over the landscape. Unforgettable! Although we are clearly an invasive species, for one week I experienced a lovely example of people entering into wildlife habitat and treating the animals with respect.

The ranch residents treated us with courtesy and made sure that we felt a part of their community, a community which included not only humans but various forms of domesticated and free-living life. We left Finca Santa Rosa with a feeling of peace. It was a bit of a challenge to then readjust to city life.

© Copyright Disclaimer. Sketches were made by Cleve Hicks, pictures reproduced with his permission.  Pictures in this post by Sonia Uribe. All pictures used on this web page are protected with copyrights to Xyomara Carretero-Pinzón. If you want to use any of these pictures, please leave a message on the website. Thank you.

Monkey Forest Tales: Some stories from visitors: Exploring the human-wildlife frontier in the Colombian Llanos – Part 2

Day 1

We left the pasture behind and squirmed beneath the electrified fence to gain access to the gallery forest. The shaded canopy wending alongside a trickling stream sheltered a riot of vegetal life. How I had missed being in forest! As we followed the trail alongside the fence, we crossed patches of the forest floor that had been smoothed over by the regular passage of foraging cattle.

Not far along, Xyomara’s keen eyes spotted movement in the canopy. We tiptoed ahead and craned our necks upward. Our guide’s eyes brightened in recognition: above us was a tree-full of boisterous squirrel monkeys (Saimiri cassiquiarensis albigena), which happened to be Xyomara’s favorite species. These energetic little primates, of dunnish color with beady, intense eyes were too busy foraging to pay much attention to us. They left no leaf unturned as they searched for insects, which make up the majority of their diet, in the canopy. The monkeys occasionally peered at us with their heads cocked quizzically to the side, nearly upside-down, an adaptation that according to Xyomara helps them scan the undersides of leaves for prey. To sketch them, I had to be quick, given their irrepressible twitchiness! We returned to the farm in high spirits. To have found this group so quickly and so close to camp boded well for the rest of our trip.

In Colombia, the nomenclature of these monkeys can be confusing: they are often referred to locally as titis, not to be confused with the English name for a completely different kind of monkey, the monogamous titis (we will meet them later). Even more confusingly, in some regions titis is the local Spanish name for tiny tamarin monkeys, which are neither English-name-titis nor sapajus! ¡Ay caramba!

Day 2

The following day Jorge dropped us off in a more distant patch of forest across a stretch of partially-flooded cowfield. Sonia stayed back at la finca nursing a twisted ankle. After just a half hour’s search, we encountered a mixed species group of squirrel monkeys and sapajus (Sapajus apella fatuellus). Xyomara informed that it was common for these species to travel together. I found this to be a fascinating parallel to similar multi-species monkey affiliations which I have seen in Africa.

I am always struck by how eerily similar South American forests are to African ones: many of the same guilds have been filled by independently-evolved plants and animals (tamanduas, the smaller resident anteaters, resemble pangolins, while squirrel monkeys have something of the chirpiness of red-tailed guenons about them). There are even some familiar friends here: the spiky-barked, fluffy-seeded kapok (Ceiba pentandra) tree is somehow shared between the two far-flung continents, and in both regions domesticated mangos and papayas pepper the farm-forest fringes. But, back to our monkey encounter…

Sapajus are bulky monkeys possessing moderately prehensile tails. Another species from this genus in Brazil is famous for using stone tools to crack open nuts and stick tools similar to those of chimpanzees; thus their behavior is of particular interest to me. As far as I know, no tool use has yet been documented in Colombian sapajus, but perhaps this is just due to lack of data?

We relaxed on the trail and watched the lively juvenile sapajus play-grappling in the trees above us, as the adults went about the more serious business of feeding. At one point a large adult passed through the canopy above me; simultaneously a worryingly chunky branch came clattering down inches from my head! Xyomara, who had observed the monkey’s behavior, told me that it had likely been deliberately thrown or knocked down in order to intimidate me. If so, could it represent a form of tool use? This led us to a fascinating flurry of questions, speculation and research ideas. Could there be potential here for a future study?

Following our multi-species encounter, we heard the famous gravelly long-call of red howler monkeys (Alouatta seniculus) from the direction of la finca. This rumbling noise must be near-deafening up close! We would head that way tomorrow.

As we slogged back across the muddy pasture under the intense midday heat, we were mobbed by a fearless pair of black and white caicas (Vallenus chilensis). These dramatically-patterned birds were noisily protecting their unseen nest. Diligent in their parenting, they swooped so low over us that I had to duck my head. I was unable to explain to them that as a vegan, I certainly had no intention of pilfering and consuming their precious brood!

Having escaped these airborne anxious parents, we next spotted a troop of squirrel monkeys traveling along what has been termed by Xyomara and her colleagues as a ‘living fence’. These fences, separating adjoining fields, are surrounded by a dense strip of trees. Xyomara’s research has shown that these vegetation-covered boundary markers are crucial for the dispersal of primates and other fauna between neighboring gallery forests. We watched as each monkey reached the gap in the canopy over the gate, paused, gathered its courage and then flung itself arms-akimbo across the gap, much as I have seen the similar-sized red-tailed guenons do in Africa. Xyomara used the opportunity to count numbers: she came up with a minimum of 11 monkeys…

© Copyright Disclaimer. Sketches were made by Cleve Hicks, pictures reproduced with his permission.  Pictures in this post by Sonia Uribe. All pictures used on this web page are protected with copyrights to Xyomara Carretero-Pinzón. If you want to use any of these pictures, please leave a message on the website. Thank you.

Monkey Forest Tales: Some stories from visitors: Exploring the human-wildlife frontier in the Colombian Llanos – Part 1

Over the years, Zocay project had several visitors who came to know the monkeys and experience a bit of their forest life. Some of them had wrote about their experiences, in this post a few following posts you will read the experiences from Cleve Hicks and Sonia Uribe, who visit Zocay Project study area in recent months:

In mid-April, my wife Sonia and I were lucky enough to be invited to la Finca Santa Rosa by our friend the Colombian primatologist Xyomara Carretero-Pinzón. Xyomara has spent almost two decades carrying out research in the network of farms a couple of hours’ bus-ride south of Villavicencio. This involves the regular monitoring of five species of monkeys and examining the impacts of various factors on their survival. Fortunately for these nonhuman primates, cattle ranchers in the area are cooperating with her efforts to protect them as well as the thin stretches of gallery forest that they call home. Xyomara was eager to introduce us to the five species of monkeys that inhabited this network of forest fragments lining streambeds. We would be staying for almost a week at the spacious farm together with the ranchers working there.

On our truck-drive to la finca, we passed through a vast oil palm plantation. The oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, isan old friend from my time working in tropical Africa, where it was semi-domesticated millennia ago. Its rich oil and other parts are used by villagers for everything from cooking to wine-making and medicine. Nevertheless, as a conservationist I was not pleased to see this tree here in los Llanos de Colombia, planted across hundreds of acres in evenly-spaced rows. This destructive monoculture is rapidly replacing tropical forests and native fauna worldwide. According to Xyomara, the local monkeys rarely use this plantation forest, although howler monkeys sometimes pass through it. Lushly green though they are, these eerily monotonous palm plantations can be considered biological wastelands.

We left behind the creeping alien ‘palmscape’ and emerged onto a pasture dotted with grazing horses and cattle, which at first glance could have been located anywhere in the tropics, and hardly a propitious location in which to spot wildlife. Against the horizon, however, we could see strips of verdant forest holding tantalizing promise. Intersecting the landscape was a network of ‘living fences’, barriers between pastures which had been allowed to ‘grow wild’; as we would soon see, these serve as crucial wildlife corridors in this patchy primate paradise. Hunched-over chulos (black vultures, Coragyps atratus) squatted evenly-spaced atop fence posts, regarding us warily with their beady reptilian eyes before flapping off across the fields. Quickly the place came alive around us as the truck rattled down the bumpy country road.

Our driver, fellow scientist Jorge Noriega, pointed across the cow-field to a strange shambling shaggy figure loping across the grass close to the edge of the gallery forest. Were we hallucinating? We squinted our eyes. No, no hallucination … there it was, an oso hormiguero (English: giant anteater; scientific name: Myrmecophaga tridactyla)! We were face to nose-tube with a real South American original, which seemed to have trundled straight out of the pages of one of my treasured childhood books about far-away animals.

Along with armadillos, sloths and tamanduas, giant anteaters are Xenarthrans, one of the sole surviving original denizens of the South American continent. Most of this ancient mammalian lineage, which included elephant-sized ground sloths and armored glytpodonts, vanished about 10,000 years ago. Even earlier in evolutionary time, they were all part of a megafaunal assemblage quite distinct from anything existing in the world today, including giant ‘terror birds’, the rhinoceros-sized Toxodon and those ‘parallel horses’ the litopterns. About 3 million years ago, following the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, this original fauna was reduced when the continent was invaded by the more familiar bears, jaguars and mammoths. Further diminishment would come at the hands of humans arriving at the end of the Pleistocene. But fortunately for them and also for us, these large insectivores with tube-like faces and ostentatiously fanned tails have survived to the present day. Approximating in some ways the scaly-skinned pangolins of Africa and Asia, in diet as well as ungainly shape, giant anteaters nevertheless claim their own territory in terms of sheer evolutionary quirkiness.

 The shaggy edentate watched us warily for a few magical minutes before shuffling back to the forest fringe and vanishing into its narrow green refuge. It was almost as if this otherworldly Xenarthran had appeared to claim its place as one of the region’s rightful endemics in the midst of the herds of bovine and equine invaders. Fortunately, this would not be the last encounter we would have with its ilk.

We pulled up into the driveway of La Finca Santa Rosa, a spacious farmhouse perched at the edge of a forest-lined stream, and were warmly greeted by the family tending the farm, which included two energetic children and a whole pack of rambunctious dogs. They fed us delicious country food (with vegan options!) and we relaxed in comfortable hammocks on the veranda with a lovely view of farmland and forest. Xyomara’s caring relationship with these locals has clearly been a key to her success in sticking with the study site over the years. That evening we prepared ourselves for the morrow’s first primate-watching expedition. We would be accompanying Xyomara on her periodic primate census. Armed with her data book, Sonia’s camera and my art pad, we would spend several days (and even a couple of nights) searching for primates in the various gallery forests crisscrossing the cattle fields.

SONIA: This was a wonderful opportunity to spend time with the ranchers and farmers living at La Finca. We benefited greatly from their deep knowledge of the local flora and fauna. The resident family and the ranch hands regularly updated us on the whereabouts of various species of wildlife, including monkeys, which sometimes passed right by the farm. The teenage daughter and the 4 years old boy could barely contain their passion about wildlife and would excitedly summon us whenever they would spot some outlandishly colored bird species such as a toucan or a flycatcher. 

The locals were also quite knowledgeable about medicinal plants. They proudly showed me their huerta (vegetable plot) which provided them not only with healthy food to eat, but also medicinal plants. When I twisted my ankle, the father of the family, the head rancher, used traditional healing techniques to treat it, which allowed me to return on the next day to the forest and join the search for more monkeys.

© Copyright Disclaimer. Sketches were made by Cleve Hicks, pictures reproduced with his permission.  All pictures used on this web page are protected with copyrights to Xyomara Carretero-Pinzón. If you want to use any of these pictures, please leave a message on the website. Thank you.