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.


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