Nicholas School Internship Blogs

How did the monkey cross the road?
by -- July 7th, 2014

As we bump along a dirt road, our car suddenly comes to a stop.  To me, it looks as if we have run out of dirt and I wonder if that means our plans for the day will need to be revised.  The driver and Eder, however, don’t seem too concerned so I sit patiently waiting to see what happens next.  We keep driving.  And as we edge closer to the river on our left I’m beginning to wonder what these Peruvians have up their sleeves.  Well, it wasn’t what I expected.  But to be fair, who would expect to drive your car across wooden planks rigged on top of 3 canoes and “ferry” to the other side?  And as the car slowly drove onto said “ferry” I quietly crossed my fingers that I would be able to doggy-paddle fast enough away from this contraption before it sinks.  But, the car came to a stop and I followed the driver’s lead and got out of the car.  On the back of one of the canoes, a man started a motor and slowly we began gliding across the water towards the small village on the other side.  We didn’t sink, but successfully made it across both directions – even in pouring rain on the way back.

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You’ve got to admit, the creativity of humans is impressive.  As the saying goes, where there is a will, there is a way.  But, reflecting on this, I am reminded that we are the only species that can engineer our environment to suit our needs.  The San Martin titi monkey is not quite as fortunate.

This particular titi monkey gets its name from the only place on earth it is found – the department (similar to what we would consider a state) of San Martin, Peru.  It has evolved in the low lying Amazon forests, essentially limited to this valley because of rivers and altitude constraints from the mountains surrounding it.  This small range at once makes this species more vulnerable to any drastic changes in its environment.  Unfortunately, while San Martin is the home to the greatest number of species of primates and birds in all of Peru, it is also the home of the greatest deforestation rates in all of Peru.  This is not an understatement – as we drive along these roads the entire landscape looks as if someone has spread a quilt over top – it has been carved into patches of corn, rice, cocoa, villages, and now and then, forest.  Clearly, this presents a challenge to the titi monkey – where do you go when your home is constantly shrinking?

To further complicate the issue, the San Martin titi monkey is rarely ever seen on the ground.  Rather, it moves across its habitat through the canopy.  For example, if a road is built, the titi monkey becomes isolated because it cannot cross the road unless the canopies from the forests on either side are close enough.  As family groups become more and more isolated, new challenges arise, such as: where to get food, where to sleep, to eat, how to avoid poachers, how to increase genetic diversity?  These challenges, among others, are the beginnings to a slippery slope towards extinction.  It is no surprise then, that the San Martin titi monkey is one of the top 25 most endangered primates in the world, and the most endangered primate in all of Peru.

As of now, there have been no observations of titi monkeys rigging leaves and vines together to fashion a glider to the next patch of forest.  Till then, the staff of Proyecto Mono Tocon and I are working to use that human ingenuity for the benefit of our little friends.  The data I have been collecting will help to identify patches of suitable habitat and areas where biological corridors or protected areas can be established.  A biological corridor is simply small patches of forest which connects larger patches of suitable habitat.  This sounds easy enough, but in reality can be extremely difficult to achieve due to limitations of money, politics, enforcement, etc.

But, if my trip across the “ferry” taught me anything, it is that where there is a will, there is a way.  Little by little, we will continue our research and management and hopefully, we can use that hallmark human creativity towards a purpose greater than ourselves.  Hope, after all, is the greatest tool a conservationist has.

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