The motor taxi vibrated violently beneath the road, the constant shaking the only thing keeping me awake this morning at 5:30am. But, through the dimly breaking dawn I could still see it in the distance, it’s perfectly dome shaped figure rising out of the ground. I was on my way to El Morro de Calzada. The Morro is a small protected area surrounded completely by San Martin’s unyielding development. It stands as a beacon, like a lighthouse illuminating the way for the species cast out of their former habitats. It was my last chance to catch a glimpse of the species I have been working so hard to conserve this summer. My expectations were low. You don’t become a critically endangered primate by being easy to find. Still, it would be my last chance to be in a Peruvian forest and so I was happy nonetheless to make the attempt.
Getting out of the motor taxi, we began walking towards a small patch of forest. Slowly the sounds of the motor taxi faded away and were replaced by the chirps and calls of birds. We sat down on a fallen tree and waited and listened. The mosquitoes bit at us as we tried to noiselessly kill them. As always though, the mosquitoes won. We began to hear the calls of pichicos, another species of monkey. These are tiny black monkeys with white around their mouths. We stood up, searching the canopy to see where they were. In the distance I spotted them jumping from tree to tree. Soon, they wound their way right above our heads until they realized our presence. Then, all at once they began screeching an alarm and quickly found an alternative route around us. The more curious ones though, sat at the tops of the trees, cocking their heads back and forth, trying to figure out exactly what we were and if we were friend or foe. While it is always exciting to see animals in the wild, pichicos are very common in this region. While they utilize the same habitat as the titi monkeys, the reason they have been able to thrive in the face of deforestation is because they can come down from the treetops and cross roads and other barriers into more forest. A connected corridor of forest is not as important to them as it is for the titi monkeys.
Once the pichicos tired of us, they were on their way and so were we. Trampling through more forest, we were more determined than ever to find some titi monkeys. Since we arrived, we hadn’t even heard any vocalizations, a distressing thing, particularly because this patch of forest is often visited by PMT staff to conduct observational studies. I hoped nothing bad had happened to them. And then, amid the cacophony of bird calls, we began to hear the distant “tuka tuka tuka” of a group of titi monkeys. Eder turned around and motioned for me to be quiet while we hiked over to where they were – this of course, turned me into an even more spastic bull in a china shop than usual. Somehow though, my inept crunching of leaves and snapping of twigs didn’t deter our friends. Perhaps they were distracted by a rival group encroaching on their territory; we could hear them calling back and forth.
And then I saw them. High up in the trees, jumping around, and again trying to figure out who and what we were. One of them in particular sat and watched us for a long time, cocking its head back and forth, similar to the pichicos. They looked just like the pictures – a brownish grey fur with a white ring around their faces. They are bigger in size than pichicos, but still on the small side when it comes to primates. We watched them, for what seemed like hours, though was only maybe 20 minutes. Eventually though, they tired of us too, and jumped off to more distant treetops, once again blending into the canopy.
On the trek back to the closest town where we could pick up another motor taxi back to Moyobamba, I couldn’t help but think of the small group of titi monkeys I had seen. In a two hectare patch of forest, I wondered how long they would be able to remain isolated. Even now, competition for food between pichicos and titi monkeys has been observed. How long will these resources last? How long can their group maintain genetic diversity? How long before a nearby farmer may want to capture them for illegal trafficking or kill them? Many questions and unfortunately not a lot of answers. We can only hope that the work that we continue to do will help to give these monkeys a fighting chance.
So there you have it, with only 3 days left, I finally saw the monkeys that have been on my mind and will continue to be on my mind for months and months. Here’s to you, tocónes!