Monkey Business

I leave for Peru tomorrow.  The countless hours spent frustrated with ENVI and ArcGIS, the endless flow of grant applications, the unfathomable time spent asking questions – it has all culminated to this point.  I finally have my chance to hit the ground running.  At least, that’s what I hope to do.

My stomach twists in knots of excitement and anxiety.  I love the tropics, I love to travel, I love to actually get my hands dirty and get some real work done.  This passion has taken me all over world – from the dusty roads of Ghana, to the lemurs of Madagascar, to the cowboys of Brazil – and it’s hard to put into words just how fortunate I feel to now be adding the monkeys of Peru onto that list.

For the past year I have been working in collaboration with Dr. Jennifer Swenson and PhD student Danica Schaffer-Smith to assist the Peruvian non-profit, Proyecto Mono Tocón, in a conservation effort to support the critically endangered San Martín titi monkey.  The titi monkey, locally known as the tocón, is a “narrow endemic” having a very small habitat area (<13,000m^2) and existing only in this part of the world.  Its survival is being threatened by deforestation driven by increasing population growth and subsequent increases in agricultural production.  The tocón is one of the top 25 most endangered primates in the world and is also the most endangered primate in Peru.

However, this deforestation not only threatens the survival of the tocón and the other diverse species of north central Peru, but is also having detrimental effects on local communities, such as increased erosion and mudslides, loss of soil fertility, and a decrease in water quality.  Man and animal alike, this unsustainable development is hurting everyone.   How can a balance be achieved between sustaining the biodiversity of San Martín while also allowing local communities to grow and develop?  As with most conservation work, finding a balance is complicated and often there are no clear solutions.

The research I hope to conduct this summer is then two-fold.  One part of it is to collect data to help complete a comprehensive habitat map for the tocón.  Knowing where suitable forest habitat remains and how well these patches are connected to one another is integral in understanding how to prioritize areas for conservation.  For example, an area with large patches of in tact forest that are well connected would likely be a high priority area for conservation.

The other part is to collect survey data from local communities in order to better assess attitudes towards conservation, identify potentially problematic areas for management, and explore additional conservation strategies.  This will allow opportunities for more comprehensive participatory conservation in the region, as well as reveal priority areas where there is a high degree of support for new conservation collaborations.  Using this information in combination with our habitat map will help Proyecto Mono Tocón to better prioritize areas for conservation and focus the most appropriate management strategies for these areas.

Piece of cake, right?  Certainly, the next couple months will be challenging.  Navigating a different culture, working with language skills that are not where they should be, and attempting to not mess up any field data collection are very real fears – but, anyone who knows me, knows I thrive off of these kinds of challenges.  My passion for conservation outweighs any of the misgivings I have and while it will be difficult, I’m ready.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend their summer beneath the trees trying to save these adorable monkeys?