Producciones de la Hamaca
ESSAYS by Judy Lumb
Black Howler Monkey Translocation
In the early sixties the black howler monkeys had disappeared from this area. It is suggested that Hurricane Hattie, hunters, lumbering, and a yellow fever epidemic all may have played a part in their disappearance. When I first met Ernesto Saqui, the CBWS Park Director, four years ago he was already talking about a plan to re-introduce the black howler monkey into this area. In February when I was in the Cockscomb for a week, I met Rob Horwich and Fred Koontz, who were doing the preliminary work for the re-introduction, building acclimatization cages in the jungle and mapping the whole area for later tracking of the monkeys.
Rob Horwich started the Community Baboon Sanctuary here in Belize, a unique refuge which is on privately-owned farm land where the community agreed to adjust their farming practices to be consistent with the survival with the black howler monkeys (locally called baboon). The Sanctuary has been a great success and has brought many tourists to the area. The plan was to transport troops of black howler monkeys from there to CBWS. Fred Koontz is the Curator for Mammals at the Bronx Zoo and Director of the reintroduction project.
I got involved because I shared the kitchen with Fred and Rob and I cooked enough for three of whatever beans and rice or other vegetarian stew I was making for myself. I haven't cooked for anyone since I got sick, because I haven't had the energy and because I was afraid of being contagious. I decided not to worry about the latter since in 7 years, no one I have been around has gotten my illness. I was surprised that Rob and Fred liked my food. I am used to living without refrigeration and working with the vegetables that are available in this country. So, I said I would do the same when the whole team came in May.
The team did not arrive with the first troop of monkeys until 11 PM of the second night I was there, two days late. As we waited, the park wardens and I made up stories of what could have gone wrong. Most everything that we thought of did go wrong. First, the luggage, which included the dart gun needed to tranquilize the animals for capture, was lost and did not arrive for two days. Then they had multiple vehicle breakdowns while traveling by road from the Community Baboon Sanctuary, normally a four-hour drive.
Since it was after dark when they arrived, they kept the monkeys in their traveling cages, like the dog cages they use on airlines, in the office until morning. Then they carried them down to the acclimatization cage which had been furnished with high branches and plenty of food for the monkeys, fruit and leaves. The team spent a good bit of energy obtaining the proper fresh food. They had built a blind behind team members watched the monkeys in the acclimatization cage. Two people were there at all times so one could run for help if needed. Within the first 2 hours, that was necessary. The radio collar on the older female was too loose and was displaced up over her head in a way that might be dangerous. So, they tranquilized her again to fix it.
The monkeys explored the cage for awhile, but when they realized they couldn't climb any further, they slumped down in one place. There were four in this troop, the male, the older female, and a female with a baby. Since they seemed calm and slightly depressed, the team decided to release them the next day. They went in three different directions, with only the baby and mother together. That was the second big concern, that in order to survive, the troop needed to stay together.
The first big concern was that they would survive the capture and translocation. Evidently there are very few of these monkeys in zoos and no breeding populations because they rarely survive capture. They just lie down and die!
The next week they went back for two more troops, but they had arranged for the British Army to provide a helicopter for transport. One troop had three, a male and two females, and the biggest one had 7, including a male, a sub-adult male, three females and two young females, one a baby. They captured both troops and were back in the Cockscomb just after noon of the same day. The monkeys were immediately put into their acclimatization cages.
These two troops did much better than the first one. They all stayed together when they were released. The only problem was the baby in the large troop. There were too many for the size of the cage and every time they got upset, like when humans came too near, the mother threw the baby down. The baby then climbed back up to the mother and was accepted again. The concern was that would happen when they were released and it did!
The mother ran out the door of the cage, but the baby ran up into the corner of the cage, toward her mother, except that the mother was outside of the cage. Two team members cooperated to correct the situation. One climbed up into the corner to retrieve the baby and handed her to the other who released her outside the cage. She happily joined her mother and all was well.
Eventually, the male of the first troop rejoined the female with a baby, but that older female is still alone and far away from the troop. I must admit that I identified with the old lady going off by herself. It seems she was coming into heat when she was captured. One hypothesis is that she wasn't even a member of that troop. When they go into heat, the females sometimes go visiting other troops. Perhaps she had just been visiting this troop when it was captured. If so, she may be off looking for her troop.
I was not really a part of the team; I just happened to be there. But each day I started in the morning, after a short walk and rest, cutting up vegetable and cooking beans. I made a big pot of something edible and nourishing while the team was out working with the monkeys and they were very grateful. They were all too busy to think about food for themselves.
In August, two new baby howler monkeys were born in the Cockscomb. The troops seem to have reorganized themselves somewhat, but all appear to be well and living rather near where they were released.
This is only the beginning of the project. In order to have a viable population with sufficient genetic diversity for long-term survival, they need to bring in many more monkeys. They hope to bring 100 a year for the next 3 years. They had trouble getting funding for this pilot project because it was so risky. No one wanted to be associated with a project that was a failure, in which several monkeys died in transit. Now that it has proven successful, at least so far, Fred thinks that it will be much easier to get donors. The funding agencies and organizations will probably be fighting to get credit for a potentially successful project.