This post was written by primate keeper, Meredith Ross.
Belize is home to two species of endangered primates, the Yucatan black howler monkey and the Geoffroy’s spider monkey. It is illegal to own primates in Belize, but despite that, one of the biggest threats in the wild is the pet trade. That’s where Wildtracks comes in. Located just outside Sarteneja, Belize, Wildtracks is home to forty-three monkeys, most of which have been rescued from the illegal pet trade. Wildtracks will rehabilitate these monkeys and release them back into the wild in the nearby Fireburn Reserve. Seventeen howler monkeys have been released into Fireburn thus far, and in June 2014, they were joined by four more. Two pairs of howler monkeys, “Sultan & Livvy” and “Paz & Kofi”, were placed in carriers, taken for a car ride, a boat ride and then were carried on bamboo poles up to their new home in the jungle. They were kept in pre-release cages for three days in order to acclimate them to their surroundings and then, on the morning of June 16th, their cages were finally opened and they were returned to the wild. Sultan and Livvy were the first to be released. Livvy began to explore immediately, while Sultan was a bit unsure, staying on top of the cage for a few minutes. Eventually they both began to move through the trees and happily munch on the plentiful leaves in their new home. Paz and Kofi were released at a site several yards away from the first group. Once again the female of the group, Kofi, was the brave one; she immediately started to explore her new jungle home. Paz had to be coaxed out of the cage by one of his caregivers, but then happily joined his mate Kofi, up in the trees. They will be followed by staff and volunteers for the next three months to ensure that they are adjusting well to life in the jungle. I followed Paz & Kofi for their first three days of freedom. They seemed a bit hungry on the first day, but by day two they were eating lots of leaves, finding nice places to rest near each other, and spending time at the tops of trees sunning themselves. Paz in particular is a success story. He spent his early life as a pet on a very short chain, where he could only rock himself for comfort. Even at Wildtracks, he exhibited nervous tics attributed to his former life as a pet. Once he returned to the wild, all those aberrant behaviors seemed to fade away as he followed his mate Kofi through the jungle.
Back at Wildtracks, volunteers work tirelessly to prepare the next generation of monkeys for release. The youngest members,” Ini” and “Vicki”, are at least three years from release but they are still learning valuable skills to help return them to the wild, like which leaves to eat, and how to climb branches that will support their weight. Like most of the monkeys at Wildtracks, Vicki was stolen away from her family and sold into the pet trade; she was moved to Wildtracks after being rescued by the Belize Forestry Department. Ini was found alone in the forest with a broken arm, his mother presumably shot by poachers. Despite their troubled past, both are doing great now, healthy and happy in their new home.
The Houston Zoo Primate Department has helped fundraise for Wildtracks and spread their conservation message for the last few years at our Howlerween event each October. Houston Zoo Primate Keepers have traveled to Wildtracks for the past couple of years to share their knowledge of primate care, including the creation of enrichment devices like the forage board above, as well as tracking the post-release howler monkeys in the jungle. In 2011, Houston Zoo Primate Keeper Rachel met a tiny, scared and malnourished 5 month old howler monkey named Nicky during her two week stay at Wildtracks. Last year, primate keeper Lucy Dee was there as Nicky was released back into the wild. This year, as I walked through the Belizean jungle, I got to meet Nicky. He was high up in the canopy of a tree, howling at the people below him, while the other members of his group kept traveling through the forest. He is finally back where he belongs, successfully living as a truly wild howler monkey and a living testament to the amazing rehabilitation work of Wildtracks.
We hope to continue to spread awareness of the importance of primates living in nature in order to finally stop the traffic of these animals as pets. Wildtracks and the Houston Zoo, working together, are making a difference in Belize. Come to our Howlerween celebration to learn more and see how YOU can help! To learn more visit www.wildtrackbelize.org
Photos courtesy of Wildtracks