Meeting with Primates in Argentina

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I could write so many chapter about my meetings with my favorite animals, the primates!!!

But I will try to give you a short version of a very long love story.

Let’s stay it all started in my last years of primary school, in 1986-1987, when I read the book Gorillas in the Mist, by Dian Fossey. Dian’s experience with gorillas in Rwanda and the story of her life fascinated me and moved me.

Then, there were Jane Goodall’ books, the great specialist in chimpanzee behavior. At a time where there was no Internet, nor as much information available like today, those books opened me to the world.

In 1992, I started working as a volunteer at the Zoo of Córdoba, and within a few months the head of the Guardazoos group, Alejandra, created a new team to take care of the black howlers that were generally donated by families that had bought them along the roads of the northern part of the country.

Sometimes, people would buy them out of pity, because they were sad to see them living in such poor conditions, but that only increased the illegal trade problem.

As they grew up and became more difficult to handle, the families donated they to zoos. The idea behind was to form small groups that would be able to move in relative liberty.

I will never forget that moment when Alejandra asked me to be part of the new group. It was really a great moment of happiness and the beginning of a new world for me. I loved these primates with all my heart from day one.

That year, I spent so much time on the ceiling of the barn where they were the youngest stayed during the day. On the first day, I got close to Facundo, a big young black male that approached me and sat down on my skirt, and when he yawned near my face, I was able see his big fangs up close.

Jakuy, Monkey and Tonga were the first babies, then came Ñaui, Ucu, Kitty. We also took care of a few young male like Sandro, who walked around the zoo, even in the restaurant where he knew he would find more food; there was Xuxo, with whom I had a bigger connection. There was also Cusillo, loose in the trees, who came to steal my sandwich and left me only with half my lunch.

Unfortunately, many of these loved monkeys suffered from digestive problems and eventually died. Since they were almost completely folivores, the varied diet, plus all the stress from the changes, gave them important diarrhea. There was also Khapu, the spider monkey who thought she was a howler.

After a year, I stopped being a volunteer to dedicate myself to studying biology, but I continued going to the zoo; and sometimes Ñaui would come down from her tree to come and play with me and hang from my hair. A few years later, Alejandra opened a big shelter for howler monkeys in the hills of Córdoba, which I went to visit regularly.

At the end of my first year of secondary school, in a 40-day trip in north-eastern Argentina with an ex howler caretaker friend of mine, we visited the CAPRIM in Corrientes, a research facility where they had hundreds of squirrel monkeys, some tufted capuchin and since it was in the forest, I also saw wild howlers for the first time.

We saw a group of howlers that we could follow for a little time, and in the afternoon, we would listen the screams of the males that were one the loudest sounds of the animal reign.

That’s why one of their common names is “howler monkey”. We were so well received; we had access to the library, the laboratories, we could enter the cages and play with the monkeys. It must have been a bit weird for the searchers to see two girls so young but so passionate about primatology. We then resumed our trip and went to Iguazu Fall, where we saw wild tufted capuchins for the first time.

However, much less pleasant experiences happened during our visit of an illegal wild animal trade business in the province of Catamarca with some other fellow Guardazoos. There were monkeys from different species that were showing clear signs of abuse. Upon my return in Córdoba, I showed the pictures to several environmental groups hoping they would seize the animals.

We also went to see a chimpanzee that used to be in a circus and whose owners put him in a cage in their backyard.

I was really concerned about these cases, I tried to report them, do something about them, but it was difficult. The odds were that there was nothing that could have been done, and I don’t know how those sad stories of abuse ended.

The last important experience I had before my move to Canada in 1997, was when I went to a camp for 10 days to work an assistant in a study on the behavior of douroucoulis, little nocturnal monkeys that are monogamous and for pair bonds. I went to the Guaycolec Reserve, in the Formosa Province, in northern Argentina.

I spent those days sleeping in a tent, going out to observe the monkeys in the middle of the night, with other students for Buenos Aires who were participating in the project in the long term. The main purpose of study was to observe the behavior of the night monkeys and see if they were really monogamous or if the female deceived their partner and had babies from extramarital affairs.

In the beginning, it seemed weird to me to be in the forest in the dead of the night, but I ended up enjoying it. We saw the monkeys and others nocturnal animals as well. During the day, we identified trees, observed fluorescent mushrooms, we took baths using buckets of water from a water tank and we complied with the other camp activities. At some point, we had to spend the night at the researcher’s house to take cover from the torrential rain that fell for days and had flooded our tents. Drying our clothes was a real challenge. After this trip and those I had done in forests, having dry clothes was a great delight!

Why do primates fascinate me this much?

Was it because of the way the black howlers and the spider monkey from the zoo greatly marked me with their unique personalities and with the love they give us or because I already had a great interest for monkeys and meeting them only made that interest grow bigger?

In any case, I’m never tired of reading about their lives, I never miss a chance to work as a volunteer in shelter, and it breaks my heart every time I hear news about deforestation, the use of primates in laboratories, cases of illegal animal trade and abuse.

Why can’t people see how special, sensitive and wonderful these creatures are? I, for one, feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to be close to and get to know so many unforgettable monkeys. I also feel lucky to have been able to see many other species in the wild, like the descendants of the gorillas Dian Fossey studied in Rwanda, something that I didn’t dare dream of when I first read her book. But yes, sometimes dreams (if they are priorities and if we try really hard) really come true.

Author: Helena Arroyo

Translation: Noëlla Moussa

Meeting with Primates in Argentina

Amelie Delobel

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