Crisis in the cloudforest for woolly wonders

The yellow-tailed woolly monkey has long been hunted for its meat and fur, but now local attitudes are changing, as Simeon Tegel reports from Corosha, Peru

A A A

Homero Francisco Lopéz grimaces as he recalls how his wife prepared the carcass of the monkey he had shot, serving him a bowl of thick stew, complete with chunks of cassava and a tiny hand for him to gnaw on. "It was normal here," he says. "Everyone did it. We didn't realise how few there were."

Now Mr Lopéz, a 58-year-old subsistence farmer, has become one of the strongest voices in his village of Corosha, in the heart of the precipitous cloudforests of northern Peru, in defence of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey, Oreonax flavicauda, one of the world's most threatened primates.

"This monkey is the only one of its kind," he says with the zeal of a convert. "It is a beautiful animal and thinking about the future without it is just too sad."

No one knows for sure but there are now thought to be fewer than 1,000 yellow-tailed woolly monkeys in the wild, all living in a thin band of chilly, damp forest in this corner of Peru, between 5,000ft and 9,000ft above sea level as the Andes sweep down into the Amazon. Yet many of those individuals live in small, increasingly inbred groups of a dozen or fewer, stranded in shrinking patches of forest as peasant farmers clear the improbably steep slopes to plant coffee, beans and other crops. According to Fanny Cornejo, one of a tiny handful of local primatologists, that lack of genetic variety is now a major threat to the species, leaving it more vulnerable to disease.

Meanwhile, despite the best efforts of Mr Lopéz and Ms Cornejo, many impoverished locals continue to hunt the monkey, prized for its meat and its thick, unusually soft fur. Poachers prefer to target nursing mothers as they can also sell the babies as pets.

The monkey's long breeding cycle and inquisitive nature have added to its vulnerability. They are drawn to the sound of gunfire and often stay around to see what is happening when one of their group has been shot.

The species is classified as "critically endangered" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the most threatened category for species that still exist in the wild. It is also listed as among the 25 most threatened of the nearly 670 primate species.

"It should be OK for the next two decades but after that it is impossible to say," says Russ Mittermeier, who has chaired the IUCN's primate specialist group for more than 30 years. "We have a serious challenge ahead of us."

The yellow-tailed woolly monkey has always been extremely rare. It was first recorded in 1812 by the great German explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Yet he never actually witnessed a live animal. Instead, he saw a saddlecloth made from a fine, mahogany-coloured fur.

Despite the name, the monkey's tail is the same colour as the rest of its body. What is yellow is a large tuft of fur that adults of both sexes have covering their genitals. The species was actually thought to have been extinct for most of the 20th century until an expedition led by Mr Mittermeier, now the head of Conservation International, rediscovered it in 1974.

The fact that the species even survives at all may be thanks to its difficult natural habitat, which could hardly be less accessible to its only predator, humans. Reaching the group Ms Cornejo studies involves a three-hour uphill scramble in deep mud through thick, sodden forest. Even indigenous peoples rarely stray here.

But that is changing rapidly. A massive influx of migrants from the nearby mountain region of Cajamarca, fuelled in part by mining companies buying up peasants' land there, is putting an unprecedented strain on the area around Corosha.

"There were just 20 families here when I was growing up," says Mr Lopéz. "Now there are 200 and many of them don't respect the community's decision to conserve our natural resources."

With the support of Conservation International, Corosha has now established the 5,600-acre Hierba Buena-Allpayacu Community Conservation Area, with the twin goals of protecting the forest's headwaters and the yellow-tailed woolly monkey's habitat. The village is also building a lodge to cater for a growing stream of Peruvian and international tourists.

Yet conflicts within the community, between the newcomers and families who have lived here for many generations, are becoming increasingly common. The new migrants, unfamiliar with the traditional, sustainable horticultural techniques, tend to clear forest to make way for their crops and livestock whereas the locals rotate their subsistence plots between existing gaps in the forest.

The destruction is at its most intense in a supposed nature reserve, the Alto Mayo Protected Forest, which straddles a low-lying stretch of the Andes southwest of Corosha. The regional government has put a road through the park, while poachers and land-squatters even live in the heart of the reserve.

"The solution is not more and more park guards but education, so that the local population realises how important the forest is, that it provides them with water, and houses so many different species," insists Gustavo Montoya, the reserve director.

Mr Mittermeier is now calling for a concerted effort to educate locals about the monkey and even encourage them to identify with it. "You have to get the communities excited about this magnificent species," he said. "It is the only way. They must find a way to coexist with it and become invested in its survival."

Endangered Primates

Although no primates became extinct in the 20th century, many of the order's nearly 700 species face urgent threats today. The IUCN's primate specialist group say that more than 70 per cent of Asian primates are threatened with extinction, as are all gibbon species and the four great apes: gorillas, chimpanzees, orang utans and bonobos. The total global budget dedicated to primate conservation is about $10m (£6.25m). About 90 per cent of that is dedicated to the great apes, leaving just $1m worldwide for other species. The IUCN estimates that a budget of just $100m could save 98 per cent of all primate species.

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: C# Developer - Kent - £43,000

£35000 - £43000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: C# and .Net Developer - n...

Guru Careers: Digital Marketing Exec / Online Marketing Executive

£35 - 40k: Guru Careers: Our client has a new role for a Digital Marketing Exe...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'