Woolly monkeys face battle to survive


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The Independent Online

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. "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 cloud forests of northern Peru, in defence of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey, Oreonax flavicauda, one of the world's most threatened primates.

There are thought to be fewer than 1,000 yellow-tailed woolly monkeys in the wild, all living in a thin band of damp forest in this corner of Peru, between 5,000ft and 9,000ft above sea level.

Many of those live in small, increasingly inbred groups of a dozen or fewer. Despite the best efforts of Mr Lopéz and others, 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 sell the babies as pets.

The species is classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as "critically endangered" – the most threatened category for species that still exist in the wild.

It was first recorded in 1812 by the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Yet he never actually witnessed one. And 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 thought to have been extinct for most of the 20th century, until an expedition led by Russ Mittermeier, now the head of Conservation International, rediscovered it in 1974. The fact that it survives may be thanks to its hard-to-access natural habitat.

But that is changing, with an influx of migrants putting an unprecedented strain on the area.

With the support of Conservation International, Corosha has established the 5,600-acre conservation area. Yet conflicts within the community, between the newcomers and those already here, are increasingly common.

The migrants, unfamiliar with the traditional horticultural techniques, tend to clear forest to make way for their crops and livestock, hurting the monkey's habitat and endangering the species. Mr Mittermeier is calling for a concerted effort to educate locals.

"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."