Working with Communities to Restore Habitat and Protect Spider Monkeys in Southwest Nicaragua

By Yessenia Soto

The spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) owes its name to its ability to move from tree to tree with a speed and agility that could make one imagine it had eight limbs, rather than four. Unlike most primates, spider monkeys lack opposable thumbs, but their long fingers, arms, legs, and prehensile tails are enough to make them remarkably mobile. These monkeys can travel as far as six miles (10 kilometers) in a day, and along the way, they perform an important favor for forest trees by dispersing the seeds of the various fruits they eat.

Spider Monkey - Photo by Christine Schmidt / Paso PacificoDespite their athletic abilities and the important ecological role they play, spider monkeys have become Central America’s most threatened primate-especially the Nicaraguan subspecies, which is critically endangered. Logging, deforestation, hunting, and wildlife trafficking have caused a steady decline in the spider monkey population, which includes a northern population from Veracruz, Mexico to Honduras, and a southern population, stretching from Nicaragua to Ecuador.

Nicaragua serves as a bridge between the northern and southern populations, yet spider monkeys are practically extinct in the western half of the country. Consequently, the nonprofit organization Paso Pacifico has been working since 2005 to reduce threats and to restore and conserve the habitat of that region’s remaining spider monkeys. Paso Pacifico focuses its efforts on the Paso del Istmo Biological Corridor, a dry tropical forest zone located in the hot, southern Pacific lowlands of Rivas that holds the only remaining spider monkey populations in western Nicaragua-small groups, but extremely important for the species’ conservation.

“If we look to the north at Honduras, there are large areas of good monkey habitat-to the south of Nicaragua, in Costa Rica, there’s also excellent habitat. Here, the habitat is very fragmented, but we still have something to conserve,” said Kimberly Williams, Director of Conservation Science for Paso Pacifico. “Rivas is also is a good bridge-the species can’t travel across Lake Nicaragua, they have to pass through this part of the Central American isthmus. So what we accomplish here will have an impact on improving the ecosystem for spider monkeys throughout the entire Pacific coast of Central America.”

When the project began, a research team led by U.S. biologists conducted non-invasive genetic studies using DNA found in the feces of several spider monkeys in southern Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica. The results showed Paso Pacifico’s directors that in addition to habitat destruction, the monkeys face a genetic threat. According to Williams, in response to the hunting pressures and deforestation in Nicaragua, the area’s spider monkeys became exceedingly shy and reduced their geographic range, resulting in their living in small groups and interbreeding. “This genetic disconnection alone is a threat to the species’ long term survival,” Williams explains.

Spider Monkeys - Photo by Saj SodhiIn light of these findings, Paso Pacifico proposed to reconnect habitat patches to increase the spider monkeys’ gene pool. With the support of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Without Borders program and in partnership with local landowners, communities, and researchers, the project began working in three major areas: forest restoration, research and monitoring to better understand the species, and environmental education to instill empathy for the spider monkey in local communities and raise awareness about the threats that hunting and illegal trafficking pose.

The organization has hired five full-time rangers, or “protectors.” All are local residents, which Williams says guarantees they have knowledge of the local ecology and creates links with the communities, since they also serve as the project’s ambassadors.

The rangers also help researchers and perform monitoring duties. They go deep into the forest to collect information about the monkeys and record how many there are, whether they are male or female, what kind of trees they are in, and other details. Such data helps the biologists refine project activities, such as what types of trees they should plant. Knowing where females with offspring are located prompts the rangers to increase patrols in those areas, keeping hunters from killing mothers and capturing baby monkeys for the illegal pet trade.

Reforestation - Photo by Jorge Paniagua / USAIDIn addition to threats from poaching, the species’ habitat is severely fragmented, separated by large agricultural clearings, or damaged by forest fires; therefore, Paso Pacifico has made forest restoration a priority and has planted thousands of trees on 1,235 acres (500 hectares) of land. Because the spider monkey’s diet is based on fruits and flowers, they have focused on planting fruit trees.

According to Paso Pacifico’s Executive Director Sarah Otterstrom, another key achievement has been helping several local landowners create private reserves that protect critical forest patches while encouraging ecotourism in the area. The Nicaraguan Private Reserve Network (Red de Reservas Silvestres Privadas) has worked alongside Paso Pacifico as a key partner in helping to develop and strengthen private reserves.

“There is a lot of interest in creating private reserves, in part because the landowners understand that the monkeys could become a tourist attraction,” says Otterstrom.

Child - Photo by Lynn Crew / Paso PacificoThis growing awareness is the result of extensive advocacy work with the entire community, especially with children. Local schools don’t have an environmental education component in their curriculum, so the project’s directors and rangers provide environmental education for eight schools by giving lectures to raise the children’s empathy toward the monkeys, showing them that the monkeys are interesting and cute, while highlighting their role as seed dispersers.

“We still need to conserve more land and expand our environmental education efforts beyond Rivas,” Otterstrom emphasizes. “We want to reach Managua, where people still buy monkeys as pets. Little by little, we’re making progress toward helping spider monkey populations recover so that they can move to the north and south of Nicaragua,” said Otterstrom.

Otterstrom and Williams say that the communities have been receptive to the project because they’ve managed to connect conservation with benefits for local people. The project has created jobs in reforestation and forest management as well as for rangers, has provided training, and has sent rangers to international workshops. It is also promoting tourism, and the children are happy with the new activities at school.

Contacts: Sarah Otterstrom and Kimberly Williams, Paso Pacifico. Centro Comercial MercoCentro, Modulo #5, Ticuantepe, Nicaragua. Tel: +505-279-7258. sarah@pasopacifico.org, kwilliamsg@pasopacifico.org, www.pasopacifico.org.

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