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Sep 24, 2018

I want to be free.....!

A Little Bit of Duma - shortly after arrival
A Little Bit of Duma - shortly after arrival

I remember the arrival of our first spider monkey, on February 3rd, 2011.

This is Duma’s story, and how she changed mine

I remember watching her walk across the floor towards me in search of comfort when she first arrived. She reminded me of a tiny, highly intelligent alien, with thin, spindly legs and a sharply triangular face. A fragile bundle of need and anxiety. I remember her insecurity issues when she felt abandoned any time she lost sight of me - generally expressed with ear splitting shrieks. She was a casualty of the illegal pet trade in Belize.

Spider monkeys live high in the forest canopy, moving fast through the tree tops. The babies cling to their mothers for the first eighteen months of their life or more, knowing that if they lose their grip, they will almost certainly fall behind and die. They are hard-wired to panic if they lose contact with their mother’s body. Even when they start to explore on their own, they stay close by for two years, learning from her, being protected and nurtured by her.  Hunters have to shoot the mother, killing her, to be able to tear the baby from her, to then sell it into the illegal pet trade. It is thought that for every infant monkey caught and sold, two to three other monkeys are killed or injured.

I learnt a lot about spider monkeys working with Duma. She was lucky in that she was not injured, and she had come from well-intentioned people who surrendered her once they discovered that the law protects this species. But like any infant spider monkey, she was instinctively terrified of being on her own. With no other spider monkeys to bond with, she required constant one-on-one care. She was like a two-year-old human child – constantly on the move, exploring, getting into mischief, then crashing into a deep, deep sleep. It took three people alternating to provide her with the secure environment she needed to thrive. A few months later, a second spider monkey arrived – Mattie. It wasn’t long until the two bonded, and Duma transferred her focus of attention to her new companion. Over the last eight years, her group has grown, with the addition of Charlie, Mel and Penny.

Many of the spider monkeys that have come into the Primate Rehabilitation Centre arrive in poor shape, confiscated as illegal pets by the Belize Forest Department, some with broken limbs, some with shot gun pellets embedded in their bodies…and all with behavioural issues. Our first job is generally to fix their bodies. The next, more challenging task, is to ease their minds. To be prepared for release, monkeys have to be fit, both physically and mentally. They have to be part of a social group, and be able to interact with other monkeys in a healthy manner. They have to be ready for life in the wild.

Before Duma, I had only had experience working with howler monkeys and had no pre-conceptions about the intelligence of spider monkeys. There is no comparison. Spider monkeys take intelligence to a whole new level. Duma taught me never to under-estimate them, that they are self-aware, they are problem solvers, approaching situations with the curiosity and intent of a toddler. They don’t give their trust easily…it can take days or even weeks for them to accept a new primary carer, and they won’t accept everyone. They are escape artists, quickly figuring out door handles bolts, and carabineers– they haven’t mastered the padlocks yet, but I’m sure it is just a matter of time before they do. The language barrier makes them frustrated when we don’t always understand what they are trying to communicate, but that doesn’t keep them from trying to get the message across. They have a strong concept of ownership, considering anything they want to be theirs – sunglasses, cameras – even people – and will defend their possessions with all they have - their teeth, nails and unwavering spirit!

Duma, now considered a young adult at eight years old, flies through her enclosure, hand-over-hand, leaping at the hanging rope then swinging herself backwards and forwards. She then takes off for the Central Enclosure, passing quickly through the connecting tunnel before heading to the top of the sapote tree and on to the palms where she forages for fruit. She loves the swinging rope…she also loves burrowing into hammocks (one special hammock in particular for those of you who know her!). She loves playing with water. She does cartwheels and backflips when she gets excited. She is an individual – as individual as we are – and, like the rest of her group, she deserves to be free. Her story hasn’t ended yet – her journey has just begun.

Eight years ago, Wildtracks took on the Primate Rehabilitation Programme for Belize, under an agreement with the Belize Forest Department. Since then, we have had an intake of 93 Yucatan black howler monkeys and 24 Central American spider monkeys. Both are globally endangered, impacted by forest clearance and targeted for the illegal pet trade.  We have been very successful at reintroducing the howler monkeys back into the wild, with a 95% first year survival rate. This will, however, be the first time for a structured spider monkey release in Belize. Elsewhere in the region, success rates are around 45% or lower. This project looks at how to improve this percentage significantly – 45% is not acceptable for Duma or any of her group. It will develop the protocols to ensure long term success – investing time and finance in the post-release phase of rehabilitation - just as important as preparing the monkeys for release.

Thank you again for supporting this initiative, on behalf of Duma and her group, the other 19 spider monkeys at Wildtracks, and all other spider monkeys in rehabilitation in the region. Together, we can change lives.

Duma peeking out from her safe zone
Duma peeking out from her safe zone
Duma happily
Duma happily 'hammocking'
Duma learning to recognize food resources
Duma learning to recognize food resources


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