Volunteering at an Animal Orphanage in Iquitos, Peru: Saving the Red Faced Uakari

Updated May 29th, 2017.

It’s kind of a surreal experience the first time a baby Red Faced Uakari monkey drops out of a tree onto your head. Due to hunting and habitat destruction this species is among the rarest primates in South America, and now I have a baby one holding onto my eyebrows and riding me through the forest. Don’t get me wrong, although this species is very social and is known to enjoy company this isn’t a natural thing for these animals to do. You can’t just go wandering through their Amazonian flooded forest habitat in Peru and expect to pick up a passenger. It’s only due to my work as a conservation volunteer at Pilpintuwasi Animal Orphanage in Padre Cocha, Iquitos, Peru that I have managed to build this kind of relationship with these animals and attract this little ride along.

A visit to any market within the Amazon basin will justify why animal orphanages and rehabilitation centres such as Pilpintuwasi are an important part of the battle for local wildlife conservation in Peru, and indeed the whole of South America.

Butterfly Iquitos PeruBeautiful and exotic animal species are in danger of extinction all across the Amazon 

During my first and only walk through the main market in Iquitos I had five separate vendors discreetly offer to illegally sell me baby animals or native animal skins. It’s sad to say but many tourists will actually buy animals from these vendors with the mistaken perception that they are saving them when all they are actually doing is perpetuating a market that thrives on ignorance.

The vendors don’t care what you buy the animal for, all they learn from the transaction is that illegally hunting and selling animals equals money. As for animal skins, I assure you that no matter how many times the seller assures you that these animals were found dead in the forest no animal carcass lies around in the humidity of the Amazon rain forest, surrounded by numerous scavenger species, waiting to be found by some lucky marketeer. They were almost certainly hunted and killed by poachers. Yes, even the little patch of Ocelot skin on that beautiful piece of jewellery.

So what happens when these vendors are caught with live animals? The vendors are fined and the animals are taken to places like Pilpintuwasi Animal Orphanage.

Currently Pilpintuwasi is home to a variety of native Amazonian species that have been rescued from the black market including a Jaguar, an Ocelot, two and three Toed Sloths, numerous birds and a variety of primates. Included within Pilpintuwasis collection is a very special primate species, a species that I have developed a very special connection to during my time in Peru, the Red Faced Uakari monkey.

I would like to claim that I alone have this connection to these animals but that would be a lie as they are a species that have a rare ability to draw people to them.

EDIT - red uakari EDIT - Red Uakari 2

This ability being both to their detriment, as is evident in their history of hunting and their place in native superstition, and their saviour as many have now been inspired to take up their fight for survival. The Pilpintuwasi troop consists of ten monkeys including three babies (one of which is the first and only to be born in captivity in the world), three adolescent females, three adult females and an adult male.

Although all of the animals at Pilpintuasi are given a huge amount of attention and care, it is the semi-captive Red Uakaris that are the flagship species of this private conservation organisation. If you were to visit Pilpintuwasi, you would observe these gently awkward primates roaming the grounds, looking for fruits, playing in the trees or grooming each other freely. Due to their social nature, living in troops of 100 individuals in the wild, these animals are extremely friendly and affectionate towards volunteers and guests alike which makes working with them at Pilpintuwasi a very hands on and rewarding experience.

EDIT - Examining Monkey Scats in AmazonExamining Monkey Scats in the Amazon

Although it is sad to see any animal out of their natural habitat, the rescue and subsequent placement of these Red Uakaris into the care of Pilpintuasi has been largely beneficial to conservation efforts.

Due to the hard work and dedication of the Orphanages owner and her associates some very valuable data has been collected on behaviour and reproduction of this species. Due to the limited size of their known distribution and the difficulties associated with accessing these flooded forest areas, this data would be nearly impossible to collect any other way. Through the time we spent with these amazing animals, and the people that are working to protect them, our passion for this particular primate was ignited.

But the rescue and subsequent care, rehabilitation and observation can only teach us so much about an animal. So after our eye opening three months at Pilpintuwasi we wanted to learn more about the Red Faced Uakari Monkey and its fight for survival. And that’s how, after a fair bit of research into active programs involving the species, we found ourselves at the Tamshiyacu Tahuayo Reserve in the deep Amazon rainforest just two weeks later.

Tamshiyacu Tahuayo Reserve is a large community reserve owned and operated by a small collection of Indigenous communities that reside within and around it.

EDIT - Fishing for food for OcelotFishing for food for the ocelot in the heart of the Amazon

Tamshiyacu Tahuayo is an example of a flourishing patch of Amazonian Rainforest, home to a huge number of threatened species and many more that are endemic to the area. Late last century these communities grew tired of outside hunters, hunters from communities that had chosen to deforest and overhunt their territories, coming in and taking resources from their pristine patch of Rainforest.

This area is now considered one of the most ecologically valuable areas of protected Rainforest in the Amazon Basin, not to mention one of only a few areas within Peru known to be home to wild populations of the Red Faced Uakari monkeys.

Within the Tamshiyacu Tahuayo reserve there is a Lodge called the Tahuayo Lodge, the only lodge that has permission to operate within the reserve boundaries. The owners of this lodge, a Peruvian woman and an American College Professor, have a particular staked interest in conservation of the reserve and this has led to the subsequent development of an additional arm to the lodge, one of the largest permanent scientific survey grids in the world and an accompanying research station.

EDIT - The Head Uakari Researcher RoseRose, the Head Uakari Researcher

Although the lodge its self is a rather upmarket and costly alternative when it comes to Amazonian travel, this particular lodge offers an alternative for those traveling on a budget. If you have a passion for conservation and want to volunteer to assist in one of the many research projects being undertaken on the Reserve, you can save up to 50% on the cost and experience the Amazon Rainforest on a level much deeper level than that of the regular tourist.

The research being conducted on the Red Faced Uakaris within Tamshiyacu Tahuayo is primarily behavioural, focusing on understanding their interactions among themselves, with other species and with the environment in which they reside and required as many hours as possible following and observing the primates in their natural environment.

EDIT - Hamberto EDIT - Red Ukari Perch

For us, working as research assistants, this meant some long hours and extremely long distances being walked. Our days took us through various types of Amazonian forest from the deep mud of the flooded forest to the hilly Terra Firma. At times this was extremely exhausting, walking more than 30km a day through the Amazons harsh environmental and climatic conditions pushing our bodies to the brink.

However, it was in those moments that we felt as if we were lost, exhausted and being absorbed by the forest that we would all of a sudden find ourselves surrounded by 80 chirping Red Faced Uakaris.And it was then that we really feel that we are doing something special.

As humans we habitually attempt to physically and philosophically remove ourselves from the natural world but in those moments in the forest all of our perceived differences dissolved.

We were just two species of primate travelling through the forest together.

Red Faced Uakari Monkeys are one of many species of animal found in South America slowly shifting towards extinction. For those travellers that have a passion for wildlife conservation, there are endless opportunities to get your hands dirty in this endeavour working with anything from Andean Condors to Spectacled Bears or Jaguars in the wild or in rescue centres.

Make your travel count and get involved.

Written by Corey Callahan

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