Au Natural • On the trail of Spider Monkeys

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Archaeologist and photographer Matt Stirn takes us on a journey to Panama, where conservation efforts are supporting the elusive Azuero Spider Monkeys and their habitat.

After hiking all day without a sign, we finally heard one. In a large stand of trees, across the ridge, echoed the loud grunting of an Azuero Spider Monkey’s warning call. I checked the settings on my camera and followed the team towards a particularly monstrous stand of trees. Entering the canopy was like walking into a tunnel; the light disappeared and the humidity made me feel like I had entered a steam room...


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Baby howler monkey and mother, Azuero Peninsula, Panama

In the darkness, all we could do was follow the sounds of the monkeys. I walked around a massive tree and stopped suddenly. Two male spider monkeys were perched just above me, staring down with curiosity and distrust, grunting quietly. Surprised by their sudden appearance right in front of me, they took off across the canopy before I could react. I ran through the brush at full sprint, hoping to get in front of the troop so I could photograph them coming towards me. But, in my excitement, I had, without realising it, broken a rule of surviving in the rainforest: always be conscious of your surroundings.

The locals call it ‘Cachito’, a thorny bullhorn acacia that has developed a symbiotic relationship with some of the most painful ants on the planet. As the landlord, the Cachito provides a home for the ants and food through its sap. To pay their rent, these wasp-like ants vow to ferociously guard their home and attack anything that comes near, swarming and biting with their extremely painful and effective toxin. It was through a small gap in these trees that I ran, in my eager attempt to catch the monkeys.

Critically Endangered Azuero Spider Monkey, Azuero Peninsula, Panama

I didn’t feel the pain immediately. It took about five minutes for the enraged family of ants to situate themselves across my body and, through a chemical signal, all bite at once. In a shriek of pain, I began wiping them away, rolling on the ground as if I was on fire. Eventually, still throbbing but clear of ants, I stood up and looked around, disappointed that I had completely lost the monkeys in the canopy. Somewhat dazed I decided to retrace my steps back to the team when I heard a squirting noise above me. I looked up just in time for a solid stream of liquefied faeces to come cascading down from the canopy and on to my face. Apparently I hadn’t lost track of them after all. I had hot, sticky, smelly excrement flowing into my eyes, nose, mouth and ears. The mess was solidifying in the tropical heat, but my fingers were too blistered and swollen from the ant bites to effectively clean myself off. Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I wondered, “What am I doing here?”. I sat down, momentarily defeated, and stared into the distance listening to the beautiful jungle sounds, when a little honey-covered bee flew into my curly hair and stung me on the scalp.

I had arrived in Panama two weeks earlier, on an assignment for Photographers Without Borders to document the conservation work of the Azuero Earth Project (AEP), in the southern reaches of the country. Unlike the rest of the isthmus that is famed for its jungles and cloud forests, the Azuero Peninsula receives comparatively little rain and consists of tropical dry forest, coastal mangroves, and vast swaths of open land that has been cleared for cattle grazing. A large, manmade desert is also located here and was formed when real-estate development firms removed forty kilometres of coastal forest, which allowed the Pacific winds to blow salt inland and ultimately kill additional kilometres of forest, replacing it with dunes. Since the 1970s, farmers and cattle ranchers destroyed the majority of tropical forest in the southern portion of the Azuero Peninsula. At one time, this region produced the most beef in all of Central America but, over time, the unsustainable ranching methods leached the soil of all nutrients, decreased the available food for cattle and ultimately led to a decline in the industry. It was a suicide that left this once-forested peninsula mostly bare, covered in scars and some narrow strips of preserved forest that managed to survive the environmentally destructive past.

Baby howler monkey, Azuero Peninsula, Panama

The rapid decrease in forest size across the peninsula has been detrimental to dozens of endemic and endangered species. Perhaps the most affected has been the Azuero Spider Monkey, a sub-species of spider monkey that, while once prevalent, is now critically endangered, with an estimated population of one hundred individuals. Without intervention, the Azuero Spider Monkey could become extinct within the next few decades. Issues like this are common in the Azuero and are the reason that NGO’s like Azuero Earth Project (AEP) are fighting to make a difference.

The AEP was founded in the coastal village of Pedasi by Ruth Metzel in 2010. The primary mission of the organisation is to ’preserve the earth’s ecosystems, protect biodiversity and promote healthy communities by helping people to make informed decisions, take sustainable actions, and share knowledge’. Their efforts include village educational programs, sustainable farming, ecological studies and forest rehabilitation across the peninsula. By working with farmers to replant secondary forest, Ruth hopes that they will be able to create more habitat for stressed wildlife and, ultimately, help increase the dwindling spider monkey population. To best strategise the forest corridor plan, the AEP launched a preliminary study in 2017 to research the range and diet habits of the Azuero Spider Monkey. This project replicated earlier work by California State University and hoped that by better understanding monkey dynamics, it would be possible to plant trees that would most benefit the population. To help promote their conservation efforts the AEP collaborated with Photographers Without Borders to hire a photographer to capture quality photos of the elusive and rarely photographed Azuero Spider Monkey.

I first joined the AEP team as project photographer in 2017 during their monkey project. In the company of graduate students Cristobal Perez, Miguel Montenegro, Danilo Chiari and our local guide Jairo Batista, we departed the research station each morning before the sun and drove to a trailhead, working systematically up different ravines that cut across the hilly landscape of the Azuero. Due to the massive deforestation in the region, the highest quality forest often survives along steep canyons and river bottoms where cattle could not feed. This severe terrain, while easily navigable by the monkeys who moved across the canopy, was a different beast on foot with heavy camera gear. We would generally begin on a road or trail but often cut off into riverbeds, up waterfalls, along ridges, or through thick forest, to reach more isolated areas.

Azuero Earth Project staffmember Jairo Bernal (center) and Miguel Montenegro (right) move up a rivulet in search of Azuero Spider Monkeys

The wildlife in these islands of preserved forest was plentiful and absolutely stunning. Every day, we would come across dozens of giant blue morpho butterflies, troupes of howler and capuchin monkeys, as well as macaws, parrots, and toucans. And still, those spider monkeys remained nearly impossible to photograph. Every day, we located at least one family of spider monkeys but, as soon as our presence was realised, the monkeys would shout a warning call and take off across the canopy at impressive speeds. It was almost as if they knew that they were endangered and that humans were the cause of it. They didn’t run when other animals or monkey species were near, only us. I realised I would have to come up with a different plan if I wanted to get some usable photos while, at the same time, staying aware of where I walked, climbed, and sat. I knew all to well what can happen if you ignore your surroundings in the jungle. This was no easy task and was kind of like being asked to play in, and photograph, a rugby match at the same time.

Of the fourteen days we worked in the forest, I only had two productive encounters with the spider monkeys in which they didn’t run. In both instances, we revisited a group that we had previously come across earlier in the project. In nature photography our mantra is ‘patience is key’ and, for us, returning to the same groups of monkeys several times paid off. We were able to eventually gain their trust enough that they became curious with our little group, rather than afraid. Because of their calmer demeanour, I was able to photograph the monkeys closer to the ground and across the same plane, which meant a more ideal background of green leaves, rather than looking up at a white blown-out sky, which is all too common in rainforest images. Shooting in the jungle is usually a tale of two extremes, either too dark or too bright, so it’s a special treat when a more evenly-lit scene can be composed. By remembering that time was on my side, and by revisiting monkeys on multiple occasions, I was able to make the most of a difficult environment and take advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves.

In conservation photography, it is often tempting to focus primarily on the suffering of wildlife, with the hope that emotional imagery will generate a response from humanity. While this method works, I personally believe that the best way to raise awareness and trigger action, a combination of both sombre (the issue at hand) and uplifting (what is being done to help) images has a more resonating impact. Bearing this strategy in mind, a secondary objective of mine, in addition to capturing monkeys, was to document the research efforts of the AEP team. The people in the field and on the front lines of conservation are the real heroes, after all, and far too often their stories of endurance and dedication go unnoticed. Conservation photography offers not only a meaningful way to share important messages with the world, but also a venue to applaud the tireless efforts of those attempting to make a difference. In this regard, when I wasn’t looking up into the trees, I circled the monkey research team, documenting their work. By taking the time to photograph both wildlife and people, I was able to create an engaging body of work that told a more complete story of the Azuero Peninsula.

The Azuero Peninsula has experienced decades of environmental struggle and is slowly beginning to recover. The picturesque, white sand beaches of the coast have attracted a vibrant surfing community, a series of coastal and island refuges provide safe habitats for wildlife, and organisations like the Azuero Earth Project are making a significant impact in developing a culture of environmentalism and sustainability. Despite these successes, the area is still in need of additional support.

Howler Monkeys, Azuero Peninsula, Panama

After returning from my assignment in Panama, friends and family often asked me how they could help. What could be done to rehabilitate the forest and help the spider monkey population? My answer then remains the same as it does now, “Go visit.” The Azuero Peninsula is a paradise laying-in-wait and would greatly benefit from an increase in tourism, especially by those with an interest in, and appreciation for, nature, such as wildlife photographers. Besides the occasional surfer or school group from Panama City, the only other visitors to the area come to build vacation houses, which has created an economy that thrives on construction and the deforestation of critical habitat. If, however, more people began to visit for reasons related to nature and preservation, money, effort, and marketing could be used to help the forest rather than destroy it.

When planning your next trip to Central America, consider a visit to the Azuero Peninsula and you will not be disappointed. In addition to being home to a beautiful and small population of spider monkeys, the region is a birder’s paradise, has endless miles of white sand beaches, and a labyrinth of mangrove habitat waiting to be discovered by kayak. Getting there is surprisingly easy and can be accomplished by daily flights, hourly buses, or via rental car from Panama City. A number of adorable bed and breakfasts dot the coastline near Pedasi and some stunning eco-lodges can be found in the forest above Playa Venao. You will not find many reviews or pictures online, and most guidebooks only devote a paragraph or two to the entire region. The Azuero is one of those rare places left in the world that has remained hidden; a place where exploration and discovery can truly be achieved. Plus, your holiday might just help an endangered species.

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