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Wildtracks: Conservation, Research and Education
Spider Monkey

Primate Rehabilitation Centre

Belize is home to two species of primate – the Yucatan black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra) and Geoffroy's spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi). Both are globally endangered, and Belize's populations are being pressured by increasing tropical forest clearance and capture of young animals for the illegal pet trade.

Belize has had a well established and successful programme for the rehabilitation and release of illegally held pet monkeys for many years. Initially managed under the Belize Wildlife Care Center, the rehabilitation programme was transferred to Wildtracks in late 2010. It has now expanded to be able to take in any and all monkeys that are surrendered, or confiscated by the Forest Department, or injured wild animals. A central goal of the Programme is to drastically reduce the illegal pet trade in monkeys in Belize, and to give all surrendered and confiscated monkeys the best possible chance to be returned to the wild.

Izzie the Spider Monkey entering rehabilitation

Izzie, a young, traumatised spider monkey, entering the Primate Rehabilitation Centre

The Primate Rehabilitation Centre has been established to fulfil three primary objectives:

  • To assist Forest Department in ending the illegal pet trade in primates in Belize
  • To prepare confiscated and rescued primates for reintroduction to the wild
  • To develop and support conservation initiatives focused at increasing the viability of primate populations in Belize

Why do monkeys need rehabilitation?

Both howler and spider monkeys are Endangered species, with populations disappearing at an alarming rate as forests are cleared and as they are hunted for their young. In Belize, it is illegal to keep monkeys as pets. Despite this, the mothers are often shot and killed to remove the young, which then are sold into the illegal pet trade.

These animals can reach Wildtracks through one of two mechanisms:

  • When reported, they are confiscated by Forest Department, and transferred to Wildtracks
  • When people discover that it is illegal to keep monkeys, or the animals get too old or unreliable, they can surrender them

Izzie's Tale

High in the tree tops, a mother spider monkey clutched her eight month old baby tightly to her. Spotting her while hunting in the forest, a hunter took aim with his gun and fired. Falling to the forest floor, the mother lay dead. The young, Izzie, was traumatized and wounded with a shattered arm, broken hand, broken tail and five gunshot wounds.

The hunter ripped her from her dead mother, put her in a sack, then left her tied up in his front yard, dehydrated, frightened and in pain.

Confiscated by the Forest Department, she is now at Wildtracks, where she is given the care needed to thrive again.

This is a story that repeats itself again and again, and will continue to do so until the demand from the illegal pet trade is halted. This is being achieved through the Forest Department's combined awareness and zero tolerance campaign. Wildtracks provides the facilities required for the zero tolerance confiscations to be successful, housing and rehabilitating confiscated animals, and preparing them for release back into the wild.

What happens when monkeys enter the Primate Rehabilitation Centre?

Monkeys come in at all stages – some are very young – far too young to be separated from their mothers. Others have been chained for up to eleven years in solitary confinement. All arrive stressed, traumatised, often behaviourally challenged and in ill health.

New monkeys are quarantined for 30 days after arrival, to help reduce the risk of disease transmission to those already at the Centre. During this time they are screened for a number of possible pathogens, and kept under close observation. The young and very sick are housed inside, in the temporary Nursery Unit in the house (dedicated nursery room is now in the planning stage), where they have access to 24 hour care and attention.

The adults are kept as stress-free as possible during the quarantine process, helping to stabilize their behaviour and start improving their condition. They are assessed for integration with other monkeys considered as 'best fits', to start creating the release groups, or troops.

Nicky the howler monkey, on arrival at Wildtracks

Nicky on arrival in 2011 as a sick and depressed baby (above) and being prepared for release, two years later (below)

Nicky the howler monkey, almost ready for release

Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation focuses on returning each monkey to good physical and mental health as soon as possible after arrival, providing the right food and surroundings to enable proper development, the facilitation of social interaction with other monkeys and gradual integration into cohesive groups or troops, the encouragement of exploration of new foods and new surroundings, and the development of the climbing, foraging and predator-avoidance skills that will be needed in the wild.

Once they leave quarantine, the monkeys pass through three rehabilitation phases, dependent on their age and species:

  • Nursery Unit
  • Forest Cages
  • Pre-release

Nursery Unit

The Nursery Unit houses all the youngest monkeys, with a separate quarantine area for new arrivals or sick monkeys. Many of these babies suffer from separation anxiety, and need to be able to touch, or at least see, the nursery carers throughout the day. This is particularly so with young spider monkeys such as Duma and Izzie – in this species, the young are highly dependent on the mothers until they are ten months old, rarely moving out of touch range, and often clinging tightly to the mother's front or back. To provide a sense of normality and security for young of this highly intelligent species requires one on one care from a dedicated carer, to be able to rebuild the confidence required for re-entry into the wild.

Currently, there are several young howler monkeys in the nursery at any one time. This provides an opportunity to form groups from an early age, reducing their dependency on human carers.

Forest Cages

The older monkeys are moved to the Forest Cages, where they are housed in groups, with space and time to develop social bondings and to learn to operate as a group – playing, moving and feeding together, and transferring their focus from the nursery carers to each other.

Enrichment, including introduction of palms and bushes, helps to prepare them for foraging, and also for moving through the forest, where branches are not nailed in place.

Contact with the carers is reduced to feed times, when cages are cleaned, leafy browse is replaced, fruit provided and water refreshed.

Pre-release

Several months prior to release, howler monkeys are moved into the extensive pre-release enclosure – ¾ acre of forest surrounded by electric fencing. Here they are monitored closely, with group cohesion, climbing, travelling and foraging skills being assessed prior to their approaching release in the Fireburn Reserve.

Howler monkey in the pre-release enclosure Howler monkey in the pre-release enclosure Spider monkey undergoing rehabilitation at Wildtracks Spider monkey forest cage

Spider monkey forest cage

Installing pre-release enclosure fencing

Installing pre-release fencing for howler monkeys

Release

Howler monkeys are released into the tropical forest of the Fireburn Reserve at approximately 2½ years of age. However, wildlife rehabilitation doesn't end when the animals are released – their success in returning to the wild needs to be monitored for at least a year, to ensure that they are coping with conditions in the forest, maintaining good health, adopting a completely wild lifestyle, and preparing to re-enter the breeding population. Post-release monitoring of the released monkeys is conducted on an on-going basis at the release site, to determine the success of their return to the wild, and to provide a feedback mechanism to help inform the rehabilitation and reintroduction process.

Reintroduction

Reintroducing endangered species into their former ranges, re-establishing viable populations across the broader landscape, is perhaps the best insurance that can be provided against a number of threats – including the devastating impacts of hurricanes, or highly contagious diseases such as yellow-fever that decimated monkey populations in the region in the 1950s. The current release site, the Fireburn Reserve, provides one such site. Howler monkeys, once present in the area, were removed by the combined pressures of hurricanes, hunting and yellow fever over 50 years ago. Removal of forest corridor linkages by farming over the intervening years has reduced the likelihood of natural repopulation of the area, even though the conditions are now ideal, with high density food resources and strong community support.

The tropical forest at Fireburn Reserve Monitoring released howler monkeys at Fireburn Reserve

How can I help?

Volunteer

Primate rehabilitation can be very labour-intensive, particularly with species that require significant social contact / support as babies and juveniles. Foster-mother support of baby monkeys and providing enrichment activities for older monkeys are good examples of wildlife-care that require a very significant amount of carer time.

In a developing country such as Belize, where financing support from Government is limited, such care can only be provided by volunteers. The Primate Rehabilitation Centre does not have salaried staff, and relies on volunteers, from the Directors down. Volunteering can be hard work, uncomfortable and smelly... but also extremely rewarding.

Volunteer placements are for a minimum of 1 month and more often for 2 to 3 months or more. We have volunteers who extend their stay with us for up to a year, and others who keep coming back.

Get in touch to discuss volunteer opportunities!



Donate

The Primate Rehabilitation Centre is entirely dependent upon privately sourced donations and grants.

In its first year at Wildtracks, the Primate Rehabilitation Programme was fortunate in receiving small grants from the Protected Areas Conservation Trust, the International Primate Protection League (UK), Houston Zoo (Primate Section), the Hampshire Venture Scouts, and private individuals towards the upgrading and extension of the basic facilities, to provide the increased capacity needed during 2012.

With veterinary and associated travel costs, and the need to build additional quarantine facilities, a nursery enclosure, new and bigger enclosures, as well as more appropriate hurricane shelter facilities, Wildtracks depends heavily on continued support from both organizations and individuals.

Even with the savings of bulk purchase of fruit, it costs only US$1 per day on average to feed each monkey – but with the twenty four monkeys currently in care, that amounts to almost US$9,125 per year!


Volunteering at Wildtracks Interacting with a young spider monkey