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Conservation and Environment in Peru: Monthly Updates

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Monthly Update - October 2010

Free at last!

As the rains finally threaten and temperatures soar to highs of close to 40oC in the shade it has been a tough month at Taricaya but the heat and humidity have not prevented us from achieving great successes over the recent weeks. With volunteer numbers still high we have been able to progress on many different fronts and there have been successes in many of our projects including the butterfly house, turtle project and rescue centre. However the big news this month is the successful release of our adult spider monkey troop back into the wild!!!

Grass area from goat project

Our alpha male spider monkey (Ateles chamek) had been with us close to four year years when we finally opened the door and let his troop back into their natural habitat. The realisation of years of hard work, countless behavioural studies and medical tests culminated in our four adult spider monkeys returning to an area of the Amazon where their distinctive calls and noisy crashing through the canopy had been absent for over fifty years. Those of you who have been monitoring this project over recent months might be wondering why we stepped up the release protocols and let the animals back so soon. The main reason was that we saw there was no need to keep them in the pre-release enclosure any longer. The older male and female quickly learnt how to chew through weak points in the thick netting and we often found them sitting on top of the pre-release enclosure when we took the food out to them early in the morning. When they saw the food inside the cage they quickly clambered back in and started to feed as we fixed the latest hole. Soon it became apparent that this was a pointless procedure because every morning they were outside the cage and every afternoon they went back in of their own accord. Therefore we tried hanging a similar feeding station outside the main enclosure and left the door of their enclosure open and sure enough the four monkeys came and fed at the new feeding station.

Last day in captivity!

When working with wild animals and especially their release programs you must have a certain flexibility incorporated into your project plan and be able to react to how your animals evolve and progress during their time in captivity. These monkeys are extremely intelligent and once they discovered that chewing through the netting would give them more space to move around in but not enough food to survive the logical conclusion was to spend long periods enjoying their new freedom but to ensure they were back at "base" to refuel at the right time. Thus, from our point of view, it seemed pointless to continue to destroy the pre-release cage which will hold up much better with the smaller sub-adults due to be moved out there in the New Year and simply continue with the project's next stage of investigation. So we now have four wild spider monkeys in the Taricaya reserve and every day we record which individuals are present at the feeding station in the morning and afternoon. Their attendance rates will undoubtedly diminish over the coming weeks and this will be because they are roaming farther afield and finding more food for themselves thus completing their transition and finally cutting the ties with humans. The end result: four independent spider monkeys back in the wild!

Newly hatched Owl Butterfly

Whilst the adult troop enjoy their newfound freedom the second younger group of spider monkeys was transferred into the now abandoned larger cage back at the rescue centre as they prepare to follow in the footsteps of the first troop with the transfer of this second group to the pre-release enclosure scheduled for around April/May next year. As these young monkeys have moved into the larger enclosure we have taken advantage and torn down their old cage which was falling apart. We shall rebuild this next month just in time to move our third group of spider monkeys into it. It is amazing, but this month we received three baby spider monkeys (2 males, 1 female) which are currently in quarantine and so they will ultimately join up with our other young female and form our third release group which will undoubtedly grow with new additions over the coming months and be programmed for release at the very end of next year or the start of 2012.

Waiting to be marked

Elsewhere at Taricaya the baby turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) were starting to hatch and every morning we went to check the artificial beaches at the pilot farm to collect the youngsters and take them back to the holding pool in the butterfly house. Thus far we have collected close to 500 young babies and this first batch will be released on 5th November which is our anniversary and it has become a tradition to release all the hatched young turtles on this day before returning to the lodge for a barbecue. Any babies hatching after this date will be released later in the month. However, there is still a lot to do before this date as each youngster must be marked with a code to correspond to its birth year. Each year we make a small cut at a different place on the turtle's shell so that we can identify the turtle at a later stage either laying eggs on the beach or during our turtle censuses on the river. Earlier in the year we identified a young female from our 2005 release program and it is very satisfying to see that despite low survival rates for baby turtles in the predator rich rivers and lakes we are making a difference and that turtles we have saved over the years are now contributing to the slow recovery of the species in our area. I will give you the final figures for this year's turtle project next month when we have released all the babies back into the river.

As the rainy season looms it was a good time to start a new project at the pilot farm and this involved clearing transects in our now abandoned grass area. The goats and donkeys have long since moved on from our pilot farm and their old field provides an ideal location to set up a reforestation study. The biggest threat to the Amazon rainforest is not logging or gold mining but agriculture in the form of large scale cattle ranches. Having successfully proved that goat farming was an effective alternative to the larger areas required by cows it is time to use the area for new research and we want to investigate the best way to reforest large grass areas. We will plant a variety of different tree species in these transects including commercially valuable woods, fruit trees and other species that will grow quickly producing shade and thus killing the well-established grass and reducing competition for nutrients and water but before any of this can happen we needed to hack and clear transect lines through the dense grass. The burning sun made this job very difficult as it is out in the open so we decided to tackle the hard labour early in the mornings before the heat got unbearable and it goes without saying that everyone was up to the task and we now have three 100m transects ready for planting. This project has the potential to be incredibly valuable long term as people need to be encouraged to reforest these huge areas so we must make the idea attractive in so much as the farmer will benefit from his effort. These currently abandoned grass areas suffer leaching from the heavy rains and leave large areas unprotected from the devastating effects of erosion so I am hoping that this might prove to be one of our most successful and effective projects to date. Only time will tell!

Before signing off this month I must report on the hatching of our first butterflies in the butterfly lab. We have been collecting individuals for months now and all the hard work is starting to pay off as last month 14 freshly formed owl butterflies (Caligo sp.) emerged from their chrysalises in the laboratory. The caterpillars had been feeding in the butterfly house and the pupa were collected to protect them and during the period of a week every morning we were greeted by newly emerged adults ready for release back into the outdoor enclosure. These are our first successes from a breeding viewpoint as the whole process was completed in captivity (i.e. mating, feeding and metamorphosis). Now we must strive to get the same results with the highly attractive blue morpho butterflies (Morpho sp.).

As the skies continue to darken and the storms approach I am certain that there will be much more to report on next month and so I say goodbye until then.....

Stuart Timson
Conservation Director
Projects Abroad
7th November, 2010

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