From the field: discovery and conservation in Caquetá, Colombia

Earlier this month, CI announced the discovery of a new species of titi monkey by some of our partner researchers at the National University of Colombia. Here, biology student and primate researcher Javier García reflects on his involvement in the discovery.

I remember my first introduction to Colombian primatology: Professor Thomas Defler was offering a postgraduate course at the National University of Colombia called “Primatology of the New World” and, without knowing me very well at all, allowed me to assist in the course. Six months later I was signing a contract with Conservation International that allowed me to receive money from the Primate Action Fund to organize the first expedition to search for a new species of Callicebus monkey in southern Caquetá department. I assured José Vicente Rodríquez of CI-Colombia and Thomas Defler that if the primate existed, I would find it.

Drawings by Stephen NashHistorically, southern Caquetá has been a zone dominated by illegal armed groups, and in the past eight years it has been a disputed zone between paramilitary groups and guerillas, making the region one of the most violent in that part of Colombia. This didn’t dissuade me as a primatologist: I was very young and my father was known throughout the region because of his veterinary work and his good relations with the local people in the countryside. Despite the violent conditions, I felt that I could depend on the good will and the support of the local population.

I began the expedition in June 2008. Depending on the many friendships established by my father during 25 years in the zone, I was able to travel to the vereda La Leona in Valparaíso municipality and install myself at the farm of Señor Alirio Santanilla. Don Alirio’s son Jeison became my assistant and guide in the region. I felt privileged that 40 years after Martin Moynihan had made his initial observation of this primate, it was I who returned to the zone to study the species, and it was I who had the first opportunity to confirm that, as we suspected, this was a new species found only in the region where I had been born.

Two years later, thanks to the Iniciativa de Especies Amenazadas, CI-Colombia, and the Conservation Leadership Programme I find myself traveling throughout Caquetá looking for new groups of Callicebus caquetensis, determining the distribution of the species and defining the threats to the species. This work has taken me to some dangerous places, but I still feel great excitement in this work and have learned to manage certain situations prudently.

For example, I always carry into the field the miniguide that CI-Colombia donated to my project. This book, combined with my own knowledge of common names of flora and fauna in the area, has helped me confront suspicions that sometimes arise from my presence and from my work and its value. The first reaction of many local people is that I might be part of the national intelligence network, collecting information for the military. I don’t blame these people who have had a difficult life and have had to confront violence and guerillas for many years; when they see somebody with GPS and binoculars, it’s natural to suspect him or her of those activities, rather than seeing a person gathering information about natural resources and especially about monkeys, which to them have little value. Fortunately, this work has extended to other parts of Caquetá and has been received by many with approving eyes as well as having generated valuable data about the area.

Since I began this research, I have had great opportunities to enrich my primatological knowledge and my studies have begun to fill in many information gaps in Caquetá which, although it is one of the major colonization fronts in the Colombian Amazon, has been poorly studied due to many years of violence. It looks like the area between the Orteguaza and Caquetá rivers represents the major part of this new species’ distribution, but the territory is very degraded from its original state: severely fragmented and used for cattle ranching and the cultivation of illegal drugs. The condition of this habitat makes it very difficult or impossible for individuals of the species to disperse and it requires animals to survive in small, sometimes isolated fragments.

There are very few adequate forests that could serve as reserves for these monkeys, and there is no national park that could protect a healthy population, so it’s urgent to create some protected areas that could shield the few forests that still exist. This area was prioritized in CI’s workshop 1990 in Manaus, and there’s a lot to do to convince local authorities and the local population to establish some conservation priorities.

I’ll always be grateful to Conservation International, which helped me to open the door to a better future for biodiversity studies in my home region. Learn more about this discovery.

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