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viernes, 17 de agosto de 2012

Capuchins and Tayras in the Atlantic Forest

Yesterday, I ventured deep into the Atlantic forest following Jonny Miller on a hunt to find the group of Capuchin monkeys that live and feed in the area. Amazingly, just fifteen minutes after entering Jonny’s favorite trail, he stops and whispers back to me, “Do you see?” My immediate reaction was “See what?” but then my eyes caught a flash of motion in the trees just thirty meters ahead of us. There was a group of at least 6 Capuchins travelling through the canopy over our heads. The monkeys had been well aware of our approach and a few of them chirped loudly as soon as they realized we’d seen them. They slowly began moving away, always in a single file line, usually following the exact same path using the same branches as those ahead of them. We were able to follow them through our matrix of amazingly well cut trails (thanks Rosemary). We would lose them for a few moments just to turn a corner and hear the crashing of nearby branches as they leapt from tree to tree. Jonny, after more than 6 months on the primate project, has become adept at knowing where and how the monkeys will move after being spotted. He was able to predict their behavior and enabled us to follow them for nearly a full hour before they lost us. After searching around for another hour or so, occasionally stopping to admire a colorful beetle or caterpillar, we decided to give up our search and begin cutting a new trail. Jonny knew of a place down towards a water source that he wanted a path because frequently the capuchins move away in that direction and the undergrowth was too thick to follow them through. Mina, a new volunteer, joined us as we began cutting the new trail and quickly ran into a boggy area that surrounds the majority of natural springs in the forest. While resting, Jonny again turned to me and asked “Did you hear that?” I shrugged my shoulders and asked “Hear what?” But then to my surprise I looked out through a clearing and saw a smaller group of capuchins perched in a tree looking at me. As they slowly moved away, Jonny attempted to move around to cut them off. At that time, Mina and I stayed put and began hearing a strange huffing/hissing sound and to our surprise a TAYRA climbed up a tree ten feet in front us. It scurried up the tree pursuing the capuchins but after catching sight of me and Mina, began hissing and snorting at us. Joe

lunes, 13 de agosto de 2012

Zen and the Art of Trail Maintenance - A blog entry for PLT by Rosemary Gamsa (part 1)

This is a taste of my musings on machetes… I arrived at Para La Tierra six and a half weeks ago to volunteer on the Capuchin project, with naïve fantasies of hanging out with the monkeys every day. However I soon realized that the finding and following of Capuchins is an exercise in patience and a very specific kind of agility. It requires dedicated and methodical searches; crisscrossing the forest matrix of the undergrowth, GPS and machete in hand, all the while hyper-alert to the manifold hazards. There are the concealed pitfalls and burrows that suck your feet down into the earth, and twisted roots and stumps emerging from the loose red soil like stubborn, lignified homunculi (pull them out and see for yourself). In addition there is some alarming eye-pokery from jagged branches, the unexpected thorny whiplash of deceptively delicate looking Mimosa, and vast invisible spider-webs that lace between the trees and land like sticky cotton threads in the mouth… and of course there is the ever-present whine from millions of tiny flying beasties, awaiting delicious human blood (it is nice to think of oneself as delicious, if only in this context). Stop too long and you will be eaten alive by something or other, DEET or no DEET. To follow the Capuchins one must be silent and speedy, maneuvering this humid obstacle course fearlessly, eyes adjusted to seek out the flash of chestnut fur, ears pricked for the crash of foliage and chittering calls that often accompany their arboreal antics. They can hear us coming long before we become aware of them, and should they choose to, they can lose us easily in no time at all. We cannot negotiate even the clearest trails with such speed and dexterity. Luckily, through tireless work of many volunteers, they have become habituated to our clumsy attempts to track them, and, I like to think, tolerate us with good humour and some interest. The pay-off for kilometres of clammy clambering and creeping is definitely worth it; moments of incredible and unashamed cuteness; the surreal excitement of being in proximity to wild primates (quite unlike any zoo encounter), and feeling honoured to be allowed so near. To the point; after my first few days out monkey-hunting, and negotiating the challenging terrain, I realized that the majority of my work would be in the cutting and clearing of trails, adding twists and turns to the web of interlocking pathways that snake through the dense trees, rendering them safe for potential pursuits and future volunteers. My description of the hazards above is biased somewhat by a restless and slightly compulsive nature, specifically the need to tidy things up, create straight lines and lovely orderly right-angles. This is probably what led me to develop an obsession with trail clearance. Here, in a working field research station, with its fluctuating temperatures, insect populations, excessively ‘interesting’ spiders (meaning large and frightening) and the ebb and flow of volunteers, there is no personal space in which to exercise much control. This is probably for the best, life is too short to endlessly dust skirting boards, and much can be learned simply in the act of co-existing with others. To relieve my tensions and worries (mostly parasite-based) I turned to the comfort of trail-clearance. Why is it so satisfying about this, you may ask? Well, it certainly was not at first; I emerged from my first day of macheteing with the most all-encompassing of full-body aches, and a fair few wonderful blisters too. The ache was alarming, in that I had thought myself relatively limber for someone a third of a century old (and suitably proud of being often the oldest person here), but then again, when else do you spend so long swinging a huge blade at tough vegetation? I had never cut through tropical forest before. My conservation biology lecturers would be aghast…”you spent the summer chopping at one of the last fragments of the Atlantic Forest?!” It is in a very good cause, I assure you, this Capuchin subspecies has not been studied before, and they may well help secure Laguna Blanca as a protected area far into the future. Anyway, once the obscure muscle groups had settled down and gotten used to the motion, and I had transversed the rocky ride through loving and hating it, back out the other side, I found my rhythm. More to the point, there was something Zen to the work. No desire to be the one forging ahead and tackling the trees head on, I found myself drawn to the clean-up job, and the peace it afforded a usually hectic mind. I loved the transformation of near-impassable debris to an elegant red pathway; rootless, shootless, scarily consistent in diameter, the soil soft as velvet carpet. Such a level of perfectionism is certainly not necessary, I hasten to add, and I think ideally my work would progress faster if it was less pernickety about it. People have pointed this out to me, in kindness, and thus that challenge is…well, it is probably the next level of Zen. Indeed, having walked the trails back and forth, I became aware that to render every path to my idealised standard, I would have to work on it for a year, and then some. The plants probably see my whole effort so far as some charmingly futile pruning, and were I to return in a few months the whole lot would be happily sprouting back. (Indeed, on my last day in the forest I noted that trail cleared a mere week ago had festooned itself in lush green ground flora.) Rosemary Gamsa Para La Tierra Volunteer 2012