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Creatures all around but no creature comforts.

Bonnie James *A moment of solitude for a woolly monkey deep inside Ecuador's Amazon Rainforest. Photograph: (supplied picture) *Nabilah Rawji and Sara Alvarez take a break from running after monkeys in Yasuni National Park, deep inside Ecuador's Amazon Rainforest. Stationed at the remote Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS) on the edge of Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, primatologists Sara Alvarez and Nabilah Rawji follow monkeys around for 12 hours a day tracking their lives in great detail. Deputy News Editor Bonnie James joins them for a slice of the adventure The woolly monkey hung upside down by its long, very strong tail from a tall tree deep inside Ecuador's Amazon Rainforest, leisurely picking and eating fruits. It is around 3pm. The weather is hot and humid, as usual. It could rain any time, after all it is the rainforest. Primatologists Sara Alvarez and Nabilah Rawji, peering intently into the canopy from several feet below, with their boots planted firmly in the slushy mulch of decaying leaves, have a couple of more hours to go, to wrap up yet another taxing day's field work. Sweaty, grimy and tired, but happy and excited from the day's experiences, they will wait -- until the monkey troop they have been following right from dawn, beds down on some tree -- before starting the long trek back to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS). Run by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito on 650 hectare of pristine lowland rainforest on the edge of the million hectare Yasuni National Park in eastern Ecuador, TBS is the base for a small band of dedicated researchers who are willing to give anything to see 'the biologically richest place on Earth' protected. A Unesco world Biosphere Reserve since 1989, Yasuni is one of the most intact sections remaining in the Amazon Basin and home to two of the last indigenous communities living in voluntary isolation to preserve their ancient cultures and traditions -- the Tagaeri and Taromenane, both belonging to the Waorani ethnicity. Because of its unique location at the intersection of the Amazon, the Andean Mountains, and the Equator and its function as a biological refuge during the last ice age, Yasuni is home to 2,704 species of vascular plants, 596 species of birds, 382 species of freshwater fish, at least 169 species of mammals including 10 primate species, 151 species of amphibians, and 121 species of reptiles. There are also more than 100,000 species of insects per hectare, the highest number in the world. Every year, more species are being discovered in Yasuni. To borrow the words of environmental scientist Prof Kelly Swing, who chose the site for TBS in 1993, Yasuni hosts 'about one-tenth of all life on the entire planet Earth.' The irony is that Yasuni also holds an estimated 846mn barrels or 20% of Ecuador's oil, which the country is proposing to keep underground indefinitely by mobilising a $3.6bn Trust Fund, established in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme, to finance renewable energy projects. "We set out from the camp around 5am," Alvarez told me on a clammy February evening, after dinner at TBS, her only hot meal of the day. Breakfast and lunch, mostly cold sandwiches and fruits, will be in the bag along with few bottles of water. Alvarez, a PhD candidate has been based at TBS for two years, whereas Rawji was preparing to halfheartedly say goodbye to the rainforest after a 10-and-a-half month stint. Rawji, who did BA Biology, Ecology and Animal Behaviour from University of California -- Santa Barbara and based in Toronto, was silent throughout the long boat ride back to civilisation a couple of days later, perched on the front, taking in the sights and sounds of pristine wilderness. Alvarez and Rawji, both in their 20s, follow monkeys around for 12 hours a day, six days a week -- an exhausting routine many would not be able to keep up with. Material comforts are very minimal at TBS. Out of the shower comes a thin thread of water (drawn from the Tiputini River and treated in an eco-friendly way), electricity is available only two hours each in the morning and evening (from a diesel powered generator), and there are no fans, but hot and tasty food from the camp kitchen is a definite solace, but only when the primatologists can spare the time at dinner to sit down and eat. The journey from the Ecuadorian capital Quito to TBS takes at least eight hours -- starting with a 30-minute flight to the old oil town of Coca, followed by a two-hour boat trip down the muddy and swollen Napo river to Pompeya, a two-hour ride in an open bus and a final two-hour journey up the Tiputini River -- so researchers generally stay put once they reach TBS until they finish that season's work. "I focus on the spider monkeys, which by way of dispersing the seeds of the fruits they eat, are one of the important maintainers of the rain forest," Alvarez explained. On average there are up to 35 individuals in a core group of spider monkeys. Each has a distinctive mark on its forehead, helping the researchers to identify them. "The average range of spider monkeys is 450 hectares, which means they move around quite a lot and we have no option but to follow them by running as fast we could as they swing through the canopy above," she said. The routine of the spider monkey troops is more or less predictable. They spend up to six hours daily in and around a salt lick eating mud to compensate for the minerals they lack from the fruit and nut diet. "Once they start a day at around 5.30am, they are constantly on the move until they go to sleep around 6.30pm," said Alvarez who has also seen the spider monkeys play with howler monkeys, a proof for cordial interaction between two different species of simians. There are a lot of similarities between the actions of the monkeys and human beings in several circumstances, observed Rawji while recalling her experience. "One afternoon I was observing the juveniles and infants in one of our titi monkey groups and I saw something that reminded me of the human dynamics between siblings. One of the juvenile males that we had nicknamed Bean was chilling out on the top of a small tree. While he was busy looking around I saw his younger sibling, Basil, poke her head up behind him. She had mischief written all over her face as she snuck up to him, yanked his tail and took off running the other way. Bean went chasing after her and soon all the infants were around the tree playing." On another occasion, Rawji was watching a group of saki monkeys. An adult male, named Morpho by the primatologists, was trying to groom a juvenile female, Marigold. "She was being fussy about getting groomed in the way a child would fuss about getting a bath. Marigold was kicking and turning in somersaults and jumping around trying to avoid Morpho, who calmly reached over, grabbed her by the tail and held her in place with one hand while he groomed her with the other. She continued to play with a leaf and be silly while she got her "bath". Early one morning, Alvarez was seen briskly walking into the thick forest with an antenna held aloft. "There are some radio collared woolly monkeys and today we are going to track them," she said without breaking her stride. Yet another long day for the 'monkey team' in TBS, where primate research has been going on since 1990.

Gulf Times Newspaper 2013

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Publication:Gulf Times (Doha, Qatar)
Geographic Code:3ECUD
Date:Jul 8, 2013
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