A rifle shot shakes the jungle. A mother and baby entwined fall from a tree. She will end up in the embers, but your little one can find refuge in the lap of Jhon Jairo Vasquez, savior of orphaned monkeys in the Colombian Amazon.
Leader of the indigenous community of Mocagua, on the banks of the great Amazon River, in the extreme south of Colombia, Jhon Jairo walks through the rainforest with a bag on his back that makes him look like a kangaroo father.
Nestled inside is Maruja, a female Lagothrix or woolly monkey that the International Union for Conservation of Nature says is in a “vulnerable” situation, one step away from being listed as an endangered species.
Gray fur, round skull, prehensile tail capable of wrapping around any support, big frightened eyes: Maruja is three months old, two of them attached to her adoptive father.
“An indigenous family ate the mother,” Jhon Jairo, deputy curaca (authority) of this village of 777 inhabitants, told AFP.
At the age of 38, this native of the Tikuna ethnic group is the soul of Maikuchiga, a refuge he helped create 14 years ago to “rehabilitate” and reaccustom the orphaned monkeys to the forest there.
– On the triple border –
At this point in the Amazon, where Colombia, Peru and Brazil meet, the mocagua (rifle, in the Tikuna language) and the maikuchiga (history of the monkeys) also intertwined their paths.
The story of cruelty begins with a shot, when the natives aim their 16-gauge rifles at the 25-meter tall trees.
“The mother does not let go of the baby. It is necessary to scare her away, and the little one falls clinging to her mother. Sometimes, the balls can injure (him) or even kill (him)”, denounces the Tikuna leader.
The adult’s meat will be roasted over a wood fire and the jungle will have lost a sower. During their journey through the foliage, woolly monkeys actually expel the seeds they eat, their droppings helping to regenerate the forest.
The small survivors are sold as pets or exposed to tourists visiting the tri-border indigenous communities. If they are lucky, they are rescued by agents of Corpoamazonia, the official entity that links with Maikuchiga.
According to its director Luis Fernando Cuevas, 22 young primates have been recovered since 2018, sometimes during “voluntary deliveries” by those who claim to have found them by chance, in order to avoid an investigation for illicit trafficking or possession.
– Animal trafficking –
Since 2006, Jhon Jairo has dedicated himself to the “difficult” task of convincing his people of the damage caused by “excessive hunting”, which not only satisfies appetites and rituals, but also and above all an illegal market for wild animals.
Reluctant at first, the Tikunas became interested in ecotourism, but slowed down because of Covid-19. “Rehabilitated” hunters have become guides who “protect their wildlife”, their leader boasts.
But orphans continue to arrive in Maikuchiga from other parts of the Amazon. Since its creation, the refuge has rehabilitated “about 800 monkeys”, specifies Jhon Jairo.
In addition to Maruja, the deputy curaca takes care of five other primates: Helena and Abril of the same species, Papinanci, an owl monkey (Aotus), Mochis and his son Po, squirrel monkeys (Saimiri sciureus).
“Here they are given a new chance at life, that of becoming monkeys again”, he emphasizes.
But Maikuchiga is financed by tourism and the pandemic has made visitors rare, hence its resources for primates.
– Fear of humans –
At dawn, Jhon Jairo prepares breakfast for his wards: oatmeal and vitamins. Helena points her snout, hanging from the outside frame of the wooden house.
Papinanci, on the other hand, is reluctant to leave. “When they are psychologically traumatized, the quarantine can be long. They cannot see a child, a man (…) They tremble,” he explains.
When they “gain trust”, the monkeys leave holding the hand of Jhon Jairo or one of his three collaborators. Little by little, they will find the trees and move in flocks, thus learning what their mothers could not teach.
They will also have to be able to recognize the “sounds of danger” of the jungle and its predators and “sleep outside in the storm”, adds the indigenous leader.
Their “rehabilitation” ends when they leave the 4,025 protected hectares of Mocagua.
“We realize that they are rehabilitated when they disappear”, adds Jhon Jairo, who takes comfort in receiving news of packs made up of orphans from Maikuchiga.