ANCAN, Panama (AP) — In a tropical forest along the Panama Canal, two black-armed spider monkeys swing around a wire enclosure balanced by their long tails. They arrived at this government rehabilitation center after environmental officials seized them from their owners as pets.
In the coming months, biologists and veterinarians will transition them to a diet that mimics what they eat in the wild, helping them relearn survival skills in the wild and wean them off human contact.
Panamanian officials are trying to raise awareness of the dangers — both to humans and wildlife — of keeping wild animals in their homes. This month, Panama hosted World Wildlife Conference, Participants voted to tighten restrictions on international trade in animals and plants.
Black-handed spider monkeys are listed among the most endangered species internationally, and Panama’s Ministry of the Environment says they are “critically endangered.” Trade in monkeys is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.
“People don’t understand that they can’t buy a wild animal from someone who doesn’t have authorization to sell it,” said Felipe Cruz, the Environment Ministry’s adviser on environmental crimes. “The environment cannot take any more. We are at a critical point.
From January to September, Panama’s Attorney General’s Office filed 19 cases of trafficking of wild species and 14 cases of extraction of protected or endangered species. Shirley Binder, an adviser to the Ministry of the Environment, said the true scale of the problem may be higher.
“The country is big, and there may be cases that we don’t have,” Binder said. “We have formed strategic alliances with security departments that are now aware of the environmental issue, … but we also need the support of citizens in general so that when they see these cases they report it.”
Earlier this year, the government introduced a table with photos and technical details to help identify commonly trafficked species. It was planned to be distributed to security, border and customs officials across the country.
Panamanian law strictly restricts the possession of wildlife. The Ministry of Environment allows zoos, breeding centers or certain sources of protein such as deer and iguana to grow and consume, but not endangered species.
Biologist Samuel Sucre runs one of those businesses, Natural Tanks, which has a government permit that allows him to collect amphibians and reptiles from the wild and raise them for sale.
Sucre said the government had shut down some “ghost farming” operations.
“These farms were claiming to breed the frogs, but they were actually field-collected and then raised on their farms,” Sucre said.
“The problem with illegal trade in countries like mine, developing countries, is that people don’t understand the value of that resource,” Sucre said. People who want to sell animals go to people living in very low-income rural areas and pay for the frog.
Instead he advocates finding sustainable ways to commercialize certain species so that people can learn the value of natural resources and make a living.
Spider monkeys are among the most popular wild pets, said Eric Nunes, head of the Ministry of Environment’s National Biodiversity. “They are usually friendly with people … however, when they become sexually mature, when they get jealous, they can become aggressive and attack people,” he said. “The natural behavior of organisms when it is stressed.”
The animals can adapt relatively well to living with humans, making their rehabilitation particularly challenging, he said.
A new government rehabilitation center built on land near former US military facilities has begun receiving animals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Animals rotate in and out, but it holds 50 animals, and there are plans to expand.
Fauna such as spider monkeys are frequent visitors, but at the center are cat species such as ocelots and jaguars, and birds including toucans and owls.
A long rehabilitation awaits the two spider monkeys who arrived separately this year. “They are animals that are very accustomed to human presence,” Nunez said. “Here we bring food only once a day. Communication with us is very rare.
For now, they feed them fruits like papaya and mango, but biologists collect fruits from the wild. As they get closer to release, their diet shifts away from fruits not available in the wild, and even eats some leaves and eggs from birds’ nests. Biologists hide their food in the enclosure, “to awaken that wild, natural instinct,” Nunez said.
They will be reintroduced to the wild only after a thorough evaluation by the center’s biologists and experts from non-governmental organizations. Monkeys must show that they can find their food and recognize other members of their species.
Nunez said people still see monkeys as good pets, an approach he called “unfair and inappropriate.”
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