A spider monkey tale, part 1


Liselot Lange

Conservation Fellow

Liselot (27) has been working in the Madre de Dios department since 2016. Her focus lies with conservation of spider monkeys through research, active conservation efforts and community/education outreach. So far most of her work has been conducted along the Las Piedras river.

Learn more about Liselot Lange

June 9, 2021

A spider monkey tale, part 1


I have known all my life that I was going to dedicate my life to help animals in need. As a young girl I had no idea where I would eventually end up, but I had started making my plans. After I finished high school, I immediately started a Bachelor’s in Animal Management. Initially, I wanted to help cats and dogs off the streets, but soon after starting my Bachelor I decided to do a major in Wildlife Management and work with wildlife instead. During my studies I landed a 6-month long internship at a South American zoo in the capital city of Suriname, Paramaribo and that is where this story really starts.

Me, Liselot, at the Paramaribo Zoo in 2013. Photo credit: Martine Lange.

I had no idea that this internship would change my life forever.  The standards in South American zoos seemed completely different to European ones, in terms of enclosures, care taking, enrichment, animal health and visitor guidelines. It was extremely difficult for me to try and improve animal welfare whilst coping with the cultural differences, local views on animal welfare and the tight budget. The experience was a hard one and there were a couple of moments where I wanted to quit. With the support of my supervisor and family, however, I persevered. I learned how to deal (or not deal) with confrontational circumstances and toughened up quickly. 

Another hard thing for me was to learn that for indigenous communities in South America, bushmeat, including monkeys, form a large portion of their rural diet. People throughout South America are therefore used to hunting primates (amongst others capuchins, howler monkeys, and spider monkeys). Some are hunted for subsistence use, but with human development and growing populations a lot of the hunting is nowadays meant for the commercial and illegal trade in bushmeat and exotic pets. Hunters will typically select female primates that carry an infant. The meat of the adult monkey can be sold in the market and as a bonus, the infant (if it survives) will be sold in the pet trade. In many cases, exotic pet owners soon realize primates don’t make good pets. After all; a cute baby monkey isn’t that cute anymore, all grown up, with big canines and a personality to match. As a result, countless monkeys were brought to the zoo, or dumped, during the time I was working there.

A wedge-capped capuchin (Cebus olivaceus) at the Paramaribo Zoo. Photo by author.

It seemed like the Guiana spider monkey, or kwatta/maquisapa (Ateles paniscus) was the most sought-after monkey on the Surinam markets, and as a consequence also the most frequently brought to the zoo. The species is recognised as Vulnerable on the red list of threatened species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Even though the zoo had two beautiful spider monkey enclosures, two islands that were connected to an indoor enclosure, there were simply too many spider monkeys to fit on the two islands. Due to the limited budget and space, some of the spider monkeys that ended up at the zoo were cramped in small enclosures with minimal enrichment.

Confiscated and/or “dumped” Guiana spider monkeys (Ateles paniscus) in poor enclosures at the Paramaribo Zoo. Photo credit: Martine Lange.

I spent most of my free time with the spider monkeys as they caught my attention from the start. I particularly liked them because it was easy to recognize the different individuals and build a connection with them; they all had distinctive markings, unique shaped faces, and such different personalities! To me it seemed the spider monkeys had a higher intelligence than most other primates and animals at the zoo. It was heartbreaking to see them in these circumstances, and I realised I wanted to help protect primates and do something against the unsustainable hunting of spider monkeys. In my next blog I will tell you about how I ended up in Peru for my next spider monkey adventure.

Interacting with the Guiana spider monkey (Ateles paniscus) at the Paramaribo Zoo. Photo credit: Femke Smits.


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