Ángela Maldonado says she considers herself more monkey than human. For over 30 years, she has studied primates and feels that she communicates better with them than with people of her own species. She values their honesty, how they collaborate to protect their young, and how they respect older monkeys.
To describe herself, Maldonado uses comparisons to primates. Sometimes she feels as sociable as the woolly monkey (Lagothrix lagotricha), the largest in South America, declared vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to a reduced population caused by hunting. Other times, she feels like a tufted capuchin (Sapajus apella), small and always ready to defend against predators.
"One thing I really like about primates is that they are altruistic. Look at humans, with all they have and how they attack their own species!" says this scientist and primatologist who was a Ph.D. in conservation from Oxford Brookes University in England. Since 2007, she has been leading Entropika, an NGO based in Leticia, the capital of Colombia's Amazonas department, at the border shared by Colombia, Peru and Brazil.
Primates play a crucial role in maintaining the forest in continuous regeneration because, as they move through nature, they consume, digest and disperse seeds from different species. This is a vital task in the midst of a deforested Amazon, primarily caused by extensive cattle ranching and illicit crops. In this region, there is a lack of sufficient authorities, high levels of corruption, and the presence of illegal armed groups involved in activities such as drug trafficking, illegal mining and wildlife trafficking. Globally, the wildlife trafficking business generates between 7.8 and 10 billion dollars annually, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
For over three decades, Maldonado has traversed the Amazon rainforest and the Amazon River, the world's mightiest, with these intentions: to ensure that primate species remain free and to combat the illegal animal trade on the Colombia-Peru border. However, like many environmental defenders in Colombia — a country considered one of the deadliest in the world for land and environmental defenders, according to Global Witness — she has also faced threats and intimidations from those profiting from the extraction of natural resources.
She recounts that she has received threatening calls on several occasions. In one of them, the voice on the other end of the phone referred to Maldonado as a "little girl" to belittle her and undermine her status as a woman. On another occasion, in 2019, she received a death threat via email. After reporting it to the authorities and a risk assessment, she was temporarily assigned a state protection scheme. "The majority of people involved in trafficking are men, and it really bothers them that a woman is exposing them," Maldonado shares. She was recognized for her leadership in 2020 by the National Geographic Society and received the Whitley Gold Award in 2010.
"When the Indigenous people saw me, small, thin, and white, they would always say, 'No, this girl can't handle the jungle.' At first, it used to make me very angry, but not anymore. One proves things through actions, not by arguing," she says.
The first time she rescued a monkey from the illegal wildlife trade was in the 1990s, and to release it, she traveled to the Vaupés department in the southeastern part of Colombia, to the Caparú Biological Station. At that time, the station was under the direction of the American primatologist Thomas Defler. Back then, Maldonado was studying business administration, and she had learned what little she knew about primate conservation and rehabilitation through reading books and documents, most of which she had to translate from English with the help of a dictionary.
In this region, primarily inhabited by Indigenous communities, there was an ongoing conflict with the ex guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which forced the primatologist Defler to leave Vaupés after an attempt on his life. Maldonado decided to stay and manage the station. Her visit extended for three years. "How could I leave the animals alone?" she says. "Rescuing an animal from the wildlife trade, rehabilitating it, and then watching it reintegrate into the jungle is incredibly gratifying. That's when I realized I wanted to dedicate my life to this," she explains.
But the main challenge wasn't just the release; it was to address the root of the problem: preventing the animals from having to leave the jungle in the first place.
Indigenous communities: Between hunting of primates, tourism, and illicit crops
Today, as she has been doing for over 10 years, Maldonado boards a motorboat with a small suitcase, boots and sunglasses to navigate the Amazon River. The journey takes three hours along the impressive brown waterway, amidst sightings of dolphins and sudden torrential rain. The destination is Vista Alegre, Peru, a community located 60 kilometers west of Leticia. In this community, Maldonado is involved in a long-term process to help Indigenous ex-hunters from the Yagua and Tikuna ethnic groups transition from illegal animal extraction to conservation tourism, thus creating sustainable income opportunities.
As part of the organizational processes and with the support of Entropika, Indigenous community members from Vista Alegre received training in cooking, guiding and bird and dolphin watching. They also established the Musmuki Community Tourism Association to offer jungle walks, wildlife observation and experiential tourism with local guides.
In Vista Alegre, the majority of Indigenous men used to capture and hunt another primate species: the night monkey (Aotus nancymaae), or musmuki, as it is known in Peru. This species is found only in the Amazon rainforest and plays a crucial role in regenerating floodable forests, such as those found in the 640 square kilometers of Vista Alegre. Monkeys of this species are effective seed dispersers, which helps keep the jungle vibrant and diverse. The species is listed as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List.
For over 25 years, night monkeys were used in the malaria research market due to their strong similarity to the human immune system. Although biomedical experimentation is allowed in Colombia under certain protocols, this practice has generated controversy in the region.
There has been a legal battle for years between immunologist Manuel Elkin Patarroyo, the director of the Foundation Institute of Immunology in Colombia (FIDIC), and Maldonado, representing the Entropika Foundation. Patarroyo has been conducting research on the malaria vaccine since the 1980s, using methods for capturing and studying the biological diversity of Aotus primate species, with permits from the Colombian environmental authority Corpoamazonía. Maldonado's allegations exposed that FIDIC was illegally capturing and using Aotus nancymaae monkeys from the Peruvian side without proper administrative permits or population studies for their use.
In 2013, the Colombian State Council ruled that if Patarroyo wanted to continue his malaria research, which was at an 83% completion rate, he had to work with monkeys bred in captivity at a "zoocriadero" (breeding center). In response, FIDIC, under Patarroyo's leadership, filed a "tutela" (a legal action for protection of constitutional rights), which was ruled in their favor in 2014, again by the State Council. This ruling allowed them to regain a research license for Aotus monkeys, with one condition: only if Corpoamazonia produced a report confirming whether FIDIC had met the imposed requirements. Currently, their activities remain suspended.
Now, the concern of the Vista Alegre community is not hunting for survival, but conserving for survival, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic forced Indigenous community members to shift from tourism to illicit coca cultivation.
In 2009, several residents of Vista Alegre began working with Maldonado on wildlife censuses, both during the day and at night, to search for monkeys and gather information. Six months later, she started delving into the issue of hunting, something that couldn't be addressed without the community feeling comfortable enough to speak openly and in confidence.
"When you arrive in communities, they often tell you lies or what they think you want to hear. I can't just collect and fill out surveys in a place where I'm not known and believe it's the real information. All information needs to be cross-referenced, and above all, you have to earn people's trust," explains Maldonado.
Two of the former hunters are Juan Diego Holanda and his father Harlen Rodríguez. For them, hunting was a way of earning a living. According to Juan Diego, they would receive up to 20,000 Colombian pesos for each primate they delivered. The method was quite clear: They would cut down the trees around the monkey's nest, climb the only remaining tree, force the monkey out of its hiding place, capture it with nets, and then transport it in bags with holes to deliver it to the buyer, especially for malaria vaccine experimentation.
"Every weekend, we would collect monkeys," says Holanda, from Vista Alegre. "We made money, but in reality, we were harming the jungle. Those little monkeys were mistreated a lot," he acknowledges.
In Peru, between 2009 and 2014, approximately 17,000 live animals that were destined for trafficking were seized, according to the National Forest and Wildlife Service (Serfor), responsible for combating the wildlife trade.
In the jungle, which in the global imagination is an exotic, lush place, available for adventure, another reality is hidden. Within the density of its trees, there are coca crops and thousands of hectares of deforestation. Between 2001 and 2018, the Peruvian jungle lost over 22,848 square kilometers of its Amazonian forests for agricultural use, cattle ranching, illegal mining and the proliferation of illicit crops, according to the 2020 report "Amazonia Bajo Presión" (Amazon Under Threat) by the Amazonian Network of Socio-environmental Georeferenced Information (RAISG). By 2021, mining had increased by 1,461%, according to a study by Map Biomas on the Colombian side.
While the Integral Plan for Life, a program of the Colombian Ministry of Environment aimed at stopping the trade in wild species throughout the territory, is being implemented, the population of communities along the Amazon River must decide between working in illegal economies or in tourism. In the best-case scenario, they can engage in community-based and sustainable tourism, create their own tourism businesses, and become their own operators, without relying on the exploitation by large tourism agencies and an industry that has impacted local wildlife.
An on-site investigation conducted by the NGO World Animal Protection in 2017 in the Peruvian and Brazilian Amazon revealed the illegal use of wild animals for tourism. Findings in Manaus, Brazil, and Puerto Alegría, Peru, showed that animals were taken from nature, often illegally, and exploited by tour operators "to entertain and provide harmful photo opportunities for tourists."
The report describes, for instance, how these places had sloths tied to trees with ropes, wounded and dehydrated anacondas, caimans forced to have rubber bands around their jaws or even a type of wildcat like the ocelot held in small cages.
After conducting censuses and training as a guide, Holanda prefers to observe and show tourists the free-roaming night monkeys, and earn money from tourism that "protects the jungle." He leads me through mud, roots, ancient tree trunks, and the relentless buzzing of mosquitoes to one of the nests they recently found. Up above, you can see two adult monkeys and their offspring. In an area where there were no musmuki before, they now peek out with curiosity. "For me, being able to see them in the wild is what gives meaning to everything we do," says an emotional Maldonado.
Both Holanda and his father are part of the Musmuki Project, a conservation initiative in Vista Alegre supported by the NGO Entropika. The project aims to halt the trade in night monkeys and assess the status and health of this wild population through genetic and parasitological studies, as well as evaluate potential zoonotic risks.
This is not a minor concern, especially when considering that 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning they are transferred from animals to humans. This includes the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which caused the COVID-19 pandemic and is believed to have a link to the wildlife trade in markets in China. This is highlighted in the World Wildlife Crime Report 2020 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which also explains that the risk of zoonotic disease transmission increases "when wild animals are removed from their natural habitat, slaughtered, and illegally sold under unfavorable sanitary conditions." UNODC notes that wildlife trafficking is the fourth most profitable illegal trade in the world after drug trafficking, arms trafficking and human trafficking.
"Working in tourism has helped me a lot with our daughters' education because what one earns is spent on notebooks, uniforms, shoes and other school-related expenses. Sometimes there isn't a steady job, but as the saying goes, 'This doesn't pour, but it drips,'" Holanda says.
The Peruvian government allocated a lodge for tourism to the Vista Alegre community, but recently, they have been unable to receive tourists due to damage to the water well. Although it was inaugurated by the Peruvian municipality in the previous government, it quickly developed a structural issue. Without tourism, the risk of reverting to illegal economies reemerges.
Addressing the problem requires traveling to the nearest city, coordinating with officials, often with intermittent communication signals, obtaining gasoline for a nearly six-hour river journey with high fuel prices, reaching an agreement with the state, and, above all, navigating through bureaucratic state procedures that can take months.
These procedures are carried out in Caballococha, a Peruvian city located three hours away by river from Vista Alegre. The history of Caballococha has been marked by rubber exploitation and tourism. Maldonado and leaders from the Musmuki Tourism Association made their way to the municipal office to address these issues.
At the meeting, there were five officials from the Mayor's Office, and Safira Espíritu, the only woman and the official in charge of the tourism section. She kindly explained that they urgently needed to meet with the mayor to confirm support for the water well in Vista Alegre. However, the mayor was absent. On one of the walls, there's a map of the Loreto department, the largest in Peru, which includes Caballococha. It covers over 368,000 square kilometers, accounting for nearly 28% of the national territory.
Maldonado recounts the entire history of Entropika and the research, tourism and access to clean water work they do with communities. She repeats the story once more, as is the case with every change of government. The officials are not entirely sure who she is or what Entropika does on the Peruvian side, partly because, as they mention, with each change of government, previous records disappear, making it difficult to track information. However, one of them emphasizes amidst formalities that "the will of the mayor is to provide support."
"It's a disaster that every time there's a change of government, we have to start from scratch because the authorities have no idea about the progress we've made in tourism. We have to refresh their memory and seek collaborations," says Maldonado.
One of the officials proposes solutions: to establish a tripartite agreement and possibly install a pump with solar panels. Depending on the budget that Entropika can contribute and the labor that the association can provide, the Peruvian government can manage the rest. They reach an agreement and verbally commit to making a future visit to the Vista Alegre community. The Mayor's Office is willing to support, but nothing is documented in a formal record or document to conclude the meeting.
After a month, the visit to Vista Alegre had not taken place. In the meantime, bureaucracy and administrative procedures are putting an entire conservation tourism project in jeopardy.
"As an NGO, we cannot work alone; we need the support and collaboration of both Peruvian and Colombian authorities to move projects forward," says Maldonado . "That's why I say I have to be here. When you share with the community, it hurts, and then you get involved to ensure they have sanitation and clean water. That is environmental social justice," she concludes.
Read the original Spanish-language story here.
This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Mutante on August 28, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: A monkey sits on a person's shoulders / Credit: Lia Valero.