Months ago, when I decided to explore the depths of my curiosity with wildlife conservation, I knew I needed to look into volunteer opportunities to get my feet wet. As a postgrad, all I could think about was throwing myself into experiences — immediately linking experience with travel. This couldn’t be just any trip, but one that lit a fire under my arse. It was easy to see after some mild scrutiny that Wildtracks was the best possible option. A lot of programs seem to lack affordability and simply put, they just weren’t as interesting.
I arrived at Wildtracks and immediately it was a sensory overload. I met over a dozen people who not only had already developed relationships with each other, but with the animals. After my first day, I found myself constantly questioning whether the volunteers were talking about humans, monkeys or manatees (no joke). A couple of days went by and I caught on that many of them had only been there a week or two themselves. I then received my allocations, working with the spider monkeys and two of the pre-release howler monkeys, and in no time I started to feel the flow of things. I had survived the wrath of the mosquitos (I happened to arrive just after the first influx of rain this season) and I was utterly stoked to be there. I had a purpose, a role.
My first encounter with the spider monkeys was when Alysha was giving me a tour of the enclosures. I was walking by and all of a sudden one of the spit-fire females, Mel, came barrelling toward me swinging her tail through the wire and grabbing the string of my hooded jacket. She pulled at it, tightening my hood so that I couldn’t see. Alysha then hurriedly released me from Mel’s grip and asked, “Are you laughing or crying?” I was most definitely laughing, and if you are one to cry from such an encounter, I would not be quick to tell you that Wildtracks is for you. They are, after all, wild animals with an incredible amount of athletic ability and quick wit. You have to expect that at some point you will the subject of their tom-foolery.
Originally, I could not tell the monkeys apart from each other, constantly quizzing myself on who was who. Then one day it clicked. I realized the short amount of time I spent observing the monkeys had allowed me to separate them as I would any group of humans. They slowly began to recognize me as I fed them, and that’s was it...I was in with the spider monkeys! I began to learn which ones appreciated a quick hello and which ones I should completely avoid contact with.
One of my highlights as a carer was when I had the opportunity to sit in with two younger monkeys, Izzie and Chippa, every day for an hour. Izzie’s story is that she was shot by a poacher and not only suffered physical, but emotional trauma. Chippa’s story is just as sad, as she was found being carried down the road in a plastic bag. Young monkeys, like Chippa and Izzie require a little more attention as they would normally be with their mother. When you get the chance to go in and be loved on by them, it’s like nothing else. As someone who is there to help them be the best they can be though, it was always important for me to remember that their rehabilitation came first. Learning that the objective was to eventually wean them off of their need for contact was crucial to understanding that although their cuddles were the best thing since sliced bread, it is for their benefit, not our own.
Every time Paul, Zoe or Alysha began to speak about their knowledge on the animals, I found that my attention was undivided. The more knowledge I gained, the more my attention went to ensuring that I took my responsibilities seriously. At first, I thought about how great it was just be able to interact with the animals. You realize when you arrive that it is just a small part. Their well-being becomes the focus and in the end, the goal is to ensure that they will survive and thrive upon their release.
Clearly, the monkeys have a special place in my heart and really made my experience what it was but, there’s a lot more to Wildtracks than just animal interaction. From swims in the lagoon foraging sea grass for the manatees, to just sitting outside with the breeze and a good book. Sometimes you catch a whiff of ylang ylang flowers and your nostrils are singing and the next, you smell monkey poo on your own hand. Did I mention the people and the food are pretty awesome too?
(Many thanks to Eran Gissis for use of his photo of Duma - as always, your love for the spider monkeys shines through! Thank you to Tony Rath, too, for his portrait of Chippa!