Homero Francisco Lopéz grimaces as he recalls how his wife prepared the carcass of the monkey he had shot, serving him a bowl of thick stew, complete with chunks of cassava and a tiny hand for him to gnaw on. “It was normal here,” he says. “Everyone did it. We didn’t realise how few there were.”
Now Mr Lopéz, a 58-year-old subsistence farmer, has become one of the strongest voices in his village of Corosha, in the heart of the precipitous cloudforests of northern Peru, in defence of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey, Oreonax flavicauda, one of the world’s most threatened primates.
“This monkey is the only one of its kind,” he says with the zeal of a convert. “It is a beautiful animal and thinking about the future without it is just too sad.”
No one knows for sure but there are now thought to be fewer than 1,000 yellow-tailed woolly monkeys in the wild, all living in a thin band of chilly, damp forest in this corner of Peru, between 5,000ft and 9,000ft above sea level as the Andes sweep down into the Amazon. Yet many of those individuals live in small, increasingly inbred groups of a dozen or fewer, stranded in shrinking patches of forest as peasant farmers clear the improbably steep slopes to plant coffee, beans and other crops. According to Fanny Cornejo, one of a tiny handful of local primatologists, that lack of genetic variety is now a major threat to the species, leaving it more vulnerable to disease.
Meanwhile, despite the best efforts of Mr Lopéz and Ms Cornejo, many impoverished locals continue to hunt the monkey, prized for its meat and its thick, unusually soft fur. Poachers prefer to target nursing mothers as they can also sell the babies as pets.
The monkey’s long breeding cycle and inquisitive nature have added to its vulnerability. They are drawn to the sound of gunfire and often stay around to see what is happening when one of their group has been shot.
The species is classified as “critically endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the most threatened category for species that still exist in the wild. It is also listed as among the 25 most threatened of the nearly 670 primate species.
“It should be OK for the next two decades but after that it is impossible to say,” says Russ Mittermeier, who has chaired the IUCN’s primate specialist group for more than 30 years. “We have a serious challenge ahead of us.”
The yellow-tailed woolly monkey has always been extremely rare. It was first recorded in 1812 by the great German explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Yet he never actually witnessed a live animal. Instead, he saw a saddlecloth made from a fine, mahogany-coloured fur.
Despite the name, the monkey’s tail is the same colour as the rest of its body. What is yellow is a large tuft of fur that adults of both sexes have covering their genitals. The species was actually thought to have been extinct for most of the 20th century until an expedition led by Mr Mittermeier, now the head of Conservation International, rediscovered it in 1974.
The fact that the species even survives at all may be thanks to its difficult natural habitat, which could hardly be less accessible to its only predator, humans. Reaching the group Ms Cornejo studies involves a three-hour uphill scramble in deep mud through thick, sodden forest. Even indigenous peoples rarely stray here.
But that is changing rapidly. A massive influx of migrants from the nearby mountain region of Cajamarca, fuelled in part by mining companies buying up peasants’ land there, is putting an unprecedented strain on the area around Corosha.
“There were just 20 families here when I was growing up,” says Mr Lopéz. “Now there are 200 and many of them don’t respect the community’s decision to conserve our natural resources.”
With the support of Conservation International, Corosha has now established the 5,600-acre Hierba Buena-Allpayacu Community Conservation Area, with the twin goals of protecting the forest’s headwaters and the yellow-tailed woolly monkey’s habitat. The village is also building a lodge to cater for a growing stream of Peruvian and international tourists.
Yet conflicts within the community, between the newcomers and families who have lived here for many generations, are becoming increasingly common. The new migrants, unfamiliar with the traditional, sustainable horticultural techniques, tend to clear forest to make way for their crops and livestock whereas the locals rotate their subsistence plots between existing gaps in the forest.
The destruction is at its most intense in a supposed nature reserve, the Alto Mayo Protected Forest, which straddles a low-lying stretch of the Andes southwest of Corosha. The regional government has put a road through the park, while poachers and land-squatters even live in the heart of the reserve.
“The solution is not more and more park guards but education, so that the local population realises how important the forest is, that it provides them with water, and houses so many different species,” insists Gustavo Montoya, the reserve director.
Mr Mittermeier is now calling for a concerted effort to educate locals about the monkey and even encourage them to identify with it. “You have to get the communities excited about this magnificent species,” he said. “It is the only way. They must find a way to coexist with it and become invested in its survival.”
Although no primates became extinct in the 20th century, many of the order’s nearly 700 species face urgent threats today. The IUCN’s primate specialist group say that more than 70 per cent of Asian primates are threatened with extinction, as are all gibbon species and the four great apes: gorillas, chimpanzees, orang utans and bonobos. The total global budget dedicated to primate conservation is about $10m (£6.25m). About 90 per cent of that is dedicated to the great apes, leaving just $1m worldwide for other species. The IUCN estimates that a budget of just $100m could save 98 per cent of all primate species.