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Freedom! This year's release monkeys head into the forest canopy...


It was the perfect last lock-up. With the release of four of the howler monkeys (Two pairs: Paz and Kofi; Sultan and Livvy) - quickly coming up, we (Molly and Katharine – two of the pre-release carers) had to get them into their pre-release cages and the doors closed in preparation for their release. They have been accustomed to living in the tree canopies in the pre-release enclosure, and were unlikely to welcome being shut in the cages – but this would be the only way we could catch them for their move to the release site, 20 miles away in Fireburn.

The first pair to be shut in was Sultan and Livvy, and as per usual, they were more than happy to come in for the promise of food. The most surprising part of the day was Paz and Kofi. When we went to shut them in, we were prepared for the worst. Paz and Kofi are very independent monkeys and do not enjoy hanging around their cage - they actively avoid it, which makes them very difficult to lock up! To prepare, we brought out all their favourite treats: fig leaves, milk, and even a few peanuts, in case they caught on to our intentions. Contrary to their distaste for the cage, Paz and Kofi took it easy on us. Even though Paz saw us unlatching all of the doors and Katharine go around the corner with extra milk, he came in right away. Once Paz was locked in the cage, he allowed Molly to leave the cage with no interference in order to let Kofi in, who was waiting outside the double doors. They were so well behaved and content…that is until they realized they had to stay in there until Friday morning.

For the next couple of days, the pre-release monkeys became increasingly restless. Neither group had been locked in a cage in several months. We also started to think that Paz and Sultan may have understood what we were doing, as this is the second attempt at their release. While they were waiting with anticipation, the rest of us were running around like crazy, preparing for the move!

Finally the big day arrived…on Friday morning, we woke up extra early to feed the pairs their breakfast. When I (Katharine) went up to Paz and Kofi’s cage, I had a moment of panic…I couldn’t see any sign of them! However, on closer inspection, both monkeys were curled up in their hammocks, fast asleep. When they heard me walk up, all I could see were two bleary-eyed monkeys, wondering who was interrupting their beauty sleep. Little did they know they were in for a very big day.

After both pairs were crated (a surprisingly easy task!), we began the journey to Fireburn and the two release sites. We first had to drive by car, take a boat across the lagoon, and then hike 5 kilometres to the release cages. For this journey, their kennels were slung from bamboo poles to be carried on our shoulders through the jungle. Once both pairs were safely in their new homes, it was clear to see that all four monkeys were uneasy about being in their new environment. Paz and Sultan, who were not quite ready to be released last year with their previous troops, were full of energy and anticipation. Kofi and Livvy, who had never been to Fireburn before, were a bit more nervous about being in a real jungle for the very first time.
The entire release team was concerned about how Paz and Sultan would do on this second release. Paz, one of the most damaged monkeys to come into Wildtracks, was often seen rubbing his foot when he became nervous – the remnants of stress behaviour acquired due to his treatment prior to his rescue and rehabilitation at Wildtracks. Sultan on the other hand, the first baby monkey raised at Wildtracks, was a ball full of energy, ready to try for a second time to live in the jungle. We were concerned about the two pairs maintaining their pair bonds and sticking together once released. Before we even opened the doors we started seeing behaviour that reassured us. Whenever Kofi showed signs of being nervous, Paz would sit down next to her and hold her hand or stroke her back. Sultan and Livvy were almost always seen cuddling on the same branch.
Once we opened the doors to the release cages, all of our doubts were put to rest. On Monday morning, the day before the scheduled release, we were all very restless. There was only one more day until Paul would come back to Fireburn and open the doors, and we could not wait to see what would happen. So excited! We started joking about what would happen if Paul showed up early. We walked back from feeding the monkeys along the forested track at 10:30am, in this, one of the most remote corners of Belize. To our surprise, a large group of people came around the corner on the trail. We both immediately started laughing when we realized it was the entire release team and Paul, arriving a day early to release the pairs. Excitement ruled, especially, when Paul gave us the honour, of opening the cage doors, as the pre-release carers.

Molly: It was quickly decided that we would open Sultan and Livvy’s cage first, as Sultan seemed to be the most anxious of the four. When we arrived at the first release site, Paul asked if I would like to be the one to release the monkeys, and without any bells and whistles, I walked up to the cage and opened the door. It was such a surreal moment; opening the door felt just like the hundreds of times we’ve opened doors in the pre-release enclosure back at Wildtracks, even though we knew full well this time would be different. We knew that once they left, they were never coming back. They would officially be wild monkeys!

Just like any other morning, Sultan and Livvy shot out of the cage. Livvy actually sped out of the door first and climbed into the trees as quickly as she could. She was so excited, and started exploring her new territory immediately. For a monkey that had a severe break in her arm early last year, you could barely tell the difference as she climbed and jumped through her new surroundings. Surprisingly, Sultan was a bit more wary, staying near the cage and choosing to climb up and down one of the biggest vines he has probably ever seen. Eventually Sultan found his confidence again; he began playing with Livvy in the large vines he loves so much, and eating his weight in fig leaves. After watching Sultan and Livvy for a while, Paul decided it was time to give Paz and Kofi their chance as well.

Katharine: Walking up to Paz and Kofi’s cage at the second release site was absolutely dreamlike - being able to be a part of the release of monkeys that I have been caring for is absolutely incredible. As soon as I opened the door, Kofi raced out, ready to explore out her surroundings. Paz was not so sure. He needed a few minutes of coaxing to leave the cage, but once he did, he joined Kofi, who had been sitting above the cage, munching on newly discovered browse. Once both Paz and Kofi had left the cage, they were completely at ease. Paz, who is known for his nervous behaviour, was in his element. They were looking out for each other - Paz would go off exploring, Kofi would follow, and if Paz noticed Kofi wandering more than 15 feet from him, he would go over and sit with and play with her. They were both confident, happy and, finally, wild, monkeys.

After both pairs were released, we tracked their movement through the jungle for the afternoon. Watching the monkeys explore their new home, test out their climbing skills, and playing in the tree tops. Both pairs stayed relatively close to their release cages, cautiously exploring as we watched. As the afternoon wore on, they continued to wander further in to the jungle, getting more and more comfortable with their surroundings. Later, as the two pairs were settling in for the night, cuddling together on the branches, it was time to say goodbye.

Knowing that we had played a small part in their lives and the process of their rehabilitation and release into the wild was incredible. It’s amazing to think that every monkey you hear or see at Fireburn has been at Wildtracks. Sultan will be the first baby raised at Wildtracks to be released there, Paz will be the most damaged monkey at intake thus far to be released, and Kofi will be the last monkey from the original Belize Wildlife Care Centre group to be released.

Walking out of Fireburn after saying goodbye gave us the most bizarre and bittersweet feeling. Not only were we going back to civilization and to our normal routine, but we were also leaving four monkeys behind that we had been looking after for many months. Being back at Wildtracks without them still doesn't seem real. We are both so thankful that we got to be a part of one of the most important moments in these four monkeys’ lives. We can't wait to hear all about their adventures and maybe even come back next year to see how they’re doing in the wild!


Published by: Zoe Walker at 2014-07-01 20:31:38   [Link to this article]

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