Woolly Monkeys in Colombia

Hunting and disease threats to

Woolly Monkeys

Species Name – Lagothrix lagothrichaLocation – Colombia

The common woolly monkey (Lagothrix lagothricha) is widely distributed throughout the Amazon. However, it is restricted to primary and continuous forest, and 50% of its total distribution is represented by the Colombian population. The woolly monkey is one of most threatened Amazonian species as a result of hunting, so that even at subsistence level, the wild population has been depressed to the point of local extinction.

This is a community-based research project in the Colombian Amazon which currently co-manages the natural resources of the area with the indigenous communities of the region. This project is collecting biological and socio-economic information to examine how hunting is affecting the monkey population and determine its implications for local people and large mammal conservation.



Amazonia represents 53% of the remaining tropical rainforest, making it the world’s largest by far; it plays a critical role in regulating climate at both regional and global levels. The Amazon basin has the largest concentration of primate diversity in the world, with 81 primate species. Primates comprise 25-40% of the frugivore biomass in neotropical forests, and large-bodied primates play an important role in ecosystem dynamics as seed dispersers, being important agents in the renovation and diversification of the forest.

Woolly monkeys are increasingly threatened by human disturbance of their habitat and from subsistence hunting. From this perspective many other populations of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians could be affected. Little is known about the impact of subsistence hunting within protected areas and indigenous land in the Colombian Amazon.

Researchers Palacios and Peres (2005) stated that it was critical to obtain long-term baseline information on the abundance and distribution of the harvest-sensitive mammals in order to propose conservation actions alongside the government’s Colombian Park System Unit. With the aim of meeting these information requirements, The Woolly Monkey Project (TWMP) 1 began a census to provide a baseline for future monitoring by assessing the status of primates and other harvest-sensitive vertebrates in the southern part of Amacayacu National Park (Colombian Amazon), an area intensively exploited by Tikuna indigenous communities.

One of the more unfortunate tasks in wildlife conservation is the necessity of re-introducing captive and wild-born confiscated species into their original habitats after they have become extinct in the wild. Such a strategy is the long-term aim of the keepers of the captive populations of Tahitian Partulid snails for example.

Although an important component of many species conservation strategies, it needs to be done with the fullest consideration of the potential pitfalls. For example, it has only recently been appreciated that captive animals targeted for rehabilitation often possess diseases for which their wild counterparts possess no immunity. Therefore without more research, the consequences of re-introducing wildlife could potentially be catastrophic.

Certain primate species are under serious consideration for well-meaning re-introduction programmes in South America, but there is an urgent need to assess the incidence of diseases such as Hepatitis-B in wild populations before this is done. Recent evidence indicates that the majority of captive woolly monkeys possess this disease, but its incidence in wild populations has never been tested. This essential information can be obtained by collecting samples of the animal’s faeces in the wild (there is no need to disturb or capture them!) and then testing the droppings for viral and bacterial DNA in specialised laboratories. We can do this comparatively cheaply and very effectively and the outcome of our work may be the difference between a successful operation and a complete ecological disaster.

The following tale underlines the seriousness of this largely unaddressed issue. Captively bred golden lion tamarins (Leontopithecus rosalia) were going to be released into the wild in order to increase the numbers of the last wild population situated in southeast Brazil. At the last moment a potentially fatal viral infection was detected in the captive stock. Were this project to have gone ahead, the wild population would have rapidly succumbed to the disease and gone extinct!