For a moment, as hundreds of blue morpho butterflies floated gracefully around us, the green hues of the tropical forest turned to neon blue.
But the dreamy scene, reminiscent of something from James Cameron’s Avatar, was interrupted by a series of loud chirps from the canopy above. I strained my eyes to peer into the treetops and caught a glimpse of the culprits: a pair of orange Azuero spider monkeys searching for fruit.
This incredibly rare subspecies was the reason we were here. After six grueling days of fruitlessly hiking through Panama’s tropical dry forest, we had finally found them.
The sighting was short-lived. The sound of cows from a nearby pasture startled the agile primates and they retreated deeper into the safety of their forest home.
The Azuero Peninsula in Southern Panama, a square tract of land that juts out some 50 miles (80 km) into the Pacific Ocean, is home to the country’s only remaining tropical dry forest, an ecosystem that goes through a more significant dry season than a wet one. season, and where moisture often evaporates. exceeds rainfall throughout the year.
In Azuero, the dry forest has been fragmented by deforestation through ranching and the felling of coastal trees to make way for luxury homes, leaving isolated forest areas scattered across an otherwise treeless landscape. These habitat islands provide stranded refuges for hundreds of animal and bird species found nowhere else in the country, including the critically endangered Azuero spider monkey.
In a 2013 population survey, primatologist Dr. Pedro Mendez-Carvajal of Oxford Brookes University reported that only 145 Azuero spider monkeys remain in the wild, making them one of the rarest primate subspecies in Central and South America. In addition to habitat loss, the animals, which are considered pests, are also hunted and poisoned by local farmers.
In the fall of 2017, I traveled to the Azuero Peninsula to partner with Pro Eco Azuero, a conservation organization that aims to protect the area’s biodiversity and help locals make informed and sustainable decisions about their environment.
Founded by Ruth Metzel and currently led by Sandra Vasquez de Zambrano, PEA has developed a community-based approach to conservation, including working with farmers to replant trees, working with local teachers to create lesson plans around conservation and sustainability, and partnering with local supporters to promote a culture of conservation and land management.
From the surf village of Pedasi I spent a month with the PEA, dividing my time between the forest and the sea. Inland, I joined a team of local volunteers and biology students from the University of Panama on an informal survey to document the health of known spider monkey families. I’ve also taken photos that can be used in community education programs.
Guided by tips from local farmers and students, we spent our days hiking through dense undergrowth and waterfalls in search of the elusive primates. In the evenings, we visited rural schools to give slideshows of what we had found, and share photos of wildlife that many children had never seen, despite living with the animals in their own backyard.
On the beach, I followed the efforts of PEA and Tortugas Pedasi, a partner organization, to document the beautiful coastline of the Pacific Ocean. At the time, conservation groups were trying to get national protection for the Pablo Arturo Barrios Wildlife Refuge on the coast, while teaching students about the benefits of marine conservation.
Just as I had seen in the forest, members of the local communities collaborated with these organizations in an impressive display of environmentally conscious camaraderie.
The construction of a 75-mile, 62,000-acre wildlife corridor across the Azuero Peninsula was one of the first projects initiated by PEA when it was established 12 years ago. By planting trees in clear landscapes, the corridor will increase the available habitat by reconnecting several forest islands that are currently isolated from each other. Once the corridor is complete, PEA hopes the increase in forest habitat will allow animal populations – including the elusive spider monkeys – to expand.
It took several years for the idea to gain momentum, as rural farmers were skeptical about the benefits of sacrificing valuable grassland to grow forests.
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“When we started, we thought it would be as easy as knocking on people’s doors, planting trees and making a difference,” said Ms Vasquez de Zambrano, PEA Executive Director. “Of course that didn’t work, so we had to explore a way to get into these communities.”
After PEA discovered that teachers were the key to gaining the trust of the villagers, PEA started a series of educational programs on conservation, sustainability and coexistence. Over time, they taught more than 700 students a year. As PEA nurtures a new generation of young environmentalists, parents began to hear and process the importance of conservation through conversations with their families rather than strangers.
“It makes more sense if it’s our own children who say we need to reforest and protect nature,” said Ms Vasquez de Zambrano. “I think working with children has really made a difference.”
Today, more than 400 farmers have pledged land for the nature corridor project. In 2022 alone, five hundred hectares of new trees will be planted on donated land. And thanks to the collective help of local organizations, students and community activists, the Pablo Barrios Refuge on the coast was granted national protection in 2019.
The Azuero continues to face serious threats, including the resumption of large-scale mining across the region and the introduction of new legislation that could allow development in protected areas. Still, Ms. Vasquez remains optimistic about the power of teaching and encouraging new environmental reformers.
“Our biggest impact is the way we’ve changed people’s minds,” she told me. “We’re creating a culture of conservation — and empowering people to become advocates for their own communities.”
Matt Stirn is an archaeologist and photojournalist based in Boston and Jackson Hole, Wyo. You can follow his work on Instagram†