Monkey Thrills - and Oil Spills - in the Ecuadorian Amazon

squirrel monkey
Sacha Lodge

When I started plotting a trip to Ecuador's Galapagos Islands this spring, I discovered that the country's section of the legendary Amazon, on the mainland, was feasible as a side trip. El Oriente, as the jungle here is dubbed, is a primordial pot brimming with biodiversity, a haven for the birds and the bees, and, perhaps most intriguing, a primo perch for primate viewing. With some dozen monkey species known to (literally) hang out here, the animal lover in me was already going bananas over the idea of it.

But I have a secret to confess. While I'm a tree-hugger and a nature lover and fancy myself a rather intrepid adventurer, I'm terrified of bugs. Because, well, ewwww, they're just kind of gross. And with more than 100,000 insect and arachnid species lurking in these parts, I'd have to face, by my math, some 8,333 kinds of bugs for every single type of monkey I might see. Yikes. Still, coveting my Amazon stripes and craving some face time with my primate cousins, I was intent on pushing forward, wobbly knees and all.

By the time I emerged from the jungle, those bugs would be the last thing on my list of concerns. It's certainly no newsflash that the Amazon is in trouble -- in fact, we've been hearing about its troubles for so long now that any mention of the rain forest's dire straits seems almost cliché. It just might take floating into this neck of these mega-diverse woods on a river coated in oil to wake up to the devastating reality of it all. At least that's how it happened for me.

I didn't come to the Amazon with a political agenda: I wanted to go off into the wild, as far removed from society -- and man's grimy grip on it all -- as possible. But when I arrived on the heels of a devastating oil spill, I found myself smacked in the face with the plight of this real-life Pandora.

The little-reported oil spill occurred on May 31, when a landslide ruptured a section of pipeline run by Ecuador's national oil company, Petroecuador, pouring some 420,000 gallons of petroleum into the Amazon basin's waterways. By the time I touched down in the region the following morning, the full seriousness of the situation had emerged. En route to eco-resort Sacha Lodge (on a trip arranged by Adventure Life), our entire 2-hour boat transfer along the Napo River, an Amazon River tributary, was spent engulfed in the stench of petroleum, with a thick slick of oil consistently visible.

Worry soon turned to the wildlife we had come to witness. Some 600 species of birds flapping about in this section of the Ecuadorian Amazon now faced a potential fate of oil-coated feathers and contaminated food. Fish, crustaceans, caimans and river dolphins swam in the muck below us. Would the rest of the forest creatures -- the otters, jaguars, sloths and, of course, the monkeys -- also pay the price?

We disembarked on this somber contemplative note, making our way to the lodge, a neighbor to the UNESCO Biosphere-protected Yasuní National Park (currently under siege for its own oil reserves). A short hike and another paddle ride later, and we were in the thick of the jungle's interior, removing us physically -- though not psychologically -- from the spill.

With monkeys still very much on my mind, I focused on the mission at hand, slipping into the jungle with a small group of like-minded lodge guests and a pair of hawk-eyed guides. It wasn't long before our relatives emerged: a troop of long-limbed, squealing squirrel monkeys, scrambling in the overhead canopy, monkeying around as they chased each other from branch to branch, oblivious to the environmental devastation just around the bend. We counted more than 10 members of this acrobatic entourage, which seemed like a big group until our guide recalled being surrounded by more than 500 while hiking in Yasuní -- pure monkey mayhem.

Later, we climbed a 130-foot "tree house" tower for a bird's-eye perspective. Standing above the treetops, we became entranced by the chorus of rain forest sounds -- chirps, squawks, croaks, and the distinct deep-throated, guttural call of howler monkeys, lazing in the distance. With bellowing roars that can be heard for miles, this particular breed is almost always heard before it's seen. I imagined them to be town criers, announcing the ominous news of what had just arrived on their doorstep.

The following day, we spotted a sleepy little family of huddled night monkeys perched high in the hollow of a tree. With their Gizmo-like features and bulging eyes, we were quick to award them first place as "cutest of the Amazon." (Had we caught sight of the pygmy marmosets, the world's smallest monkeys, or of coupled-up titis, who like to intertwine their tails to show affection, this title might have been contested.)

As sunset approached on our last night at the lodge, our guides paddled the Amazon backwaters, intent on delivering us a farewell to our monkey companions. Over the past few days, the animals had captured our imaginations with their people-like antics -- the playing, the fighting, the daily drama, the gentle rest.

The grand finale came while canoeing alongside a group of agile capuchin monkeys. One particularly amorous couple, apparent exhibitionists, proceeded to indulge in what our guide dubbed "green porn" while we rather guiltily gawked away. The pair soon settled in for a show of post-copulation canoodling at its best: a session of grooming and bug picking.

The group's alpha male, catching on to the Peeping Toms below, scurried down to shake the branches above our head in a show of force, a clear indication for us to move along. We had infringed upon his tribe, and our invasion of privacy had clearly been interpreted as a territorial dispute. Before conceding defeat and paddling away, I pondered on how very right he had been in wanting to stand his ground against human presence in these lands.

In the end, most of the Amazon bugs didn't really bug me at all (and I'm almost sure to have the whole tarantula thing sorted out with just a few more therapy sessions). They actually proved rather fascinating. In fact, facing my fears in this ancient soupy jungle helped me feel that I had perhaps taken a few steps forward on the path to becoming a more evolved human being.

Communing with this multitude of monkeys had felt like gazing into an ancestral mirror of sorts -- observing their behaviors and expressions that so closely mimicked some of my own gave me a primal understanding of just how far humanity has come.

At the same time, the visit was a reminder of how our modern-day phase of "evolution," which seems to carry with it an ever-growing demand for natural resources, is leading to the destruction of these monkeys' home as well as almost every ecosystem on the planet.

I was left worrying about the future of this forest -- and its many inhabitants. Would they still be here for future generations? Concerned, I polled local naturalists, scientists and researchers on the topic, and they all echoed the same concerns: the forest was disappearing at a fast pace, with the oil, logging and farming industries leading to rapid loss of habitat. Monkeys faced additional risk from poaching, with an increasing number of local peoples using them as a food source and commodity.

Diego Mosquera, research facility manager at the local Tiputini Biodiversity Station, affirmed the harsh reality of the recent spill and the greater issues of the forest at large: "Everything works like a chain, so if a part of the chain is broken, it will have consequences on the rest of it." In the rain forest, it seemed, nobody would be out of the woods.

Monkey Thrills and Oil Spills
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Monkey Thrills - and Oil Spills - in the Ecuadorian Amazon
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