By Jessica Leaper

One of the aims of the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park (AWCP) has been to support conservation efforts, both locally and farther afield. Until recently, due to the parks small size and equally small staff base, the AWCP has mostly raised awareness and funds for conservation projects relevant to the species at the zoo. For example, the Barbary Macaque Awareness & Conservation in Morocco, Proyecto Tití for Cotton-top tamarins in Columbia and also through the park-led Conscious Eating Campaign, the AWCP has raised funds for the World Land Trust, working to preserve habitats across the world.

Many of the animals at the park have a story to tell; they were either confiscated from illegal trafficking or kept as unwanted or abused exotic pets. Common marmosets, Ronnie and Djump are two such examples. They came to the AWCP from Stichting AAP, a sanctuary in the Netherlands after they were confiscated in France where they were kept illegally as pets. They met here in Gibraltar, at the Wildlife Park and now have an important story to tell about their species and homeland.

Common marmosets were originally found in the northeastern coast of Brazil and are quite a robust and successful primate. Sadly, due to the prolific illegal pet trade, many pet marmosets have been released into other areas. As the name suggests, they are a rather tough marmoset and have been highly successful in cities and forest fragments around Minas Gerais. Sadly, this has been detrimental to more sensitive local species of marmosets, namely the Buffy tufted-ear and Buffy headed marmosets, (Callithrix aurita and Callithrix flaviceps).

Ronnie and Djump have since become ambassadors for the Mountain Marmoset Conservation Project (MMCP) in Brazil, helping to raise awareness of the plight of these two endangered primates. Park Manager Jessica Leaper was lucky enough to spend three weeks in Brazil this February with the MMCP. Jessica accompanied MMCP Facilitator Sally Fransen and local students to carry out surveys of these marmosets in fragments of forest in areas of Minas Gerais. They also assisted project founder, Dr. Rodrigo Salles de Carvalho, on the conversion of the breeding and recovery centre in Vicosa, in preparation for the MMCP Workshop held at Viçosa University during the trip. This workshop was run by Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, also assisted by Apenhaul Zoo experts.

This project in Brazil also ties in with the park-led Conscious Eating Gibraltar campaign run by the zoo since 2016, which aims to raise awareness of the impact of industrial meat and dairy farming on habitats, especially rainforest destruction. Sadly, in the area of Minas Gerais, the destruction is all too visible and can be, along with urbanisation, largely blamed for the fragmentation of the habitats of many of the primate species in this area. One of the aims of the MMCP, will also be to encourage forest ‘corridors’ to link up fragments and release previously isolated groups of marmosets.

The aim of the MMCP’s advocates, including the AWCP, is to help facilitate the conservation project in Brazil, providing expert advice and assistance at the early stages of its formation. The workshops provided by Durrell aim to build knowledge and skills in-country to facilitate the success of conservation projects around the world, using the One-Plan approach. The fourth workshop in Brazil was focused on the MMCP in Viçosa, providing in-depth information on captive breeding to aid the successful conservation of these two endangered marmoset species.

The aim of the research field trip was to locate groups of Buffy headed marmosets in forest fragments in an area surrounding a town called Ipanema, north of Viçosa. Sally Fransen, Jess Leaper, the AWCP park manager, also a trained primatologist and vet student/researcher from Vicosa University, Larissa Vaccarini Avila set out on a three-day expedition.

After an early breakfast, the team is ready to start field work. In an average daily temperature of 33°C, an early start is essential to escape the worst of the heat. There is also a tendency for torrential rain mid to late afternoon which makes sightings of marmosets all but impossible. After locating the fragment to be investigated, the team jumps in the car and heads out. Driving in Brazil is an experience in itself; there is a propensity towards fast driving, so the ‘powers that be’ came up with an interesting solution to the problem: sleeping policemen strategically placed but virtually impossible to see. It became essential to have one person driving and another on ‘bump look-out’ but still we were regularly foiled and feared our hire car may lose its undercarriage at any moment!

A safe arrival at the fragment and Larissa begins a series of ‘playbacks’; prior recordings of other marmoset groups. This fools the shy but territorial marmosets into thinking another group is encroaching on their land. More often than not, just one, dominant and often angry little marmoset will appear, alarm calling and responding to the playback calls. More often than not, nothing is heard or seen. As the day progresses, we fear we will not find any marmosets at all. Sadly, much of the population of Buffy-headed marmosets in this area has been decimated by outbreaks of Yellow Fever in 2018.

The searing and sweaty heat of the midday sun is beginning to grate on the researchers. The 400m slow drive in air-conditioned car is the only respite before exiting and holding the playback speaker as high as possible, directed at the trees in the hope of some sight or sound.

At 12.40pm on the second day of field work there was finally a reply, it was distant at first and deep in the dense foliage on the edge of a relatively busy stretch of road beside the river in the reserve. The calls continued for around an hour but sadly we were unable to gain visual on any of the group.

An important part of the research experience and where Larissa really came into her own, was contact with the local population. Larissa would enter into conversation with any locals we saw, even in the supermarket. These encounters were often fruitful and became crucial to our fieldwork. Through a conversation in a local supermarket, we came into contact with Antonio Bragança, an employee of the local Environmental Department and previous ranger with extensive experience and knowledge of local primates and biodiversity. It was with him we were able to have our first sightings.

Antonio’s work involves training local farmers in agricultural techniques, but invariably their conversations drift towards his first passion – primates. We went with Antonio to a fragment within the land of one of his clients. After just three playbacks we were rewarded with a shrill reply from the treetops, followed by a glorious hour of visual and aural display from a family group of six or more marmosets. It is still unclear what species this group belong to, it is thought they might be a rare hybrid between C. flaviceps and C. aurita. A later genetic investigation is being planned. Still, very important data for the project.

Sometimes local knowledge can be less than helpful but also fruitful in unexpected ways. For an hour or so we were passed from pillar to post by local informants cheerfully professing to know of the marmosets’ whereabouts. After four attempts we finally found the ‘feeding tree’ where local residents would feed these elusive ‘marmosets’ After just one playback we heard some unfamiliar crashing overhead, not the usual entrance for a delicate and tiny primate. It slowly dawned on us that perhaps the locals were not as clued up as we had hoped. A family group of gregarious Black capuchin monkeys appeared and were markedly frustrated to find we had no food offerings. A rummage through the car provided the bounty they were looking for, a small bunch of bananas, promptly snatched and taken up into the trees. An experience well worth having but lesson learned, local knowledge should be taken with a pinch of salt! To most laymen, a monkey is a monkey.

These fieldwork experiences were later presented by Larissa and Jessica at the Workshop in Viçosa where the important ‘human element’ in conservation research was emphasised to the delegates. Jessica will now work with the students remotely, to help researchers to collect not only primate behavioural data but also ethnographic data. Incorporating local knowledge and the inclusion of local populations and their needs, is imperative for the success of any conservation project where humans and non-human primates share the land.

Alongside the fieldwork, help was also needed mobilise the volunteer students at Viçosa University to begin renovating the Breeding centre facilities. Harking back to early days at the AWCP when labour was short, it was very much a case of everybody getting stuck in. After purchasing some paint with the project founder Rodrigo, the students, Sally and Jess set about clearing and painting the kitchen and veterinary area, which will soon serve the Breeding Centre.

Partaking in in-situ conservation to help species relevant to the AWCP has been a long-term goal of the park and is a huge step forwards for a zoo of its size. The AWCP is now an official Advocate of the MMCP and will continue to work with this project, not just to raise awareness but also to provide assistance and professional advice and assistance both remotely and in-situ.

To find out more about the AWCP’s conservation working the MMCP, visit www.awcp.gi/conservation.