A couple of months ago, we visited a forest reserve in Brazil where several endagered Muriqui (Brachyteles arachnoides) monkeys live. These are the largest primates in the American continent. Since the location is a bit far from the usual turist centers, it is unlikey that many of you will be able to visit, so here is a description of the place and some photos of the monkeys.
The Brazilian Atlantic Forest
Map of Brazil
The Atlantic Forest is a tropical rainforest that covered most of the coastal region in the Southeast of Brazil (for reference, the coastal area in the map around Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and up towards Salvador).
However, with the Southeast region being one of the most densely populated and developed parts of the country, only small remnants of the forest survive today. Even now, the forest still has a large diversity of plants, birds, and small animals.
Parts of the forest still remain, mainly in areas that are difficult to access (for example the coastal mountain range along Sao Paulo state). Originally the forest reached into the state of Minas Gerais, a landlocked state which borders Sao Paulo in the south, and with Rio de Janeiro and Espirito Santo to its East.
Minas Gerais is where the reserve is located, and where the monkeys live. In the state of Minas, the main threat to the forest was not necessarily urbanization, but rather agricultural development. The states of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais developed large plantations of coffee in the late 1800's (among other crops).
Typical coffee plantation, and tree planting around Caratinga, Minas Gerais
Over time, not only large plantations of coffee but also sugar cane (for food, and in recent decades also for ethanol production) were established in Minas Gerais , which displaced large swaths of forest. Only smaller islands of virgin forest currently remain, even though farms are required to preserve a percentage of the land in pristine condition. While small patches of the original forest survived within farms, they are not usually connected to another patch, so they don't provide the large habitat needed for the monkeys.
Recently, many tracks of land, in the region where this particular group of monkeys live, has seen a move towards planting trees for paper extraction, replacing coffee. But these trees are a monoculture, without fruit producing trees, and not conducive to the preservation of animals. On the other hand, the original forest has a great variation of trees.
The Private Reserve and Research Station
Research station and visitor center.
The research station and visitor center is a small building, with a large classroom type room, bathrooms, and the glass structure at the end, where one can find brochures and reading material.
The building is very clean and well taken care of. Overall we were very impressed with how well kept the whole area is, clean, organized, and with signs.
The research station is located within a private nature reserve (known as RPPN Feliciano Miguel Abdala), close to the city of Caratinga. The land was part of a large farm, and its owner (Feliciano Abdala) had the vision to preserve a large track of original forest, which is where the monkeys survive today.
The Muriqui is an endangered species. The monkeys are fairly large and have a very friendly appearance. They have a long tail and light tan fur.
We arrived very early in the morning at the research station, and stayed there for several hours. We met with a couple of the researchers, got an overview of their work, and then went on a tour of the reserve. There are trails to walk around and observe the wildlife (there were also several interesting birds). We could hear monkeys close to the station, but we had to walk a while to get to the Muriquis. A group of Muriquis was moving from one area to another, feeding along the way, so we followed along.
Mother with baby
The monkeys move extremely quickly along the top branches of the trees, relying on their long tail to grasp and swing from one branch to the other. The group moves as an unit, feeding along the way. Very young monkeys cling to their mother (either on their chest, for very young ones, or their back as they get older) as they move through the forest.
We saw a couple of branches fall, but no monkeys. They did not make a lot of vocalizations, and ignored us moving at the foot of the trees and taking photographs. We had to keep a good pace, to stay ahead of them and set up for taking photographs.
We took a small snack with us to eat on the trail, and took all trash back with us to the car. Overall it was a great visit and we hope to repeat it next year, and get better photos of the monkeys.
Dr. Karen B. Strier, from the department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, is the key scientist, has been involved in the research of the Muriqui for many years, and works towards their preservation. She has published a couple of books on the species. I recommend Faces in the Forest: The Endangered Muriqui Monkeys of Brazil if you want to learn more about the subject. There are several Brazilian researchers and graduate students that work at the research station.
I encourage you to help the Muriqui survive, and to help maintain the reserve, by contributing to her research program (donations should be made to "Fund #1254-0246 Anthropology Department for Prof Karen Strier").
Caratinga in relation to Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Vitoria, and Belo Horizonte
If you would like to visit the monkeys, I would highly recommend that you coordinate your visit with the folks at the research station even before you book your travel. This is a working research location, not set up for visitors to just drop in without notice.
The largest city close to the research station is Caratinga, which is roughly one hour by car. The largest cities that tourist would usually visit are Vitoria and Rio de Janeiro to the East (four and six hours by road), and Belo Horizonte to the West (four hours by road). There are international flights both into Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte's airports.
For most people from the US and Europe, driving in Brazil is a challenge, even more so on the highways, where cars zoom by at very high speed, there is a lot of heavy truck traffic, and drivers undertake risky passing, even on curves. There are excellent buses that will take you from Belo Horizonte or Vitoria to Caratinga. In Caratinga there are not that many hotels, one I would recommend is the Vind's Hotel.
Route from Caratinga to reserve (click for larger view)
From Caratinga you will have to hire a driver to take to you to the research station. Most of the driving from Caratinga is on a fairly good quality two-lane road, however, during our visit, at one point in the road there was a mud slide which narrowed the road to a single, hard to pass, lane. This would be hard to negotiate during the rainy season. Close to the research station, one leaves the paved road and branches into a dirt road, all the way to the station. It is best to coordinate your visit with the staff at the research station ahead of time and check the road conditions.
For photography I recommend at least a 200mm lens. Also, you will need a flash, and likely a Better Beamer to project the light at a distance, because of the high contrast between the sun lit animals and trees, and shadows. Without the flash, you will lose all detail on any part of the monkeys that are in the shadows, or blow the lit parts.
Surprisingly, for an area with a lot of coffee production, there was no nice coffee bar to stop and savor the local varieties in any of the surrounding cities, and usually coffee is served already with a lot of sugar in it, killing the flavor.
I'd like to visit the Caratinga reserve, I'd love to talk to someone there to arrange this but..... No email, no phone contact etc etc. Will I really have to drive up on the off chance of being welcomed?
A bit more contact information would be very welcome !!!