Ari and the Howler Monkey

One Student’s Photographic Quest

In August 2016, FPI offered our first conservation photography workshop led by Ishaan Raghunandan in the Peruvian Amazon. The following is his account of student Ari Farzaneh’s journey to find and document her favorite Neotropical primate. Ari had won our photo contest this summer and was able to attend this workshop free of charge.

Stands of cecropria bathed in sunlight

There is so much to see in the Amazon, but it’s all up to chance. When you head deep into the rainforest for a 9-day photography course you have obviously planned to do no sleeping. For a person like Ari, who is particularly in love with monkeys, visiting the Los Amigos Biological Station is a must. Sightings in the last two months leading up the course had included giant armadillo, caimans, coatis, agoutis, a tamandua, a paca, an ocelot strolling through camp, and even a once in a lifetime view of a sloth and an armadillo in a near collision! Ari heard all these stories with awe, but all she really wanted to do was photograph a red howler monkey.

The forests around the field station are actually home to 11 species of primate, including night monkeys, but Ari immediately inquired about where howlers might be seen. They had been heard early in the mornings at the intersection of trails 10 and 24 she was told, as she listened to a recording of their deep chant. But before she could go out searching the forest for monkeys, she would have to learn how to navigate on and off trail.

Artisanal gold mining along the Madre de Dios River: an important regional issue

Off Trail and in the Swamps

To keep up with monkeys Ari would have to be ready to follow them through the thick undergrowth, and then find her way back to camp by herself. Orientation included multiple on- and off-trail hikes that ended with a game of “get us back to trail number x.” After bumping to a couple of titi monkey groups, we eventually came back to a trail as the sun started to set. I always imagine this to be the point that a student allows herself become engulfed by the forest. That first evening, the change from a city environment to the pure wilderness is almost overwhelming. It was a new moon this night, one of those pitch black ones: definitely a night for eye shine.

A quick scan with a good flashlight from the canoe on nights such as these, and you should see many dwarf caiman eyes floating on the surface of the swamp. Apart from the certainty of seeing many of these caiman, there were also more than enough frogs to drive a herpetologist crazy. Though it has been a dry year, the orchestra of amphibians could be heard from the top of the hill above the palm swamp (or a floating forest as some people ominously call them). As we sat in the boat in absolute silence, ours eyes became accustomed to the lack of light. The dark, still water reflected the stars above. It was an unbelievably calming experience.

Juvenile black caiman (Melanosuchus niger)
Black-capped squirrel monkey (Saimiri boliviensis)


Camera Traps and Elusive Primates

Sure, you can make very good calculated guesses, but successful camera trapping always involves a lot of luck. Even if you choose the perfect location and angle the camera just right, you never know if a peccary will come along and knock it down, or wildlife will simply choose a different route than you anticipated. In the above video you can see a couple trumpeters that her cameras caught, as well as the tail end of another impressive jungle resident.

As Ari made her way into the forest each day to set up these infrared camera traps, she seized many other opportunities to photograph various plants and wildlife while remaining mindful of what she had learned about aperture and depth of field, shutter speeds for different subjects, iso, and white balance. All of this was in addition to constantly keeping track of direction and quality of light. She captured many beautiful images, but still no red howler!

Brown titi monkey (Plecturocebus brunneus)

Unsurprisingly ever since Ari had announced that she wanted to see a red howler, everyone else started to see them. She would be so excited to hear about where they were sighted, making sure to incorporate those treks into the next day. One afternoon Ari returned to camp early and she looked worn out. I decided to give her some time. A couple of minutes later, I heard a loud rumble. Howler monkey! And it was close. I clamored to get my camera and searched frantically for Ari. She was nowhere to be found!

And then the calls stopped. I should have found the group then come back for her! I ran towards the edge of camp that the calls were coming from. As I reached, I saw Ari coming out from the edge of the forest and she was in tears. Clearly she had been stung by something, I thought to myself.

“Are you okay,” I asked.

“Yes, I’m just so happy !”  she said with her face completely wet. I couldn’t understand it. I tried to calm her down, but I could see that she did not want to be calmed down. I wasn’t going to take this moment away from her. I could see now the immense happiness behind the tears. I stood in shock as she disappeared again into the foliage, looking to get a better view. I decided not to follow.

Red howler monkey (Alouatta sara)

That evening Ari sat in the middle of a large huddle as she showed her images to a crowd of onlookers in dirty field clothes, imbued with the sweet smell of success (and failure). Over the next few days Ari came to see the howlers more often, even capturing an infrequent encounter with a capuchin.

Photo reactions back at the field station
Sunrise at Cocha Lobo

The rest of the workshop included visits to Cocha Lobo (an oxbow lake) at sunrise and sunset, which provided completely different lighting conditions for photographing the hoatzins that dominate area around the lake. Hoatzins are very special, ruminant “stinkbirds” whose peculiar atavism and raspy vocalizations imbue its local name, Shansho, with an almost spiritual quality. The long walk to and from Cocha Lobo through floodplain forests provided no dearth of macro subjects, and our final climb of an old radio tower overlooking the vast canopy allowed Ari reflect on all of what she had seen and documented… including that first red howler.

Praise Tunche, Praise Shansho!!!

Russet-backed oropendola (Psarocolius angustifrons)