A trip to Panama City would not be complete without a visit to her iconic canal. I grabbed the opportunity to spend time on the canal alongside towering supertankers, while being introduced to her abundant wildlife.
During the construction of the Panama Canal in 1913, the sprawling Gatun Lake was created above the Gatun dam. As the water rose to new levels, swallowing vast areas of rainforest, peaks of high ground became islands. These islands became isolated wildlife communities, cut off from the mainland. Our boat slowed to a gentle chug as we approached one such island. I saw a branch bounce and heard a rustle of leaves, then a glimpse of movement within. The curtain of green cracked opened to reveal a tiny pink face; that face belonged to a White-faced Capuchin.
We drifted closer to the overhanging trees and more monkeys appeared. Capuchins are smart, so they knew what to expect. It was early and we were the first boat of the morning to approach the island. The monkeys know that where there are boats there is food. The skipper whistled to a couple of monkeys. He threw a grape up in to the tree which was plucked, one handed, from the air by a grateful capuchin. The monkey scurried off to enjoy the sweet treat. A second monkey hung in the tree expectantly until it received a reward. The boat kept a little more than a monkey-leap distance away, as this troop has a history of violence. Perhaps an unintended consequence of feeding from boats.
We chugged around Gatun lake, watching the supertankers of the world rubbing shoulders as they squeeze along the watery superhighway, between trees decorated with tanagers and trogons. We drifted towards a second island where in no time at all Capuchins appeared on a branch and the same routine played out. This troop had never involved themselves in questionable behaviour, so the boat drifted towards a low branch and a couple of confident monkeys climbed on board. They stayed only for a few moments, gently took fruit from people’s hands and hopped back on to the branch. The Alpha male hung on the side of the boat just long enough to pee on my leg!
The White-faced capuchin is a medium sized monkey growing up to 45 cm (17 inches), the male being larger than the female, with a longer, prehensile tail. Capuchins live in large family troops of around 15 monkeys. Around three quarters of the troop are females and the rest a combination Alpha males and young males. Males will leave the group every few years in search of a new troop of their own. In the wild Capuchins will live for upwards of 20 years although in captivity it is not unusual for a specimen to reach the age of 50! The capuchin has a reputation for eating anything. As well as fruit and leaves they will devour insects, amphibians, reptiles, molluscs and bird’s eggs. They are a key species in the distribution of seeds throughout the forest.
This monkey encounter left me with mixed feelings. I was delighted that I had a chance to see the Capuchins so close, but I was less comfortable with witnessing the feeding of these animals on high sugar fruits for the benefit of tourists. The monkeys were fed a very small amount of fruit, but we would not be the last boat of the day. Is this a small price to pay for the relationship that is being built between humans and the monkeys?
Considering our current economic models, is there a better way of securing the long-term future of this island monkey community than by ensuring that they feed a growing Panama tourist industry? It is hard to say that humans are interfering with the Capuchins natural way of life by feeding them when we have already flooded their jungle and isolated the community, interrupting their access to natural food sources and fresh genetic material. Their isolation is in someways a shared story with the United States citizens who were born into the quarantined life of the Canal Zone.
Finally, after much deliberating and considerable study on the issue of feeding wild animals, including conflicting science pertaining to several species, I decided conclusively that I am not in a position to judge. I didn’t feed them, I don’t encourage feeding them, but if I saw them starving would I feed them? Yes, I probably would, so who am I?
We are not on the outside looking in to a functioning eco-system. We are the eco-system, just as much as the Capuchin, a sparrow on the bird table or the ants feeding on spilled fizzy drink. It seems to me that the food that we drop or offer is now as much a part of the planets food chains as the leaves that grow on trees.
Join the conversation below. I have a feeling that there may be some strong opinions around this topic. I would love to hear them. Do you have a policy on feeding wild animals? Where do you draw the line? Have you encountered monkeys in the wild? Maybe you lived in the Canal Zone? 👇👇
Connect others with wildlife by sharing this post on social media and, if you enjoyed this post, please follow Incidental Naturalist.