Sunrise was greeted by a low growl that reverberated through the trees on the Panamanian island of Muertos. The throaty howl of the Mantled Howler Monkey sounds somewhat like a man chocking on a marble. The rainforest canopy thunders with the Howler call but seeing these clangorous creatures is entirely more difficult then hearing them.
It was midday and a broken, stuttering howl was coming from the trees just behind my island vacation house. I tiptoed into the trees and sat quietly for some 30 minutes. A Bronzy hermit hummingbird fizzed past my ear and probed a red waxy fluted flower in front of me. A poison dart frog hopped over my boot. My eyes returned to the canopy and adjusted to the shards of light. There! Through the narrow beams of sun, just for a sliver of a second, the shadowy figure of a primate clambered up a thin branch into the thick canopy. It was gone.
The following afternoon the bark broke the silence again, this time from the trees alongside the house. I sat in motionless silence, staring up. I heard movement and occasional growls, but I couldn’t see the monkeys. My neck was tightening. The camera was heavy in my hands, and as the late afternoon light faded, the familiar whine of a mosquito tingled my ear. I was starting to get fidgety when, soundlessly as an owl’s wing beat, a single howler monkey ghosted into view, settling just beneath the canopy. She is exquisite. We sat quietly regarding each other with gentle fascination.
I focus my lens on her enigmatic face. Two polished orbs of black Apache Tears stare back at me. She is at ease. I spent some time unsuccesfully trying to find an angle for a clear shot. It didn’t matter; she was there, and I was there, that was enough. But then something remarkable happened. The monkey was fidgeting on her perch. She looked down and started fiddling with something. Then she slowly unfurled the leg that she had wrapped around herself, revealing her prize. A miniature monkey stretched out a leg and flopped back on to the branch. She was carrying her baby with her!
Choked with emotion and heart pounding, I took a few shots. I watched her lift baby’s tiny little foot and inspect each toe and then count each finger. I felt so privileged to have been studied until mum thought “this guy seems harmless” and was comfortable enough to share a moment with her precious infant.
They sat together in the crook of the tree for about half an hour. The light would be gone soon and she decided that this was not the most comfortable place for her to sleep. She made her way across to a horizontal branch that looked much more comfortable. My heart was in my mouth as I watched turn herself upside down, with baby staring headfirst at a vertical drop to a certain death. You have to grow up pretty fast in the rainforest, as the canopy is not a place to be distracted. There is danger from below and danger above, in the shape of eagles. To survive in this thin band of green you have to be a master of your environment.
Having found a branch on which she could get comfortable, she settled down for a snooze. The last of the light was laping at the fire of her mantle and my camera was working at its limit (or my skill limit) for this back-lit scene. As she settled down she gently caressed the little one, pulling its tail through her hand and wrapping it around her fingers before letting it drop and starting the process over. It was a moment of tenderness between mum and baby that would be recognised by any parent.
I had travelled across the country to thePanama Canal, where I had reached the end of my vacation. There was time for one last stroll along the birding Mecca that is the Pipeline Road, on the outskirts of Panama City. It was lunch time, so I had missed the golden hours of first light when the trees burst with wildlife. I hadn’t walked far when the trees above my head shook. Looking up, I froze! A troop of Howlers were picking their way through the branches above the track.
I stood beneath the troop for a while. They didn’t seem too concerned with my presence. I fired off some shots in the moments when a monkey would position itself in a relatively clear patch. Some of them were just hanging out, relaxing while others were feeding in the dense foliage.
The Mantled Howler is a good-sized monkey and certainly the largest in Panama, growing up to 91 cm (36 inches) and weighing in at up to 10 kg (22 pounds). The prehensile tail, that they use as a fifth limb, doubles the overall length as it also grows to 91 cm (36 inches). The Mantled Howler is one of fifteen species of Howler in Central and South America. It gets its name from the mantle of burning gold hair that flows down its the sides of its otherwise coal black fur.
I turned around and saw a large monkey above my head. I aimed my lens; it was the Alpha male! There was a crescendo of noise in the distance. Two troops of Howlers were barking uncontrollably at each other. No doubt they had ventured a little too close to each other’s territory and were sorting out their differences with a good howl. My Alpha above sat in absolute silence. He was watchful and listening intently to the din that seemed to be erupting around us. I wondered why he remained silent. I would like to believe that he had used this moment to sneak into his noisy neighbours territory to soundlessly purloin the prime fruits under cover of the cacophony around him.
Panama had given me so much. I had seen birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals that I had only dreamed about seeing. Much of this wildlife was in rainforests just thirty minutes outside of the city. These forests remain preserved because they are one of Mother Nature’s treasures that actually has a monetary value. Without the rainforest there would not be enough water to operate one of the most valuable waterways on the planet; the Panama Canal. It is tragic that nature requires a dollar value to ensure its survival but for now that dollar value means this preserved slice of paradise will remain a rich eco-system presided over by the kings of the canopy, the Mantled Howler Monkey.
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