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Cotton-top Tamarin Monkeys & Community Conservation in Colombia

After fortifying ourselves with a small cup of strong, sweet Colombian coffee, we hoisted our backpacks and headed out into the tropical dry forest. After years of volunteering for and donating to the conservation of the Cotton-top Tamarin, we were finally on their home turf.

We came because we wanted to see the monkeys with our own eyes and learn more about the work of Proyecto Titi, an organization dedicated to their survival.

Cotton-Top Tamarin Travel in Colombia
Photo courtesy of ©Proyecto TIti

Well, who wouldn’t want to get a live view of this little monkey? It has a lot going for it; it’s adorable, it has great hair and it gets to hang out in a beautiful Colombian forest all day. Unfortunately, the Cotton-top Tamarin is critically endangered.

Cotton Top Tamarin Forest Habitat
Photo courtesy of ©Marty Varon

Why is the Cotton-top Tamarin Endangered?

Fractured Habitat

The Cotton-top’s enviable big hair gives the false impression of a substantial physical presence. But their tiny bodies typically weigh less than a pound (430 grams). This makes them easy pickings for ground predators, so their adaptation is to simply stay up in the mid-layer of the trees. The Cotton-top Tamarins dwell in the trees for their entire lives; birth to death.

While they are busy living their lives in the trees, we humans are busy clearing the trees in support of agriculture, logging and other industries. Only 2% of the monkey’s original home forest remains. The Cotton-tops find themselves restricted to ever smaller patches of forest over a highly fragmented geography in Northern Colombia. This fractured habitat limits population growth and reduces their genetic diversity.

Cotton Top Tamarin Colombia in a tree tropical dry forest
Why wouldn’t you want to protect this adorbs little monkey?

Pet Trade

If a shrinking forest weren’t bad enough, there is also an illegal pet trade for the Cotton-tops. Google it and you can find any number of sites willing to sell you a Cotton-top for $3,800. Why anyone would want to purchase a critically endangered species is beyond me. I blame the buyers but it’s hard to blame the sellers. Colombia is a poor country that was plagued by civil war for half of the 20th century. I am sympathetic enough to understand why a cash-strapped local would consider selling a monkey.

Rosamira Guillen Proyeto TIti
Rosamirs Guillen. Photo courtesy of ©Federico Pardo

Enter Rosamira Guillen and Proyecto Titi

These little monkeys need protection, and Proyecto (protect) Titi (monkey) provides it. Proyecto Titi’s mission is to save the Cotton-top forest monkey of northern Colombia through long-term conservation programs and with the engagement of local communities. The organization was founded by Dr. Anne Savage and is currently run by Rosamira Guillen.

I’ve known Rosamira for many years and am impressed by her combination of passion and business prowess. She is an architect by trade which makes her seem like an unlikely conservation hero. But even as an architect, she was always interested in environmental design and landscape architecture. This interest and her expertise landed her at the zoo in Barranquilla. Some captured Cotton-top Tamarins had also landed at the Barranquilla zoo. When Rosamira met the monkeys, it set her off on a fifteen year journey to find conservation solutions for the monkeys.

Proyecto Titi Conservation tracking Cotton Top Tamarin
In the forest with Rosamira and team tracking a troop of Cotton-tops

Rosamira’s such an effective conservation entrepreneur that she has been recognized as a recipient of the Whitley Environmental Award and the National Geographic Buffet Award for her exceptional work.

Conservation Programs & Community Entrepreneurs

Population Monitoring

All conservation programs require monitoring of the population and their behavior. Proyecto Titi does this with a long-term monitoring project in a patch of forest between Cartagena and Barranquilla, Colombia. We tagged along with Rosamira as she and fellow conservationists Soto and Jeisson tracked the resident population of monkeys. While we were there, they were in the process of preparing to trap and monitor several of the monkey troops. This trapping is done annually for the purpose of checking monkey health, gathering blood samples which can be analysed for genetic and nutritional information, and installing fresh batteries for the tracking collars.

We were lucky then, because spotting the monkeys up in the tree cover is like playing a game of Where’s Waldo where the monkeys always win. However, during trapping season, the monkey are bribed with bananas so that they become acclimated to the traps. (Note to future homo sapien conservationists, if you want to trap me, you’ll need to use cheese.) So, while the monkeys were busy being adorable and munching on bananas, we were able to get a good look.

Cotton Top monkey flying through tree Colombia
Where’s Waldo? See if you can spot the two monkeys leaping through the trees.

Conservation Education

Proyecto Titi offers a series of education programs that target kids from the third through ninth grades. The curriculum uses storytelling, arts & crafts, games and role playing to teach the kids about conservation generally but also how the Cotton-top Tamarin is special to their home region. Highly motivated kids can graduate up to the “Cartitilla Club” and get involved in more hands-on conservation work. The program also fosters young adult leaders who grew up in the program and who now get support for higher education and careers in conservation.

The education programs work using a similar strategy to Zimbabwe’s African Painted Dog conservation program. Both programs are in this for the long game and understand that kids can be a powerful influence in the home. In fact, both programs are supported by Wildlife Conservation Network which provides financial support and opportunities for conservationists to visit with and learn from one another.

Proyeto Titi Education Program
Photo courtesy of ©Marty Varon

Habitat Expansion

Proyecto Titi has embarked upon an audacious project to expand the forest surrounding the Los Colorados National park with a private reserve as well as tree corridors on private land. They have developed a plastic recycling scheme that turns plastic bottles into durable fence posts. Proyecto Titi offers the fence posts and tree seedlings to landowners who are willing to plant a tree corridor.

Proyecti Titi reserve Los Colorados National Park Colombia
Here we are, all sweaty in our action adventure togs, exploring the Los Colorados National Park.

The fence-post program is a variation on the bushblok fuel scheme employed by Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia (also part of the Wildlife Conservation Network). Both get unwanted material out of the conservation area and provide a valuable product to the local communities.

The private reserve and the tree corridors (once they are mature) are expected to more than double the effective forest area of the national park. As I huffed and sweated my way through the dense, muggy forest, I developed so much respect for the conservationists who work in the forest every day. They are not only looking after the Cotton-top monkeys but they are the only practical presence in the park.

Proyect Titi reserve nursery and project site
The team on-site at Proyecto Titi’s reserve are growing tree seedlings, building a well for local landowners and developing housing.

Community Development

Forest habitat loss is the primary threat for the Cotton-top monkey, but it’s simply not practical to tell a community of subsistence farmers not plant crops. Proyecto Titi has developed several community development programs that create valuable incentives to keep the forest intact and creative alternative sources of sustainable income for the local communities.

It’s a well-documented fact that the most effective way to provide economic opportunities in developing communities is to target the women. They are more likely to use the money to support their families and keep it in the local community.

Proyecto Titi has leveraged this strategy with a double threat that gets plastic bags out of the local landfill and provides an income stream for local women. The local community collects and cleans plastic shopping bags which are then transformed into Eco-mochila tote bags and purses. They are practical and cute– you should buy one. 

The echo-mochilas bring hard currency into the community, which subsequently reduces their absolute dependence on the type of agriculture that harms the forest. Ana is the local leader of this program and she has used her income to build herself a concrete house and put her kids through college. Pretty impressive for a country where the minimum wage is $300 a month.

Proyect Titi Community Programs Ana
Ana’s infectious smile and tenacity are were very inspiring.

The Illegal Pet Trade

Both the kids’ education programs and the economic development tend to create an atmosphere that discourages the illegal pet trade. Most people, when given the option, would prefer to make a honest living that doesn’t rely on poaching.

You can get more information on these programs by viewing Proyecto Titi’s presentation given at the Wildlife Conservation Expo:

Conservation Minded Travel in Colombia

I asked Rosamira to recommend a few places in northern Colombia for a the nature loving traveler. She encourages you to travel in Colombia and promises that you will find a welcoming and happy people. What follows are some of her recommended locations and some links to travel blogs which can give you more information on how to travel in Colombia.

Cartagena in the morning
Finding flowers and colorful doors in Cartagena.

Travel in Northern Colombia

  • Cartagena: Cartagena offers the best incoming hub for travel in northern Colombia. It’s a beautiful, well preserved port city which will offer you insight into the colonial history of Colombia. And the modern side of the city offers nightlife, street art and great food. Get more detailed info in my Cartagena itinerary.
  • Barranquilla: You can follow in Rosamira’s footsteps and visit the Titis at the Barranquilla Zoo. She also recommends visiting the Parque Salamanca and nearby wetlands.
  • Santa Marta & Tayrona: Travel further northeast of Barranquilla and you’ll find Santa Marta and Tayrona. Tayrona is a national park with hiking, rich biodiversity and beautiful Caribbean beaches.

Travel Resources for Travel in Colombia

Cotton Top Tamarin monkey Colombia in a tree

How to Support Proyecto Titi

  1. Donate to Proyecto Titi and you’ll support both the Cotton-tops and the local communities
    • For $2,500 you can pay for an acre of tree planting and maintenance for two years.
    • Donate $100 and support the recycling programs that make eco-fence posts.
    • Buy a snappy eco-mochila or plush Cotton-top Tamarin for you and all of your eco-chic friends.
  2. Educate yourself about Cotton-top Tamarins. There are 1,500 captive Cotton-tops in zoos in the US and Europe. Go visit them, learn about then, and then come back here and donate.
  3. Follow Proyecto Titi on Facebook and share this blog post with your friends
  4. Don’t be afraid to travel in Colombia. Read the latest US State Department report and then book a ticket.  Keep the money local by hiring a local driver, staying in a smaller hotel and purchasing local goods
Eco mochilas Cotton Top Tamarins

Your Parting Shot

Cotton Top Tamarin Monkey Colombia- eating a Banana
Cotton Top munching a banana.

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 Cotton Top monkeys of Colombia
Cotton-Top Tamarin Conservation

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