It had been 81 years since anyone had seen a Vanzolini's bald-faced saki in the wild. On a recent expedition to the Juruá River in the Amazon basin, a group of scientists managed to capture the first photographs ever taken of this elusive primate in its natural habitat — and whoa does it ever look weird.
The fifth Beatle, or a bald-faced Vanzolini saki? (Image Courtesy Christina Selby)
As reported in Mongabay, the rare saki was spotted earlier this year by a scientific expedition led by Dr Laura Marsh, a saki monkey expert. Three years ago, Marsh managed to convince the scientific establishment that this monkey is not a subspecies of a related primate, but rather a distinct species in its own right: Pithecia vanzolinii. To further her argument and document Vanzolini's bald-faced sakis in the wild, she organised a three-month expedition, called Houseboat Amazon, which proved to be a wild success.
Back in the 1930s, Ecuadorian naturalist Alfonzo Olalla collected a number of live saki specimens, where he described a large monkey with a long fluffy tail and golden fur on its arms. The monkey was seen again in 1956 when two dead specimens were collected by ornithologist Fernando da Costa Novaes and taxidermist M.M. Moreira. Earlier this year, scientists stumbled upon a dead Vanzolini's bald-faced saki that had been killed for bush meat. The Houseboat Amazon expedition was hoping to be the first to observe this animal in the wild in over eight decades.
Image Courtesy Christina Selby
For the expedition, Marsh was joined by a team of primatologists, field guides, a photographer and a drone operator. On 1 February 2017, the expedition set off into the forest along the Juruá River.
Just four days into the expedition, as one of the expedition's canoes struggled to get past a log jam, a field guide, Ivan Batista, spotted a Vanzolini's bald-faced saki in a tall tree about 60m into the forest. The monkey was seen flinging itself from branch to branch near the Eiru River, a tributary of the Juruá River.
But this was a small taste of what was to come. For the next three months, Marsh's team documented the species along the entire area surveyed along the southern tributaries of the Juruá in Amazonas state and west from the Tarauacá River to the western side of the Liberdade River. Armed with this crucial data, Marsh is now pleading with local officials to do what they can to help preserve this rare New World Monkey.
"Given what we've seen, if no further controls on hunting and forest clearing are put into place outside of what limited reserves currently exist, the saki's conservation status may become critical," explained Marsh to Mongabay. "Most of the large monkeys, which are a preferred food source [for local communities], have been hunted out of the forests along the Eiru and Liberdade Rivers."
Indeed, just as soon as this monkey has been rediscovered, its status has been thrown into doubt. In addition to hunting along the Juruá watershed, the monkey is threatened by forest clearing, cattle ranchers and road construction. Hopefully Marsh's call for conservation will be heeded, and we'll get to see more of this incredible monkey.