Here’s a wildlife experience I had earlier this year when in Guatemala. I wrote it for submission to BBC Wildlife magazine and although they liked it, the ending is unresolved and so unsuitable, I couldn’t tie it up neatly. Still…here we are:
We had to set up the hammocks quickly if we were to get to the ruins before sunset. Huglio, a Spanish guy we’d met on the bus, was the only other person at the campsite. Together we hiked into the park.
Kevin my partner, and I were on holiday in Guatemala. We had travelled north to visit the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal. As well as being the largest and most famous Mayan site, Tikal is known for its extensive rainforest and abundant wildlife.
Inside the park, we passed a giant Ceiba – the sacred tree of the Maya – with its straight, grey trunk, towering above the canopy.Beneath impressive trees, the undergrowth was a tangle of lianas, ferns and epiphytes. An agouti picked its way across the path, paused to sniff the air and disappeared silently into the trees while overhead, a scattered group of spider monkeys wove their way. We arrived at the Grand Plaza and sat on the steps of a temple watching Montezuma’s Oropendula birds swoop to and from their basket nests making liquid, melodic calls. Then the call of howler monkeys started. First a few grunts followed by a long, low, gasping roar like the sound of rusty bellows.
I felt really keen to try and locate the howler group, as they sounded quite close by. But dusk was falling fast and the park was due to shut soon for the night, so we had to hurry.
We left the trail and followed the calls into the trees. Soon we were right beneath a troop of seven Black Howler monkeys bellowing into the evening. The three of us craned our necks to watch their silhouettes against the sky.
Suddenly a dispute broke out in the group. With shaking branches, grunting and squealing, a chaos of monkey drama unfolded above us. Startled, we backed away from the debris that rained down all around us. After a frantic chase, one monkey was left hanging from another, dangling precipitously.
Wow! Hold on, I thought, don’t let it fall! Monkeys do fall from trees – but not that often!
But then it did fall! And landed with a thud in front of us from a height of 15 metres. It lay there, a motionless bundle of black fur.
Was it Dead? Injured? Despite the commotion, Kevin, Huglio and I agreed that we should go to look for help rather than approach the monkey ourselves. We found a park guard dozing in his truck not far away. Then Huglio explained, in his native Spanish, what had happened.
At the scene, the guard walked up to the fallen monkey. I sighed with relief when it picked itself up and appeared unhurt. As it slunk off into the undergrowth, a baby monkey was left behind in the leaf litter; it couldn’t have been more than a few days old. The guard picked it up and began talking into his radio. With Huglio’s help we learnt that he was calling for a vet. Immediately I felt concerned for the mother and wondered whether it may have been best to leave them to their fate together.
Translating as best he could, Huglio explained that the vet would look for the mother. The guard thought that she would probably die and suggested that the pair were the unfortunate victims of a dispute or had been rejected by the group. What was the dispute about? Violence in Black Howler monkeys is uncommon, perhaps a newly dominant male was trying to commit infanticide.
We never learnt what happened to the baby and so this is where my “story” falls flat; there’s no happy ending. I contacted the park later on my return to the UK and also contacted ARCAS, an organisation that takes in abandoned, sick or injured wildlife. Neither knew the outcome of the event, what happened to the baby or the mother. At best it is still a sad story. We can only hope that both survived and were reunited with each other, but I think the chances of that having happened are slim.
Lying in our hammocks in the twilight, beneath a starry sky we mused about it all. There’s no doubt it was a good wildlife encounter but I wondered whether it is ever a good thing to intervene in natural crises or to leave nature to run its course. Well into the night, the howlers still shook the forest.