Unshielded Power Lines Are Killing Costa Rica’s Howler Monkeys
Native primates mistake wires for vines, suffer horrific deaths, crippling injuries
As Costa Rica’s tropical sun beat fiercely in the small jungle clearing in the Nicoya peninsula, I held the swaddled baby monkey in my arms. Her black fur radiating heat, Felicia reached out a tiny human-like hand and gripped my extended index finger.
All Photos by David Lee Drotar
Nosara Wildlife Rescue’s mission of rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing native animals that have been injured or orphaned was an expensive operation and my sister, friend and I had been “invited” to visit and donate. There are two facilities that work cooperatively under the umbrella of Nosara Wildlife Rescue. The refuge receives injured animals and rehabilitates them, and the SIBU Sanctuary spans more acreage and provides longer-term care. We chose to visit the refuge.
“Do they feel emotions like we do?” our companion, Anne Narciso asked.
“Oh, absolutely they do,” organization founder Brenda Bombard assured us. “After an infant loses her mother, she cries for three or four days.” Felicia looked at me with huge, mournful black eyes that popped from a teacup-sized head. I suppressed a tear, but the story became only more heartbreaking.
Felicia is a howler monkey, one of four monkey species found in Costa Rica. Howler monkeys, which are named for their throaty howls that can be heard as far as three miles away, travel in social groups by swinging from treetop to treetop. They rarely set their feet on the ground. However, as the jungle canopy becomes increasingly fragmented by the roads, houses, and condos built to accommodate the influx of tourists and expats, the monkeys have begun using electrical lines as a convenient conduit for bridging gaps in the natural corridors.
In many areas the existing power lines and transformers are left unshielded. Draped as they often are, through the dense canopy of trees, the monkeys mistake the live wires for the vines that they usually use to travel between feeding grounds. The result is devastating.
Her graying tresses pulled back to avoid entanglement with curious animals’ paws, Bombard reached for a long fiberglass pole that had several extendable, interlocking sections. I anticipated what was coming next and my attention shifted between the demonstration and the little bundle of fur that had trustingly fallen asleep in my arms.
“Electrocution is the number one killer of monkeys in Costa Rica,” Bombard said. She had acquired the knowledge of this statistic first hand. Bombard is often first on the scene after she gets a call that a monkey is screaming because it has grabbed two wires, its body completing an electrical circuit and its seized muscles unable to let go. She uses the pole to scrape the immobilized animal from the wires and knock it to the ground.
The injuries resulting from the monkeys grasping the un-insulated electrical lines are gruesome and often fatal. If an animal does survive, it’s usually severely burned. More often than not, a mother would be carrying a baby on her back, as was the case with Felicia, the monkey I now held. If the mother dies from the electrocution or the trauma, no other female monkey will nurse her orphaned offspring. Bombard usually rushes the infant to the refuge where it is bottle-fed and eventually graduated to a diet of native vegetation supplemented with cooked sweet potatoes, apples, squash and tiny amounts of chicken. (Click here for rescue photos. WARNING: These images are graphic and may be unsuitable for some viewers)
The electrocutions have had an especially devastating impact on the Nosara’s howler monkey population. Nosara Wildlife Refuge estimates that Costa Rica’s howler numbers dropped from 107,000 in 1998 to 37,000 in 2004. Current numbers are likely even lower.
I thought I had heard the worst of the gory details when Felicia woke up, so my sister, Karen and I decided to trade monkeys. She took Felicia and in return a several-weeks-old boy monkey named Feo playfully jumped onto my shoulders and wrapped his tail around my neck. In Spanish, “Feo” means “ugly.” When a monkey is trapped on an electrical line, Bombard explained, it may try to bite itself free. Some individuals bite the transformers. When this happens, the power surge instantly blows out its face. Feo was the victim of this all-too-common set of circumstances. Furthermore, the high-pitched screams of distress draw other nearby monkeys who meet the same fate unless Bombard can get there quickly and preemptively knock them to the ground as well.
With the tender care at the refuge, Feo was thriving and outgrowing the unfortunate name. He and Felicia had a long road ahead, however. The typical stay in the refuge for howler monkeys is about 18 months, at which point they are transferred to the SIBU sanctuary for another 18 months.
The sanctuary provides a secure jungle enclosure for ongoing observation and rehabilitative care. Reduced human contact allows social groupings to form, a critical step before they are set free into open canopy. Although Felicia and Feo’s progress appeared to be well on track, I wondered what would happen to a monkey if its recovery was not as successful.
I needn’t have worried. Detail-oriented Bombard explained that those monkeys who are unable to be released receive permanent long-term care in a protected and enriched habitat in part of the sanctuary. Although Bombard works closely with the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment and Energy, and other wildlife protection agencies, the refuge receives no government or NGO subsidies.
By this time, Feo was gently climbing all over me like a clingy toddler seeking attention. I stroked his glossy, black fur. How easy it would be to fall in love with these amazing, sweet creatures and want to adopt one as a pet. Lest anyone think that this was a good idea, Bombard quickly pointed out that everything changes when they hit puberty. Hormone-fueled aggressive behavior can result in unprovoked attacks on their owners and other humans. Bombard asks that visitors to the refuge not post videos of its cute residents on YouTube because the clips don’t give the full story about the inherent dangers of these wild animals.
In the meantime, Bombard remains on permanent alert, typically receiving a call per week. She has started the public dialog necessary for change to happen. Her mission has expanded to include that of education and advocacy. Unfortunately, there are no existing laws requiring insulated wires or a simple $250 transformer boot that would slow the carnage.
Nevertheless, there has been some progress. In 2010, the Costa Rican government and local power company conducted a pilot study within a small quadrant of Guanacaste province in which the wires were insulated and plastic boots covered the transformers. Howler monkey fatalities dropped from 132 in 2009 to only 18 during the study year. If that startling statistic were not enough to spur action, Bombard is trying to get the word out that human lives are also at stake. Children playing around bootleg electrical lines run from main trunk lines to remote countryside shanties can suffer the same consequences as the monkeys.
Reluctantly I surrendered my new friends back to their cages. Hoping that our small donation might help further the refuge’s cause, Karen, Anne, and I climbed into the car and drove away in search of our next eco-adventure. But the following morning when we drove down the narrow, curvy road leading from the hotel and spotted several shifting, black shapes in the treetops, we pulled the vehicle over and grabbed the binoculars. The low-pitched, dog-like grunt of the adult howlers was unmistakable and we hoped that Felicia and Feo would not have any new companions unexpectedly joining them today.
IF YOU GO:
Nosara Wildlife Rescue is not a zoo. The refuge and the sanctuary comprise two separate working facilities. Food for the animals, operating costs, and emergency veterinary care are funded entirely by donations from visitors and interested persons. Visits to either location must be arranged in advance. For information on planning a visit or to donate, see www.nosarawildlife.com