Mera, Ecuador

“We have a new roommate,” Alex said matter-of-factly as he squeezed through our cabin’s doorway carrying a small transport cage, a milk-filled syringe, and a folder on which was written “Tiny’s notes”.

“What is it,” I asked as I tried to take a quick look into the cage, careful not to startle whatever was inside.

“It’s the smallest fucking tamarin we’ve ever seen – barely 60 grams. They brought a sloth too.” Alex was referring to the police and ministry, who regularly deliver confiscated, injured and orphaned animals to Merazonia, a rescue and rehabilitation centre located in Ecuador’s Amazon region. I was there volunteering as an animal caregiver.

Tiny had been seized at a police checkpoint in the nearby village of Mera.

Alex slowly opened the cage door, syringe in hand. A brown-furred, white-mustached, tennis ball sized monkey promptly emerged. Tiny took a few drops of milk, evacuated a comparatively large poo, ate a small piece of chopped fruit, and quickly returned to his warm water bottle in the cage to rest.

Tamarin Tiny moments after his arrival at Merazonia in February 2016.

“That poo looks good! Yes! That is some nice poo,” Alex exclaimed as he scraped it off the hardwood floor, “let’s take it for testing and let him get some sleep.”

Alex quickly left the room, feces in hand, to make arrangements for Tiny to be moved to a proper cage in quarantine as soon as possible.

And with that, the usual dreaded questions popped into our minds as we returned to what we had been doing. How did Tiny manage to survive thus far – and would he survive altogether?

A month earlier my plane was landing in the Andean metropolis of Quito, the world’s highest official capital. It was my first stop on my expedition to volunteer at Merazonia, where I would assist in feeding, cleaning and providing enrichment for the animals at the centre.   Having had worked with primates in Belize before, I was curious to see how Merazonia and the Amazon rainforest would compare. I was extremely excited to embark on an adventure into one of the wildest, most bio-diverse places left on earth, and as I had wished, an adventure is what I was served.

The following morning my driver picked me up and we started winding south through the city’s busy streets. Everywhere I looked it seemed, millions of concrete houses were piled up scaling the slopes of massive mountains and filling the gaps in the deep valleys in between.

Houses in Quito scale the Andean slopes.

Having been extensively deforested over the past centuries, the central highlands are for the most part a deserted landscape, save for scattered pine and eucalyptus plantations. Sands of different shades of brown, small plants and cactuses dominate the plateau between the central Andes’ western and eastern peaks. As we passed town after town, my driver told me their respective histories of being destroyed by natural disasters and about their residents’ commitment to rebuilding and staying in place. The seemingly endless display of snow-capped volcanoes and cloud-piercing mountains mesmerised me.

Volcan Chimborazo, the country’s tallest volcano.

“It’s a bad day for the cows,” said Lincoln, my driver, breaking the silence and startling me out of my daze. In the middle of the highway, a crane was lifting a large sow upside down by its four legs. A hundred yards further, a bull was lying across the road in a pool of blood. Next to it was a car that looked like it had run into a wall. In Quebec, Canada, where I am from, it is deer and the odd moose that you have to watch for while driving; here it was the hundreds of free-ranging cows sprawled out all along the highway without a fence to restrain them. That, and the countless feral dogs.


Soon after passing the city of Ambato, we drove east past the indigenous street-side vendors of Salasaca and the blue-jean clothing factories of Pelileo, into the waterfall-laden, lush cloud forest canyons of Banos, after which the vegetation and temperature changed dramatically.

As we slowly rolled past the musky town of Rio Negro, tall palms, bromeliads and various ferns set a tropical backdrop to a young man enthusiastically training two roosters to fight on the side of the road. It’s along this stretch that the road drops nearly 1000m as it snakes alongside the Rio Pastaza into the Oriente proper, where the Andean foothills give way and the vast Amazon basin opens up in a sea of green near the village of Mera, my final destination.

Founded in 2004, Merazonia is located on 250 acres of mountainous primary and secondary rainforest near the southeastern periphery of Llanganates National park. The centre is primarily focused on caring for various species of primates and parrots, but is also home to other mammals – many of which rescues from the country’s illegal wildlife trade.

Waterfalls near Banos.

Certain animals may live out their lives in Merazonia’s large forested enclosures due to a handicap or because their tame behaviors prohibit them from surviving in the wild. The centre’s primary objective, however, is to release animals back to their natural habitats whenever possible – something I deeply hoped to witness during my stay.

At first, I spent every moment of spare time at Merazonia exploring the surrounding jungle. No matter how much you try to image how the Amazon is, you can never truly anticipate its size and richness until you’ve lived it.   There are towering fig strangler trees with vines so thick you can swing from them. Walking palm trees that actually move, albeit slowly, to find sources of light. Huge ferns. Mosses everywhere. Trees and plants growing off of other trees and plants. It is a true fortress of vegetation. 

Walking palm tree photographed in Merazonia’s jungle.

Machete in hand, I mostly stuck to exploring along the crystal-clear El Tigre river, which made traveling much more efficient, unless it was raining hard of course. During storms, the river would swell, turn muddy brown and leave its riverbed, taking dead branches along with it. I also hiked the various trap camera trails, like the Dead Woman’s Trail, where Merazonia’s founders found human skeletal remains as they explored the then newly-acquired property. Over the years, the centre’s trap cameras have played an important role in documenting the abundance of wildlife in the area, photographing jaguars (including a black melanistic one), ocelots, margays, jaguarundis, deer, peccaries, coatis, and tayras. On one particular hike during my stay, we arrived to find one of the cameras had been damaged. Upon closer examination of the images on the SD card we found the culprit – a juvenile spectacled bear devoted to removing the camera from the tree.

Two weeks in I had become familiar with the daily capuchin, woolly and tamarin monkey rounds. I had also been trained in working with the howler monkeys and the baby woollys in the nursery, which would become my focus for the remainder of my stay. I felt honoured to be offered to work with these animals because of my past experience with primates, as they are normally limited to long-term volunteers.

As the days passed I learned the life stories of the animals I was getting to know. There was Malala, a baby woolly monkey that was found screaming in a park in the city of Ambato in late 2015. Once at Merazonia, the veterinarian noticed her nails had been painted with nail polish. As I calmly stroked Malala’s unnaturally rugged fur as she clung to me one day in the nursery, I noticed a small bump on her head. I later found out that it was a shotgun pellet imbedded in her skull, most likely from the spray of a poacher’s buckshot originally destined for her mother. Nevertheless, Malala is making great progress and slowly becoming comfortable leaving her surrogate parents and socializing with the other babies.

There was also a woolly monkey named Nina, a puma named Pangui and a blue-and-yellow macaw named Merlin that, along with 30 other animals, were rescued from a hostel near the town of Riobamba where they served as tourist attractions. Nina was kept in a tight metal harness tied to a short rope and was paraded around with the hostel’s guests. Pangui was emaciated and kept in a small cage in a noisy area. Although all three are now in good health, their troubled upbringings make their prospects of being released problematic.

Along with an animal’s level of domestication and its social and physical limitations, other possible obstacles to release include the negative effects a reintroduction may have on an ecosystem, as well as the rehabilitation organization’s accessibility to the animal’s natural habitat in the first place.

It is to address certain of these obstacles that Merazonia works in collaboration with other rehabilitation centres, like Amazoonico, one of Ecuador’s oldest and largest centres. Merazonia may decide to transfer specific animal species there because they have an already-established specialized release program, or because a species is more likely to be naturally found in their area, explains Frank Weijand, co-founder of Merazonia. Similarly, Valle Alto, a centre located on the Pacific coast – where the illegal trade in Amazonian animals is at its strongest – sometimes transfers some of its animals to Merazonia for the same reasons, he adds.

Regardless of the many obstacles, Merazonia has successfully released more than a hundred animals over the years, including over 50 sloths, as well as tamarin monkeys, kinkajous, ocelots, margays, oncillas, armadillos, agoutis, and boas.

My chance to witness a release would come on a rainy Sunday morning in late January, as plans were underway to release a three-toed sloth. The police and ministry had collected the sloth as it struggled to cross a busy road, not unlike like most sloths relocated to Merazonia’s property. Proficient climbers, it goes without saying that sloths are not as swift when it comes to traveling on flatland.  Because they are usually in good health when found, they are promptly checked over by Merazonia’s on-site veterinarian, micro-chipped for identification purposes, and released as soon as possible. Later this year, the organization plans to purchase radiotelemetry collars to help track the movements of released monkeys, cats, and sloths, which are particularly hard to track by sight because of their camouflage.

Carrying the transport cage, a group of us headed single-file up a steep and muddy trail, clinging to vines and other vegetation for balance as we searched for the perfect tree.  Sloths are capable of spending their whole lives on one single tree, descending only once a week to urinate and defecate.  20 minutes later, we were huddled at the base of a mature cecropia tree, trying to pry the strong, non-cooperative animal out of the transport cage without getting swiped by its long claws.  Eventually, the algae-stained sloth hugged the tree trunk, and with a firm series of pats on the rear for support and motivation, climbed the tree surprisingly quickly.  Moments later, it had ascended to the peak and disappeared into the leaves, mosses and branches.

Volunteer Craig McQueen releases a three-toed sloth at Merazonia in late January 2016.

Little did I know, this would be but one of four releases to occur while I was at Merazonia, along with two other sloths and an ocelot that had been trapped by a farmer’s whose chickens it had been eating. The fact that the farmer contacted the Ministry of Environment instead of killing the cat is one of many promising signs of shifting attitudes towards wildlife conservation in the country, says Weijand.   Over the years it has become much more common for people to contact Merazonia to request assistance in relocating a cat spotted near their communities, as well as to report animals that are illegally held in captivity and injured animals found near roads. “Even though there is still a market for bush meat and pets, it is nowadays more frowned upon. Ten years ago everybody had or had had a wild animal as a pet. Nowadays that is very uncommon,” says Weijand.

Coordinators Thomas Ottenhoff (left) and Jason Howard carry an ocelot to the clinic on the day of its release in January 2016.

Nevertheless, the lucrative wildlife trade still persists in the country. Although numbers vary between sources, approximately 8,000 animals are said to have been confiscated from traffickers by authorities between 2003 and 2013, according to one report by organized crime watchdog Insight Crime. Furthermore, the country’s 20,000 species of plants, 1,500 species of birds, 840 species of reptiles and amphibians and 341 mammals are threatened by oil exploration, logging and road building. Ecuador has one of the highest deforestation rates and worst environmental records in South America, resulting in less that 15 per cent of the country’s land mass still being covered by primary forest, according to environmental information website Mongabay’s Ecuador Environmental Profile. Between 1990 and 2005, the country lost 21.5 per cent of its forest cover, while its deforestation rate has increased by 17 per cent since the end of the 1990’s, the document also states. The fragmentation of wildlife habitats caused by communities moving deeper into the jungle as a result of the extension of roads might be the biggest risk for the general welfare of wild animals, Weijand says.  

As the week passed, it was into these very same forests that other volunteers and I would go to for solitude and to explore their rich ecosystems. I quickly learned that after a few minutes of silently standing still your surroundings would slowly come to life. What looked like branches were actually sometimes stick insects. Bright orange Cock-of-the-rock and yellow-tailed pendulum birds would fly overhead. Camouflaged vine snakes and pit vipers slithered up trees.   Wild tamarin troops came to see what you were up to.   On rainy days, meter-long giant earthworms would surface at your feet.  At night, the group of volunteers from Holland, France, Germany, Canada, the US, Australia and Spain would congregate by a fire under the bright equatorial night sky to have a drink and share stories of things they had seen during the day and the projects they had been working on.

2016 promises to be a busy year for the shelter. Aside from renovating the woolly monkey cages, which we had already started, the organization plans to increase the amount of researchers visiting the centre to conduct behavior studies and land investigations. In regards to their long-term programs, the centre hopes to make great headway towards the soft-release of their adult woolly monkeys and possibly their red howler monkeys as well.

Volunteers and coordinators after a long day of renovating the woolly monkey enclosures.

One afternoon a couple of days before my departure, we were sitting around the kitchen when sounds of woolly monkeys fighting suddenly echoed from all around us. Led by coordinator Jeni Taylor, a group of us ran towards the woolly cages, but as we reached a crossroads in the paths, we stopped as it became clear the noises were coming from another direction. Off in the distance, the silhouettes of a dozen wild woolly monkeys could be seen jumping across an opening in the canopy on the crest of a neighbouring mountain. We quietly stood there for a long while appreciating these rarely seen wild monkeys in their natural habitats while the sun set on the horizon – the perfect conclusion to my Amazonian adventure.

The stories of the animals at Merazonia, like Tiny, Malala, Nina and Pangui evoke the wide range of positive and negative emotions you could expect to feel working in a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre. However, I also feel that they serve as metaphors for the rainforest itself. On the one hand it is a fragile, majestic, threatened ecological paradise in need of protection, yet simultaneously a strong, resilient, impenetrable place capable of holding its own.

But nevertheless, as I looked at the mountains and trees grow smaller and smaller from the window of my plane as I departed from Quito reflecting on the amazing forests I had just visited, I just couldn’t help but have the usual dreaded questions pop into my head again.

Author's update:  This article is dedicated to woolly monkey Nina who, in the time between this article was written and published, unexpectedly passed away from heart problems.


Justin Taus