Forging a decade of primate conservation efforts in Colombia: A first-hand account

Since 2010, the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) has supported two projects focused on the conservation of Critically Endangered brown spider monkeys in Colombia, led by Dr. Gabriela de Luna. Leala Rosen, CLP Program Officer at the Wildlife Conservation Society, recently visited the team at the project site to learn first-hand how CLP support has fostered their long-running conservation efforts.

CLP/WCS Program Officer, Leala Rosen (centre) with CLP alumni Gabriela de Luna (left) and Laura Gomez (right) in Colombia © Leala Rosen

In Colombia, Gabriela de Luna team’s project site is in the middle Magdalena River valley within the Chocó-Magdalena-Tumbes Biodiversity Hotspot- an area spanning 1,500 square km of hyper-diverse rainforests and wetlands punctuated by oil palm plantations, cattle-grazing pastureland, and forest fragments.

In this fragmented landscape, brown spider monkeys cling on to life. They are one the most endangered primates in the world, with their numbers dwindling due to hunting and habitat loss – a trend aggravated by the absence of protected areas in the region.

Brown spider monkeys are Critically Endangered and are the target species of projects in Colombia supported by CLP in 2010 and 2022 © Andres Link

In a bid to foster primate research and conservation here, in 2010, two Colombian researchers, Gabriela de Luna and Andres Link, founded the NGO Fundación “Proyecto Primates” and set up the only long-term research project on the brown spider monkey in Colombia.

CLP support was vital in getting this project off the ground. Having gained a CLP Future Conservationist Award in 2010, including a $15,000 project grant, the team’s research uncovered the key role brown spider monkeys play in seed dispersal and habitat restoration. They also established relationships with local communities and landowners to generate support for their conservation plans, including forest restoration activities and an environmental education program.

A youth workshop run by Proyecto Primates as part of their environmental education activities © Leala Rosen

In 2022, the team received a CLP Follow-Up Award, including a $25,000 project grant, to help them scale up their efforts. During her visit, Leala was delighted to witness how CLP has enabled the team to continue to drive conservation impact over such a long period of time.

“This CLP Follow-Up Award highlights the scalability of CLP project work, particularly in helping to foster long-standing ties with the local community to help enact long-term, tangible positive change – which is a key part of CLP’s overall mission,” she said.

By working with local partners, and with continued CLP support, the team has been able to establish multiple native tree nurseries for brown spider monkeys, planted over 30,000 trees and reconnected over 1,000 hectares of native forest fragments. This concerted effort has played a crucial role in supporting the conservation of the brown spider monkey by enhancing habitat availability and connectivity.

Visiting a native plant nursery set up by the project team and local partners © Gabriela de Luna

Their ongoing work with the same communities living near the forest has focused on an environmental education program to promote behaviors that improve the conservation of the biodiversity in the region.

A workshop run by Proyecto Primates as part of International Women’s Day, where participants shared the conservation work they are most proud of © Leala Rosen

By engaging local stakeholders, the team has also secured funds to buy two private reserves and supported two large farms to become private natural reserves to create high-quality connected habitats for the brown spider monkey and promote sustainable development projects.. And, if that wasn’t enough, they helped create the National Action Plan for the Conservation of the Brown Spider Monkey in Colombia to establish protection for the species.

The team also continues to run the Festival del Choibo (spider monkey festival) as part of their community outreach activities; an event they started during their first CLP Team Award and that has generated a surge in local community support for brown spider monkey conservation.

Local children celebrating the 4th brown spider monkey festival in Colombia © Andres Link

“It’s been a privilege to hear first-hand how the team has scaled up their efforts in the past 10-12 years, and I’ve really enjoyed learning about what they’ve achieved and the exciting plans they have for the future,” said Leala.

By the end of their CLP project, the team anticipates developing conservation agreements with 10 landholders to create and manage natural private reserves in the region. Additionally, they plan to facilitate conservation education workshops in five communities neighboring their project site, to generate greater awareness about the importance of primates and their conservation.

Below Leala shares excerpts from the journal she wrote during her project visit.

Day 1: Bocas del Cararare: Local Communities’ Involvement in Environmental Conservation Initatives

First, I flew to Barrancabermeja with Gaby and we drove to Bocas del Carare, approximately 2 hours away. In Bocas, I met several community members, including members of the local women’s association, NGO workers, students, hotel owners (who donate hotel rooms to accommodate short-term volunteers with Proyecto Primates). Many of Proyecto Primates’ workshops are held at the women association’s center, including the youth workshop, which focuses on active listening, communication skills, and getting students inspired to support the Festival del Choibo preparations. In the afternoon, community members worked on a mural at the women’s center, which highlights the biodiversity of the middle Magdalena region.

After visiting the research stations, we returned to Bocas, and Gaby and Laura Gomez (another CLP project team member) facilitated a workshop for International Women’s Day. Participants shared the conservation work they are proud of being involved in, and wrote poems to inspire the next generation of female-identifying youth to get involved in conservation within their local communities.

CLP alumni Gaby (centre) and Laura (front) running the youth workshop © Leala Rosen

Day two: San Juan Research Station, Forest Research Station Visit

From Bocas del Cararare, we traveled by boat to visit Proyecto Primates’ forest and San Juan research stations. Along the way, we saw several herons, kingfishers, and other bird species, as well as howler monkeys. On the way to the San Juan research station our boat got stuck in reeds. The team tells me this is a common occurrence; they prefer to let the reeds grow wild because they deter hunters and fishermen from visiting the area around the San Juan research station.

Travelling by boat to the San Juan research station © Leala Rosen

Throughout the day, we saw several small groups of howler monkeys, as well as – amazingly – a brown spider monkey! In the evening, we returned to the forest research station and spoke to the student researchers there, had dinner, and stayed the night. We also visited one of the first wildlife corridors established by Proyecto Primates, which can be found among some of the fragmented forest area near the research station. There, we saw another three brown spider monkeys; Gaby tells me there are approximately 60 in the area. We also visited a plant nursery that cultivates native trees for use in the wildlife corridors and are good for erosion control and nitrogen fixation, or used as food or habitats for the primate population in the area.

Spotting spider monkeys at the project’s oldest wildlife corridor © Leala Rosen

Day 3: Visit to the first successful conservation agreement and wildlife corridors, Lucitania Ranch

Finally, Laura and I travelled to Lucitania, an area comprised of 3,600 hectares of private ranch land. Laura explains that Proyecto Primates developed its first conservation agreement with the owners of this land 7-8 years ago, and the team plans to replicate their success with several other landowners in the coming years. A Proyecto Primates employee cultivates seedlings and manages the native tree nursery here, as well as leads tree plantings, maintains the wildlife corridors, and coordinates with cattle herders to ensure they do not eat the trees in the wildlife corridors. The corridors themselves are 5-15 meters wide, and some of them serve as riparian buffers alongside a small river. The ones we visited were 2 km long, but there are plans to extend those as well as develop additional wildlife corridors in the area. Proyecto Primates brings volunteers and student groups to support tree plantings for the wildlife corridors; the first corridor was established 6-7 years ago.

A wildlife corridor in Lucitania set up and maintained by Proyecto Primates © Leala Rosen

Feeling inspired?

Since 1985, CLP has directed funding, training and other support to approximately 3,100 early-career conservationists around the world who are leading vital action on the ground to save threatened species. Through our annual Team Awards, we direct this support to priority projects, which generate conservation impact at the grassroots level and beyond.

To learn more:

Think ahead! How to make small grants last longer

By Maaike Manten (BirdLife International) and Stuart Paterson (The Rufford Foundation)

With limited time and money available to protect biodiversity, it is imperative that each and every conservation project is as sustainable as possible. However, for small grant projects (typically lasting 1-2 years, with budgets of no more than USD $75,000), this is not easy.

Projects are by definition time-bound, with a start date and an end date, and they have a fixed budget, which is usually finished by the time the project ends. How can we make sure that the results and impacts of our activities will continue beyond the timeline of the project?

Gorilla in Rwanda – where CLP, Rufford Foundation, BirdLife International and CoEB (University of Rwanda) delivered a collaborative workshop at ICCB 2023. Photo by Jeremy Stewardson on Unsplash.

In 2021, the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) organised a workshop during the online International Conference on Conservation Biology (ICCB 2021) to discuss this conundrum. Based on a survey among 12 small grant donors, CLP organised an interactive discussion with 30 conservation practitioners from all over the world to discuss challenges and solutions. The workshop culminated in a list of success factors and recommendations, which was shared with all donors and workshop participants after the ICCB event.

For more information, read the ICCB 2021 sustainability session report

Not wanting this initial piece of work go to waste (which would have scored low on the sustainability scale!) CLP, together with the Rufford Foundation, BirdLife International and the Center of Excellence in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management (CoEB, University of Rwanda), delivered a short training course at this year’s ICCB in Kigali, Rwanda, to support young conservationists to make their work more sustainable, and thus to make their conservation efforts more effective.

For more information, read the ICCB 2023 sustainability training report

Project design

One of the main conclusions of the 2021 exercise was that long-term sustainability needs to be built into a project’s design. Good project design starts with a comprehensive problem analysis, to ensure that we will address the (root) causes of the issue that we hope to fix. It is critical to be aware of the fact that we cannot do this alone – we need our stakeholders (everybody with an interest in the issue, anybody who will be affected by our project, and anybody who has the ability to influence our success) to help define the real problems and the appropriate solutions. After all: if we are not doing the right thing in the right place, with the right people and in the right way, we can be sure that our project will not be sustainable!

“Project sustainability needs to be built into our project design, at all scales. We must think about what we need to do now to make sure our project will move forward and continue to have impact in the long-term.” – Henry Rees, co-facilitator of the 2023 workshop (former CLP Programme Officer at Fauna & Flora)

Ecological, financial and institutional sustainability

During the workshop in 2023, we specifically explored how to include ecological, financial and institutional sustainability in project design.

We are all striving to conserve nature, but we still need to think carefully about how our actions may have unintended consequences on the environment. For example, how much waste do projects produce? Do we weigh up, avoid/justify and off-set travel when required? Can offices source eco-friendly or locally produced materials? All of these (and many more) environmental factors need to be considered and need to be ‘mainstreamed’ into the project’s activities.

Financial sustainability is the ultimate goal for many projects, and it also makes donors very happy. Donors want to know that the funds they invest will help unlock sustainable solutions. During the 2023 workshop, the trainees considered a range of options that can be built into a project’s design to keep the project funded beyond the initial project period. These options varied from income-generating activities and partnerships with government agencies to corporate engagement and seeking in-kind contributions. Some practitioners also engage with volunteers and citizen scientists who are able to maintain activities during pauses in project financing.

We also discussed who will be responsible for maintaining activities after a project ends, known as an “exit strategy”. Who could be the owner, or champion, of the projects’ results? Again, here we need to look to our stakeholders, and engage them from the very beginning. Throughout the project, we can ensure to provide them with the necessary skills, tools, structures, resources, and partnerships to make sure the project will persist.

“Donors such as Rufford and CLP offer continuation funding to encourage applicants to plan beyond short-term projects. Some grantees have grown their projects into sustainable programmes, achieving longer-term goals.” – Stuart Paterson, co-facilitator of both 2021 and 2023 workshops (CEO of the Rufford Foundation)

Programme and organisational sustainability

Another key recommendation of the 2021 event was that, in order to boost your project’s sustainability, it is good to have longer-term objectives on your radar. Even if you won’t be able to achieve these longer-term objectives within a specific small grant project, it helps to know that each project will contribute to a bigger impact. This is what we call ‘programmatic’ sustainability: to develop a longer-term, wider programme that can consist of multiple projects (e.g., research, community outreach, action, advocacy etc.), which together will deliver greater conservation impacts. This is also something that donors like to see and often ask for directly, even in proposals for smaller sums of funding. During the 2023 training, we discussed how to build such a programme, and how to develop a pipeline of funding opportunities.

Last but not least, we looked at organisational sustainability, and what we can do as conservationists to become better at our own work. All organisations, whether new or old, are established to deliver their mission. Resources, such as Capacity for Conservation, can help ensure that organisations plan to sustain themselves over the long-term. In particular, these resources can help you consider what capacity is needed, how to conduct communications, how to deliver projects and how to nurture potential partnerships.

“The sustainability of a project can be ensured through adaptability, engagement of key stakeholders and the continuous development of capacities and capabilities.” – Tharcisse Ukizintambara, co-facilitator of the 2023 workshop (Partnership and Capacity Development Coordinator, BirdLife International)

The future

As Niels Bohr, 1922 Nobel laureate in Physics, once said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” Everything changes, all the time. Still, we strongly believe that contemplating the longevity of our work is worth the investment. We need to know what we need to do to make our projects last; we need to plan our programmes with long-term goals in mind; and we need to build resilient teams within our organisations who can go all the way. The key take home message from the workshop therefore was: Think ahead.


Thanks to Henry Rees, Simon Mickleburgh, Leala Rosen, Tharcisse Ukizintambara and Ian Gordon  for co-facilitating the 2021 and 2023 workshops and for contributing to this blog.