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As my daily 3:30am alarm goes off and I use my head torch to stumble through camp (which is slowly fading after three weeks in the jungle), I savour my enormous bowl of cornflakes to sustain me for a day of chasing after monkeys.

I meet with my supervisor Criss and the local guide, Andres, to set off into the pitch black jungle on a monkey pursuit. As we follow the small path, avoiding vines, branches and roots, we hear the distance howls and roars of the Yucatan black howler monkey; but today we’re looking for spider monkeys (and lots of them). We’re heading for a large Ceiba tree, a holy tree to the Maya who planted the forest, which is used by our monkeys for sleeping, socialising and feeding. We find our study group just as it turns 5:00am, and the mornings survey begins!


Video of a Ceiba Tree by Joshua Sains


Every ten minutes we scan across the canopy to tally the behaviour of each monkey that we can see, thankfully all resting… but not for long. The sun is just beginning to rise and is shining through the dense foliage above, flickering through the leaves as we look up to see the monkeys are on the move. And the chase begins. Spider monkeys are known to have large home ranges, travelling up to several kilometres in the search of fruit. We follow the group wherever they may go, leading us through dense jungle and across unexcavated Mayan ruins which have been swallowed by the jungle, all whilst keeping track of recording our vital data. The monkeys take an occasional break, giving me the opportunity to finally catch my breath, but still trying to remember to dodge the falling monkey poo (not always successfully). Following the group for up to four hours every morning, we have the perfect chance to witness the monkey’s acrobatics, social gatherings and even the occasional squabble.


Video of Howler Monkeys by Joshua Sains

Trekking through the jungle everyday gives the opportunity to witness some of the most incredible wildlife, hummingbirds, tapir, tamandua and ants (lots and lots of ants!). Calakmul Biosphere reserve is a biodiversity eutopia, but its under threat. Facing challenges from climate change, fragmentation and human interference, the populations of many species are on the decline. This is what brought me to conduct my dissertation in Calakmul with Operation Wallacea, as I want to be a small part in helping protect this incredible landscape. My experience doesn’t just stop with the monkeys, I get the chance to help mist net for bird and bats, track large mammals, search along transect for herpetofauna, catch and ID butterflied, and sort through camera traps of jaguars.

















Jumping forward to today, I’m sat in the library at the University of Nottingham writing my dissertation and thinking back to incredible people I met. Operation Wallacea has supported me every step of the way. Once you choose a project, they’ll put you in touch with the project supervisor who’ll help form the project, write the proposal and then work with you whilst you gather your data. But the help doesn’t just stop there, when I returned to the UK, they’ve provided GIS and R workshops, and always on hand when R decides it doesn’t want to work. They’re such a helpful team, who’ll even pick you up when you fall over chasing after monkeys!



As I begin look towards post-graduate study, I feel more prepared having spent my summer with an incredible team of scientists in one of the most beautiful forests in the world. Operation Wallacea are doing incredible conservation work, if you have the chance to join them, you won’t regret it.



Photos and videos by Joshua Sains. Cover photo by Malachi Isome.

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