Searching for the largest monkey of South America in Brazil

Although the heat of the sun and the high humidity was exhausting, my wish to see the largest primate of South America – the muriquis – in their natural environment was too big on my search through the Atlantic Forest in Brazil and moved me on and on and on. With success? You will find that out in this article.

Maybe you ask yourself – what are muriquis?

I encountered this question regularly when I started to talk about my travel plans.

While primates like gorillas, chimpanzees or orang-utans are very common and well known, most people have never heard about muriquis. I admit. In the past it was for me the same. However, when I saw a German children’s television series (German: “Felix und die wilden Tiere“ – English: “Felix and the wild animals“) – which is interesting for adults as well! – the muriquis got my full attention for the first time. This one episode of the muriqui (German: “Muriqui – die friedlichsten Affen der Welt” – English: “Muriqui – the most peaceful monkey in the world”) got me excited about this primate species.

There are two species of muriquis. One one side there is the Northern muriqui (Brachyteles hypoxanthus) and on the other side the Southern muriqui (Brachyteles arachnoides). According to the IUCN both species are endangered. However, while the Southern muriqui is listed as “endangered”, the Northern muriqui belongs even to the category “critically endangered”.

Given the plight of the muriquis, when I was planning my journey I asked myself several times: should I visit a place where an animal lives that is endangered? Or should I avoid these places completely?

I asked myself this question several times during my journey. As I like to think analytically, for me there is no clear “yes-no-answer”. For me the world is not black and white. In the end I think the advantages can exceed when it is done “right”. On my journey through the South of Brazil I had the chance to get to know projects where people with all their forces do their best to conserve the environment, but also provide opportunities for visitors to meet Brazilian fauna.

The RPPN-Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve

On our search for the largest monkey South America’s me and Ricardo, who joined me on my journey, travelled from Ouro Preto to Caratinga (as well in the state Minas Gerais). Because from Caratinga it is easy to reach the Estação Biológica de Caratinga (Biological Station) in the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve. The natural reserve belongs to the Atlantic Forsest – one of the most biodiverse forests in the world. Almost 25 monkey species live in the Atlantic forest. However, about 60% of them are endangered.

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Entrance to the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve

In the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve lives the Northern muriqui. This species – as I mentioned – is critically endangered. If you consider that only less than 10% of the original Atlantic Forest is left, we can speak of luck that the muriquis are not gone from this planet. The destruction of forests put fauna and flora under pressure including the muriquis.

There are approximately fewer than 900 individuals of the Northern muriquis left. The largest population lives according to the IUCN in the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve.

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At the entrance to the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve
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Forest at the entrance to the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve

The Natural Reserve was founded – as the name suggests – by Feliciano Miguel Abdala. When he bought the Fazenda Montes Carlos in 1944 he had to promise to protect the natural reserve. Of course, he never would have intended the opposite. However, at that time he encountered much criticism. At that time it was common to clear forests for agriculture.

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Surrounding of the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve

Most people did not understand him. Thus, he had to defend his forests against intruders like hunters or loggers. Only in the 60s Feliciano Miguel Abdala received more and more support and more people understood him why it is important to pretect his forests in the natural reserve. During these years national and international researchers became aware of his rich forests in the natural reserve. Consequently, in the 70s scientists started research projects including one about the Northern muriqui. At the beginning, Feliciano Miguel Abdala was alone, but in the course of his life more and more people joined him to protect his forests in the natural reserve.

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Forest in the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve

In 2000 Feliciano Miguel Abdala died with 92 years.

His natural reserve is known today as the RPPN-Feliciano Miguel Abdala (RPPN = Reserva Particular do Patrimônio Natural) Private Natural Heritage Reserve. As Feliciano Miguel Abdala welcomed researchers and conservationists, he donated an „Estação Biológica“ (Biological Station) in order to facilitate studies as field work is physically very demanding.

The natural reserve is characterized by a gently rolling landscape. A path of about five kilometers leads through the natural reserve. Sometimes through more or less open landscapes…

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Path through the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve

… and sometimes through a forest.

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Path through the forest in the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve

Just in front of one piece of forest I felt sure: muriquis – the largest monkeys – had been here.

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Entrance to a forest in the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve

I was very hopeful, and thus, we proceeded to the last part of the path until we reached an observation tower. The view was very beautiful, but…

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On the observation tower in the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve

… where are the muriquis?

When I was on the observation tower looking around, I was not hopeful anymore to spot the muriquis. They could be just everywhere.

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Forest in the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve

Wildlife in the RPPN-Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve

Although I was searching for the largest primates in South America, there is much more to see in the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve. When we entered the natural reserve numerous butterflies crossed our path. We even saw the world’s largest fly species. And that is the Gauromydas heros. Thanks to the online community iNaturalist I found out about this. Furthermore, I learned that it is not very common to observe this fly species.

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The world’s largest fly: Gauromydas heros

We saw many, many butterflies, however, I could not identify any of them so far.

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Butterfly in the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve
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Butterfly in the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve
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Butterfly in the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve
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Butterfly in the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve

Of course I also saw many birds in the natural reserve.

Saffron finch (Sicalis flaveola)

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Saffron finch (Sicalis flaveola)

Smooth-billed ani (Crotophaga ani)

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Smooth-billed ani (Crotophaga ani)

Rufous hornero (Furnarius rufus)

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Rufous hornero (Furnarius rufus)

Short-crested flycatcher (Myiarchus ferox)

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Short-crested flycatcher (Myiarchus ferox)

Cattle tyrant (Machetornis rixosa)

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Cattle tyrant (Machetornis rixosa)

Yellow-browed tyrant (Satrapa icterophrys)

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Yellow-browed tyrant (Satrapa icterophrys)

Sepia-capped flycatcher (Leptopogon amaurocephalus)

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Sepai-capped flycatcher (Leptopogon amaurocephalus)

Blue-black grassquit (Volatinia jacarina)

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Blue-black grassquit (Volatinia jacarina)
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Blue-black grassquit (Volatinia jacarina)

There are even more monkey species that live in the forests of the natural reserve. For example Buffy-headed marmosets (Callithrix flaviceps) or Brown howler monkeys (Alouatta fusca clamitans). However, the yellow fever was responsible for a massive decline of brown howler monkey populations in the natural reserve. Brown howler monkeys are not endangered, but apparently the number of individuals is continuously decreasing. The Buffy-headed marmosets are already endangered according to the IUCN. In the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve live also tufted capuchins (Cebus apella) and black capuchins (Sapajus nigritus). While tufted capuchins are endangered according to the IUCN, black capuchins are potentially endangered.

Apropos black capuchins. On our second day at the natural reserve when we just were about to leave the natural reserve we met a group of these medium-sized monkey species. High up in the trees a group of black capuchins made some noise by rustling the leaves in the trees. Unfortunately, it was already late and we only had a few minutes. Furthermore, the sun was slowly vanishing and it was starting to rain. We spent about 15 minutes with the black capuchins and finally left the natural reserve again. As there was only little light in the forest it was very difficult to get some nice photos. Nevertheless, I was happy to have seen these black capuchins.

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Black capuchin (Sapajus nigritus)
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Black capuchin (Sapajus nigritus)

And the Northern muriquis?

The largest monkey of South America – A needle in a haystack

We stayed three nights in Caratinga. Thus, we had two full days to search for the muriquis in the forests of the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve. Actually, I was looking for a guide before our arrival. Unfortunately two days before our arrival in Caratinga, they told us that they could not find a guide for us. They have one guide. However, he had to recover from a surgery. So we were without a guide, but were allowed to visit the natural reserve on our own. There was no entrance fee, however, I would have preferred to pay for a guide who knows where to find the muriquis.

Apparently, sometimes it is possible to see the muriquis along the path through the natural reserve, but on these two days when we were at the natural reserve, we did not see any muriquis. I have to admit. I was disappointed and it was frustrating although the natural reserve is a treasure on earth. The journey to Caratinga was very long and I was looking forward to see the muriquis. But this is wildlife watching! I would have loved to show you here some photographs of the Northern muriquis.

The story of the muriqui actually als makes me a little bit sad. The natural reserve is so beautiful, but for many people probably too remote. Consequently, apparently there are only few visitors. Maybe this is better for the muriquis? Maybe. But nevertheless, I wish that the muriquis get more attention. Attention they need to make people aware of their plight. Unfortunately we neither met people on the Biological Station to talk nor could we find information about the natural reserve. Thus, for me many questions remain open.

However, in the course of our journey through Brazil I found another possibility to see muriquis. In this case not the Northern, but the Southern muriqui. And this was in the state São Paulo with the Associação Pró-Muriqui.

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Southern muriqui (Brachyteles arachnoides)

I do not have any exact date for the next journey to Brazil, but there is one thing I know, I want to visit this beautiful place again. There are also some things I would plan differently. For example, I would stay in Ipanema (and not in Caratinga), as Ipanema is closer to the entrance of the natural reserve. Furthermore, I would not use public transportation to the natural reserve again, but rent a car as you have to adapt to the timetable of the bus, of course. Furthermore, on the second day the bus driver forgot to stop at the natural reserve. Thus, we had to take a taxi from Ipanema to the natural reserve. However, this taxi brought us even back to Caratinga as we asked him. It was of course more expensive, but worth to give our search another try. Instead of 10 Euros for the bus, we payed about 40 Euro for the taxi.

Practical information

Arrival to Caratinga

By plane

The next international airport ist he Aeroporto Confins in Belo Horizonte. Responsible for only national flights is the Aeroporto Pampulha. As we came from Ouro Preto, we took the bus to Caratinga.

By bus

There is a bus by Pássaro Verde from Ouro Preto early in the morning to Caratinga. We bought the ticket at the ticket desk. However, it is possible to buy the tickets as well on the website of Clickbus or Brasil by Bus. As the bus left early in the morning, the desk was just about to open when we wanted to buy the ticket. Fortunatley, the bus was waiting for us. Maybe in this case it would have been better to buy the ticket online before. But it worked out in the end anyway. There are two more buses from Pássaro Verde. One bus in the morning and one in the evening from Belo Horizonte to Ipanema. You can also arrive from Vitória in Caratinga with São Geraldo Gontijo as there is one bus in the late evening. Our journey from Ouro Preto to Caratinga took about 6 hours and costed about 85R$. From Belo Horizonte to Ipanema you need about 7 to 8 hours and you pay about 130R$. If you take the bus from Vitória to Caratinga you need about 5 hours and pay about 70R$.

It is also important to mention here that it is not possible to buy every bus ticket in the internet as sometimes there are small changes in the timetable of the bus companies. For example we could not buy online our bus ticket from Caratinga to Vitória. If it would have been possible, we might have missed our bus. Fortunately, these kind of tickets are not available on Clickbus.

Accomodation

In Caratinga we stayed at the Quality Leste Hotel. The hotel is central at the Av Presidente Tancredo Neves, 357, Caratinga, CEP 35300-102. You only need about 15 minutes to the bus station and about 5 minutes (or less) to the center of the town. At the hotel I especially liked the friendly staff. We even could talk to them about the muriquis. One of the receptionists was even a biology teacher and he had visited the muriquis in the natural reserve already several times (there are muriquis!). The breakfast was delicious and the rooms were very clean. On my next visit I will probably stay in Ipanema. If I would stay in Caratinga again, I would decide for the Quality Leste Hotel again.

Moving around

There is a bus stop opposite of the Quality Leste Hotel where a bus from Rio Doce runs between Caratinga and Ipanema. This bus stops as well at the Feliciano Miguel Abdala Natural Reserve. From Caratinga you pay about 25R$ and from Ipanema about 15R$ to get to the natural reserve. From Caratinga you need about two hours by bus and from Ipanema about one hour to the natural reserve.

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