- Peruvian biologist and anthropologist Fanny Cornejo has won the Emerging Conservationist Award from the Indianapolis Prize, the most prestigious wildlife conservation award in the world.
- She was chosen for her more than 15 years of work in conservation and research on the yellow-tailed woolly monkey (Lagothrix flavicauda), a primate endemic to Peru that is in critical danger of extinction.
- In an interview with Mongabay Latam, the scientist says her dream is “to ensure that this species does not become extinct and that its forests are maintained.”
The first encounter between the biologist and the primates was like a movie scene. The monkeys moved through the thick fog covering the montane forest (or cloud forest), where she could barely make out their mysterious shadows. It was February 2007, in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon, and Fanny Cornejo was working during an expedition. “I saw them as if in black and white,” she said. “From the silhouette and the place where they were, I knew they were yellow-tailed woolly monkeys.”
“The first time I saw the monkeys was inside a cloud. Although they were about 5-7 [16.4-23 feet] meters above me, the cloud prevented me from seeing them clearly,” Cornejo recalled. After several minutes, she was able to make out their faces. Little by little, their tails, the tuft of yellow pubic hair and the white hairs on their snouts became clear. “I remember that moment very clearly,” she said.
Sixteen years later, Cornejo has been recognized with the Emerging Conservationist Award from the Indianapolis Prize, the world’s most prestigious award for wildlife conservation. The Peruvian biologist and anthropologist earned this recognition for her years of conservation efforts and research on the yellow-tailed woolly monkey (Lagothrix flavicauda), a critically endangered species that lives only in the montane forests of Peru, a habitat that has been 80% destroyed by human activities. The award comes with a prize of $50,000, funds Cornejo says she will use to continue her projects to save this and other wild species.
Cornejo is also the director of Yunkawasi, a civil society group she founded with her mother, the engineer Fanny Fernández, the same year she met and became fascinated by these primates. Since then, she has been dedicated to the conservation of endangered species through sustainable socioeconomic development, participatory research and environmental communication and education, in collaboration with more than 20 Amazonian and Andean communities.
For the scientist, the award is also a recognition of the work that Yunkawasi has been doing for more than 15 years. “It tells us we have been doing something right; that the projects are having results that are already visible,” she said in an interview with Mongabay Latam.
Mongabay: What does this award mean to you, and how will it support conservation of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey?
Fanny Cornejo: First of all, this award fills me with great satisfaction and pride because it represents a recognition of the work that Yunkawasi has been doing for the last 16 years. On the other hand, it also gives us a media platform to address a topic that is often challenging. The yellow-tailed woolly monkey and nature conservation aren’t such common topics. I think it’s an unexpected moment but also a very positive one for the yellow-tailed wooly monkey because we’re getting it into the conversation.
Mongabay: What conservation and research actions are you considering after receiving this award? Has it been a boon to the work you’re doing?
Fanny Cornejo: Exactly. The idea of this award is to help us not necessarily with new things but, on the one hand, to continue the things we already do and, on the other hand, to replicate them in other spaces. There are many communities and associations that are seeking us out, that would like to work with us, [but] due to limited resources, we cannot work with all of them.
Thanks to this award, we now have a seed fund — since it comes with a financial contribution — that helps us to channel the growing popular interest in the yellow-tailed woolly monkey through a campaign for action launched around Earth Day called Achórate por el mono choro de cola amarilla (“Stand up for the yellow-tailed woolly monkey”). Achórate means “do something, defend it, get to know it, contribute.”
The idea behind the campaign is that people can learn more about the species and the communities that are working for it, changing their forms of production and their economies so that their products bear the “Conservation Ally” designation given by the Environment Ministry. That way, the population understands the enormous power we have as consumers to be able to choose products like these. It also invites citizens to contribute, to donate their time or money to allow these projects to continue and grow more and more.
Mongabay: The “Achórate” campaign seeks to promote the yellow-tailed woolly monkey as an emblematic species for Peru. How important should it be for the country?
Fanny Cornejo: This monkey is a species found only in the tropical Andes of northern and central Peru. It is a symbol of the biodiversity hotspot of the tropical Andes, but this area is also one of the spaces facing the greatest number of threats.
On the other hand, the yellow-tailed woolly monkey is the largest animal found only in Peru. It’s pictured on one of our coins, it’s on stamps. It’s an animal that should be super iconic and should be for Peru what the panda bear is for China. If we Peruvians are going to commit to preventing one species from heading toward extinction, an emblematic animal like this should be at the top of the list.
If we can’t do something for the yellow-tailed woolly monkey, we should be very concerned about what we can do for the rest of our biodiversity. Peru is a megadiverse country, it holds records for everything: birds, amphibians, orchids and so much biodiversity. We have to start somewhere, and the yellow-tailed woolly monkey, being so iconic, is a good case where we can do something huge that can reach the whole population, not just those in the environmental sector.
Mongabay: Do you think this award not only helps to make visible the situation of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey, but also the work of women in science? Is it a difficult field for Peruvian women?
Fanny Cornejo: Of course. For Peruvian women scientists and conservationists, for example, there is a lot of fieldwork involved. There are many challenges they have to face. There’s a 2014 scientific article by Dr. Kathryn Clancy from the United States that has really chilling statistics. In that study, almost 700 women scientists from different fields were interviewed: conservation, anthropology, archaeology, primatology, among others, and it was found that almost 70% of them have suffered harassment during fieldwork and on different levels of intensity. These are numbers, not perceptions. This data makes us reflect on how vulnerable we can be when we do fieldwork, which is so necessary for both scientific and conservation work. And it’s not just in science.
We have a society that is not very friendly to women, both in decision-making spaces and on the ground, where there is a lot of work to be done to allow more women to stay in science. Imagine the amount of talent we’re losing simply because there are women who do not continue because of the obstacles they face.
Not everyone has the privilege I did of having very strong women by my side who, in those critical moments, have been able to give me the support I needed to stay in this field. There have definitely been times when I have wanted to throw in the towel because of the amount of things I’ve had to live through. It continues to be a challenge. We have to work to avoid this and not lose so much talent that can be so valuable for our country.
Mongabay: How did you begin to get interested in primates? What did you find fascinating about them that made you decide to choose this path in science?
Fanny Cornejo: Choosing to study primates was actually quite easy for me. I’m actually very surprised that there aren’t more people studying them. On the one hand, they’re very charismatic animals. The fact that their eyes face forward, they have such diverse social behavior, they are so intelligent, and they have behaviors that we can identify with — because we’re primates too — makes them very attractive.
On the other hand, in many cases, they are umbrella species: Because they have wide distributions and are medium or large animals, they can help us protect other species. For example, by protecting and learning about the yellow-tailed woolly monkey, we can also ensure that all the species that share its habitat and forests are acknowledged and protected.
There are many objective reasons why to study primates. But, on a personal level, I had the experience, when I was 16 or 17 years old, in my first year of university, of volunteering at Las Leyendas Park and being able to contribute to the care of a little red howler monkey [Alouatta seniculus] that had been a victim of wildlife trafficking. She had been rescued, her mother was probably killed so that this little monkey could be trafficked and I was honored to be part of the team that contributed to her survival.
For me, it was a very early exposure to wildlife trafficking and endangered species, and lack of knowledge about a species, because, at the time, there wasn’t much information. All this awakened in me the desire to do something. Later on, this motivated me to seek out Professor Rolando Aquino [primate expert and lecturer at the National University of San Marcos] and get involved in the world of primatology, so that I could do research and begin contributing. Finally, this led to the founding of Yunkawasi and all the work we’re doing.
Mongabay: How would you describe the yellow-tailed woolly monkey? What are its characteristics and its way of life?
Fanny Cornejo: The yellow-tailed woolly monkey can weigh up to 22 pounds. It has quite a rich social behavior: It lives in groups that are multi-male and multi-female, which can have 20-30 individuals, depending on the state of the forest where they are found. In some places, because of [forest loss], there are smaller groups. Usually, females perform parental care.
Both females and males have a tuft of yellow pubic hair: in males, it resembles like a pompom and, in females, a mustache. Female yellow-tailed woolly monkeys — as well as other females of large monkey groups, such as white-bellied spider monkeys and howler monkeys — have a hypertrophic clitoris, meaning that it’s clearly visible behind the vulva. Their clitoris can measure up to 1.5 or 2 inches and is bright pink in color, and it’s visible from the time they are tiny. It’s easy to spot female babies or juveniles.
The monkeys live in montane forests, also known as cloud forests, which live up to their name: These forests are similar to what it’s like in Lima in winter, with clouds all the time. They have a diverse diet, consisting primarily of fruits and leaves. They can also eat insects and small invertebrates and we have even caught them on camera feeding on a snake. They prefer fruits, of course, but fortunately, they can also eat leaves. I say “fortunately” because in many areas where the forests have already been disturbed, ripe fruits are scarce but leaves are abundant. The fact that they can eat leaves has allowed the species to continue to exist despite the enormous threats it faces and extensive habitat loss.
We have data indicating that the species has lost over 80% of its historical habitat. That’s a lot. That’s why it’s classified as critically endangered both by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and by Peruvian legislation under Supreme Decree 04-2014 issued by Peru’s Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation.
Mongabay: Do you know how many individuals are currently in Peru?
Fanny Cornejo: That’s one of the big questions we have. We should know how many there are, but that information isn’t available. Very recently (in 2018 and we published the research in 2019), we found a new population of yellow-tailed woolly monkeys in the department of Junín, which really makes us reflect on how little knowledge we have about our biodiversity. Imagine, if we have found a new population of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey, which is a large animal, one hour from Satipo, a large city, how many mysteries do our Amazon, our Andes and our forests in general still have to show us?
We have a great project with local communities, with whom we are doing participatory research. Through theoretical and practical workshops, we’re training local people who have formed four surveillance and monitoring committees for the yellow-tailed woolly monkey. So, at least in the short term, we’ll be able to know how many there are and the population trends in the Copallín Private Conservation Area, in the Hierba Buena Allpayacu Private Conservation Area, in the Palm Forest Private Conservation Area of the Taulia Molinopampa community and in the Cerro El Adobe Conservation Concession. All of these are in the department of Amazonas, where the inhabitants committed to the conservation of nature have formed these committees and, with our technical assistance, training and accompaniment, they’ll provide data on how many monkeys there are in these forests. Thanks to this project, we’ll have references for comparison and for observing trends over time; long-term information that we currently lack.
Mongabay: As the head of an organization like Yunkawasi, what have you learned?
Fanny Cornejo: Working in conservation is a big challenge. You’re working with nature and people, but a lot also depends on the funding that can be leveraged from different donors as well as the work of decision-makers at the political level and in the communities and what that allows us to do.
But nature conservation is so much more than that. It’s about public policy and sustainable economic development, additional challenges that usually aren’t mentioned in the stories sometimes told by the media. This is the most complex part. At Yunkawasi, we’re fortunate to have learned early on that we need an interdisciplinary team. We have economists, lawyers, anthropologists, communications specialists, biologists, agronomists, forestry engineers, agricultural technicians, etc. This allows us to integrate all these perspectives needed to make conservation inclusive, participatory, fair and effective — and to live up to Yunkawasi’s slogan: conservation for people. It has been a long learning process. It has been hard, in many situations, to work in this way and also to knock on doors that we weren’t used to knocking on.
Leading a team like Yunkawasi fills me with pride, but it’s also an exhausting job. It’s 20 hours a day, every day, raising awareness and talking to different actors — and especially now, in a time of climate emergency and biodiversity crisis, when we have to involve even more actors and we need even more resources.
Mongabay: At Yunkawasi, you’ve created alternative projects such as responsible coffee cultivation. What does this have to do with the conservation of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey?
Fanny Cornejo: We work with coffee, cocoa, sugar cane and honey. In the case of coffee, to give an example of the productive conservation work that we carry out, we form alliances with the regional government of Amazonas through what are called agrarian field schools to provide technical assistance to local associations and transform the traditional way of producing coffee into agroforestry systems. This means shade-grown coffee but with native trees to maintain the attributes of nature, of forests. This is a complex agroforestry system that can allow us to have coffee in the lower areas and a diversity of animals, birds and monkeys in the upper areas.
We’ve done studies on the diversity of migratory birds in the agroforestry systems we work with. In a study in cooperation with the Natural History Museum of San Marcos [University], we saw how [the birds] came to Peru from the northern hemisphere at the beginning of the migration season and how they left again, and the results were beautiful. The migratory birds arrived all skinny in the [northern] winter and they used the agroforestry systems here. In March, when they left, they were all fat and healthy. This shows us that these agroforestry systems are working and that people there are committed to conservation. They’re about to sign conservation agreements with the Cordillera de Colán National Sanctuary to obtain the seal of “Conservation Ally” given by the Ministry of the Environment.
The coffee, apart from being delicious, fair trade and organic, also guarantees consumers that it comes from nature conservation and contributes directly to the conservation of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey. It’s wonderful because consumers realize the enormous power they have. It’s a quality product, but now the big challenge is, who buys it? If nobody buys it, the whole thing will fall apart and the initiative won’t work. We’re at that critical moment now, where we need consumers to be able to appreciate and enjoy those attributes and for their decisions to allow these initiatives to be sustainable in the long term.
Mongabay: A few months ago, we talked about the description of Aquino’s titi monkey, a new species for science in which you also had very important participation. What is needed so that these valuable advances continue to occur in the country?
Fanny Cornejo: I’m particularly excited about the case of Aquino’s titi monkey (Cheracebus aquinoi) because it was the first monkey I saw on my first field expedition. But it also fills me with pride and satisfaction to be able to contribute to knowledge about the yellow-tailed woolly monkey and other species of the tropical Andes in the Amazon, such as the Ecuadorian capuchin (Cebus aequatorialis), about which very little is known. This is an animal that has lost 99% of its habitat and is only found in the tropical forests of the Pacific coast of Peru and Ecuador, in a very small area.
It’s clear that more investment is needed in the subject, as well as human resources. More people who can do this work are needed. Initially, at Yunkawasi, we organized primatology symposiums in Peru and then primatology congresses through the Peruvian Primatology Association, precisely to encourage more interest among young people so that they can contribute to and continue the study of these species.
We need more people, more hands, more minds, more money; we need more of everything so that this can get done. And not just for monkeys. As we know, Peru is a privileged country because of the enormous biodiversity that we possess, and that makes it possible for us to keep making these discoveries.
In all countries, we can still find species that are new to science, even monkeys, and it’s precisely because Peru has so much biodiversity that we are able to do this. But it should also cause us to reflect because we lose forest area every day. With each hectare of forest that is lost every day, imagine how many species could be lost without us even having known about them.
Mongabay: As a specialist and as someone who has dedicated so many years to primate research, how do you see the future of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey?
Fanny Cornejo: One of my greatest fears is that I could see the species become extinct during my lifetime. It’s something that has plagued me since I first encountered it firsthand in 2007. What I hope now is to be able to contribute, like many other institutions that have been working with this species over the years, to ensure that it doesn’t become extinct and that its forests are maintained, that we can have viable and healthy populations.
[I hope] that all the hard work that the whole Yunkawasi team does every day — we have more than a couple of dozen people in the field, working with the communities and training them in participatory monitoring of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey — will be reflected and that we’ll see the real results of all that effort, that we succeed in getting the yellow-tailed woolly monkey out of the critically endangered category.
A few decades from now, we want to tell a beautiful story of conservation, in which the yellow-tailed woolly monkey continues to exist. In the future, I’d like to know that Peruvians can still enjoy the forests hosting the species, that we have also managed to transform the economy, that we have products coming out of nature conservation and that people consume them on a daily basis because they value them. That’s what I dream of.
Banner image: Fanny Cornejo, inaugural winner of the Emerging Conservationist Award 2023, the new award of the prestigious Indianapolis Prize. Image by GersonFerrer/Yunkawasi.
Clancy, K. B., Nelson, R. G., Rutherford, J. N., & Hinde, K. (2014). Survey of academic Field experiences (SAFE): Trainees report harassment and assault. PLoS ONE, 9(7), e102172. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102172