The four monkeys can’t wait to open the cages. They jump around excitedly between the bars and curiously cranks their heads. The primates have just completed an hour-long drive through Rio de Janeiro in the back of a pickup truck. Now their cages are on the edge of the Tijuca National Park.
When officials from Rio’s environmental patrol open the doors, the monkeys are in the forest in one leap, climbing trees and screeching. The four are black capuchin monkeys, an endangered species that attracts attention with their funny, upturned hair. They migrate in groups of up to 20 animals through the coastal forests of southeastern Brazil and feed on fruits, small vertebrates and insects. They spend almost their entire life in trees – and accidents happen in the process.
Because as nimble as the monkeys are, they sometimes crash and injure themselves. You miscalculate when jumping or choose a rotten branch. They can suffer deep bite wounds in confrontations with rivals. In the wild, most of these damaged animals have little chance of survival and die in agony.
Like Noah’s Ark
Few are lucky enough to be found. You will then be taken to Jefferson Pires in Rio. He is a veterinarian specializing in wildlife, and a newspaper once called him the “Jungle Doctor of Rio”.
In fact, the 40-year-old already had everything on the operating table: from a five-gram hummingbird to a 230-pound turtle. The monkeys that were released into the forest that morning were also in his care. “They had different fractures,” says Pires. “A broken jaw, a cracked back. Nature can be cruel.”
Pires, a strong guy with a full beard and bald head, is the head of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (CRAS) on the outskirts of Rio. When you enter the clinic you have to think of Noah’s Ark, there are so many animals. In an aviary sit hawks, vultures and a rare white-tailed buzzard. You can watch owls, iguanas, monkeys, sloths, anteaters and a capybara from dozens of other cages. A frightened fox is also crouching in a shed. Pires had to amputate one of his paws. “Probably a car accident,” he says.
On average, nine injured animals are brought to Pires every day, mostly by Rio’s environmental patrol. Its 15 officers are on duty around the clock and can be alerted by citizens who have found wild animals in need. Only the evening before did they bring in a two-meter-long anaconda with burns.
It may seem baffling, but all of these animals are city dwellers. Like no other metropolis in the world, Rio is in the wilderness and the wilderness is in Rio. It can happen here that in the morning a couple of clawed monkeys drop by on the balcony, at lunchtime a toucan sits croaking in the tree opposite and in the evening two possums argue over cat food.
This biodiversity is made possible by a unique topography that offers a niche for numerous species: wooded mountain ranges, spectacular rock formations, extensive bodies of water. With the Tijuca National Park rising to 1,021 meters and the Pedra Branca Conservation Area, Rio has the largest urban jungle in the world, and a puma was recently spotted here.
All of this is all the more amazing because there was no forest in Rio in the 19th century. It had been cleared for coffee plantations. When the deforestation led to drought, Emperor Dom Pedro II decided to reforest in 1862. It was the first major forestation project in the world. It continues to this day, for example when species that have disappeared, such as macaws or tortoises, are reintroduced.
As positive as that sounds, Rio’s wilderness is in danger. The city with its twelve million inhabitants is expanding inexorably, growing uncontrollably and often illegally. It presses ever closer to the banks of the lagoons, it expands ever deeper into the forest. Houses and apartment blocks are being built, often by mafias. New Shanty towns arise, trees are felled, surfaces paved, wetlands dried up, power lines tensioned.
At the same time, pollution increases. More and more garbage ends up in the environment, wastewater flows untreated into rivers and lagoons, and some canals are clogged with plastic waste. Rio’s Guanabara Bay alone has to cope with 90 tons of garbage that is washed into it every day. As a result, the animal habitat is not only shrinking dramatically, it is also becoming dirtier, more toxic and more dangerous. In his clinic, Jefferson Pires takes care of the animals that get caught up in this attack by humans on their environment.
Falcon with gunshot wound
“A third of the animals that come do not survive,” he says. “Another third is so severely impaired that it can only survive in an animal hospice. We will restore a third. I think that’s a good rate considering that thousands of animals are dying unnoticed in the wild.”
Pires takes care of monkeys who are electrocuted on poorly insulated lines; about capybaras being rammed by boats; caimans whose stomachs are full of plastic; about birds that fly on the strings of paper kites. There are small mammals like porcupines that have been attacked by dogs. There was also a sloth with Pires that had managed to break its nose. “They usually have arm and leg fractures when they fall from a tree,” says Pires.
Pires ?? the most spectacular case so far was a Crested caracara, which is also called Geierfalke in German. He had a bullet in his heart that was still beating. Pires operated it out – and the bird survived. Perhaps his most unusual patients were a seahorse with inflammation and a tarantula with a skin infection.
However much Pires tries, many animals can no longer be saved. In the afternoon, the environmental patrol brings a completely disheveled marmoset in a cardboard box. Pires pulls on his legs and concludes from the lack of reaction that his spine must be broken. He asks a student to give the animal an injection of morphine. If his diagnosis is confirmed after an X-ray, he has to put the monkey to sleep.
That wouldn’t be too tragic for nature, says Pires. This species of marmosets immigrated from the northern state of Bahia and displaces the golden lion tamarins, which are threatened with extinction. They also looted bird nests. “Each of these monkeys eats hundreds of bird eggs and kills young birds,” says Pires. “But people think the monkeys are cute. They romanticize nature.”
Pires is now taking the giant boa out of its plastic box, gripping its head so that it doesn’t bite, because in addition to its enormous strength, it also has sharp teeth. He lays the two-meter-long snake on the operating table. It is badly burned, its raw flesh is visible and it is bleeding. Pires can only guess what happened to her, possibly a bush fire.
Pires listens for the snake’s heart with a stethoscope and gives it an anesthetic injection. When she is limp, she is carried out into the yard and washed. Then Pires creams them with an ointment and bandages them. Pires hopes the snake’s wounds will heal and its skin will grow back.
Then it goes to the X-ray department. Pires wants a turtle, a hawk, and twoTejus X-ray, a large species of lizard. On the recordings he sees that the turtle has four eggs in its womb but cannot lay it because its vagina is inflamed. The hawk has wing fractures and an air rifle bullet in its body. The two lizards have fractured legs.
Pires will try to save them all. “What I like about my job is that I can help,” he says. “I earn less than a veterinarian who looks after cows and pigs, but my work for these critters makes me happy.”