Leandro Moreira: Between Mountains and Muriquis

Leandro Santana Moreira is a Brazilian primatologist working towards the preservation of the northern muriqui, an endangered monkey endemic to the Atlantic Rainforest.  

by Julia Migné

Brazilian primatologist Leandro
Leandro taking care of a muriqui. © Leandro Santana Moreira

The northern muriqui (Brachyteles hypoxanthus), also known as the woolly spider monkey, is a Brazilian species classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. Initially carrying out a research project on the population ecology and sociobiology of this threatened monkey, Leandro’s academic visit to the National Park of Serra do Brigadeiro, quickly became much more as he fell in love with the muriquis.

Once finished with his degree, Leandro launched a project to raise awareness among the human communities neighbouring the muriqui habitat about the presence and importance of the species that they share a space with. Since then, he has continued to protect the endangered monkey while also working on educational programs with the Research Center of Iracambi.

Leandro Santana Moreira talks to INKLINE about his love for the muriquis, his documentary and his future projects.

INKLINE: What triggered your passion for the animal kingdom and more specifically for monkeys?

Leandro Santana: My passion for the animal kingdom comes from my childhood. My dad used to take me camping near the waterfalls and parks in Minas Gerais and those were the years of adventure, very much in contact with the natural world. For sure, those moments triggered in me a big curiosity, interest and respect for forest animals and a few years later, when I had to decide what I wanted to study at university, I had absolutely no doubt: Biology!

I was in the middle of a research project on sloths when an opportunity to study a monkey species that lived in the remote mountains of Brazil appeared. The knowledge on the species was scarce and that was all I had hoped for. I finished my degree and moved to the Serra do Brigadeiro with the mission to study the northern muriqui.

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Leandro works in remote locations in the mountains. © Leandro Santana Moreira

I: Who inspired you to become a biologist?

L: Jacques Cousteau was a huge inspiration for me. When I was a kid, I loved watching his documentaries narrating various expeditions around the oceans and forests of the globe. I was fascinated by him!

Another strong influence were the Amazonian Indians, mysterious and isolated deep in the forest. I was and still am very curious about the native Indians and the complex and harmonious relationship they have developed with the forests for centuries.

I: What made you fall in love with the muriquis?

L: Seeing a muriqui for the first time was an incredibly unique experience. To go along with a group of more than 50 muriquis, across mountains and well-preserved forests, is something indescribable, a real experience in communion with the natural world. So from my very first interaction with these animals, I became deeply marked and decided to study them!

The northern muriqui is endangered and endemic to Brazil. © Leandro Santana Moreira

I: What is your best memory working with the muriquis?

L: There were a number of incredible moments, but among them, there was one special afternoon, months after I had started following the muriquis.

That day, I was following a group of around 40 individuals, and the sunlight coming through the trees was simply amazing, the muriquis stopped to rest and stayed there very relaxed! They came down to 4-5 meters from the ground and looked deeply at me without any trace of fear. They were so relaxed to the point that some slept only a few meters away from me! The cubs were playing around non-stop, jumping from one side to another, very close to me. We stayed like that for an hour, until the sun started to set, and the group dispersed to find bigger trees to spend the night in.

That was a surreal moment!

I: How is a typical day in your life?

L: The majority of my time is spent in the forest either studying monkeys in the Amazonia, muriquis in Minas Gerais or working in my house in the Serra do Brigadeiro, where I created the Reserva Natural Lar dos Muriquis, a few years ago. My main activities are taking care of my vegetable garden and planting fruit trees and native species. I also maintain the trails in the forest that I use to track monkeys and collect some fruits from the acai-jucara. When you work in a natural reserve, your days are extremely diverse and a lot of intense rural work is required.

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Açai is a fruit rich in vitamins and antioxidants from a native palm tree. © Leandro Santana Moreira

I: You produced a documentary about the muriquis, was that your first experience producing a film?

L: The documentary “Entre Montanhas e Muriquis” (Between Mountains and Muriquis) was my first work as a producer, screenwriter and cameraman. Although I had little experience, I invested all my effort and dedication to produce the film and had the chance to work in collaboration with diverse friends who were professional photographers and video makers. Adding the time to film the scenes, to edit and to finalise the movie, it took four years of work to produce the final version.

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The documentary took four years to be completed. © Leandro Santana Moreira

I: Can you tell me more about the documentary and why it was important for you to produce it?

L: Producing and divulging this documentary was for me the realisation of a dream and a mission. The essence of the movie was the day to day reality, among the muriquis, in a preserved natural environment, living with local people of incredible dignity. All of this awakened in me a deep process of introspection and a critical analysis of the occidental lifestyle.

After three years of living this bucolic routine, impregnated by the beauty of nature’s cycles and diversity, lots of deep and intimate reflections surfaced in me. I needed to express this in some form. To leave a true message about real things. 

I: What’s coming next for you?

L: The last four years I worked intensely to create the Reserva Natural Lar dos Muriquis.  The idea for this magnificent place is to provide a harmonious and intimate interaction between man and nature. To reach this goal, I worked on a series of activities such as agroforestry, production of organic ailments (like the açaí-juçara), bioconstruction using local material and craftsmanship, scientific research, yoga practice, mountain activities, local practical courses and of course hosting visitors. 

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Education is an important part of Leandro’s work. © Leandro Santana Moreira

At the moment, I’m also writing my second book, which is directed towards a younger audience. The book narrates the adventures of a young character travelling across the mountains, living a series of encounters and rare moments, which ends in fantastic discoveries.

I: What advice would you give to the new generation of primatologists?

L: For those of you who want to study monkeys in the wild, my first advice is: love the monkeys! It’s important to dedicate yourself to travelling, walking kilometres across the forest, following a group of monkeys for months while recording the information, analysing the data and writing your articles and projects.

I think the success of a project really relies on the passion and involvement you have with the species or place in focus. To obtain results that can really have a positive impact in the world, it is necessary to throw yourself body and soul in and immerse yourself deeply within the local questions, to be able to understand your real role as a researcher and the real necessity of your research. 

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