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Thirteen Gold Monkeys: Bringing Conservation to the Public

Benjamin Beck's novel on saving endangered golden lion tamarins is a must read

Scientists invariably write essays about their research programs they try to publish in peer-reviewed journals or academic books that are read predominantly by their colleagues. Many also write books and essays for popular media, but few write novels about their scientific research. One way to reach a broad audience is to write something that appeals to them and that they can read as if it's a "who done it" novel so they won't have to wade through a lot of jargon, graphs, tables, and statistics. It's not easy to do but renowned conservation biologist, Dr. Benjamin Beck, has accomplished this in his recently released novel called Thirteen Gold Monkeys

Dr. Beck's first novel, and let's hope it is not his last, is a wonderful story of a long-term program to save endangered golden lion tamarins, small New World monkeys who are native to the Atlantic coastal forests of Brazil, and to reintroduce them to their historical homes. It's an easy read and the science behind this work has not been compromised in the slightest. 

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The book's description reads as follows and based on my reading of it's right on the mark:

Thirteen Gold Monkeys is "A story of hope, love, and unspeakable death in a disappearing Brazilian rainforest. A team of dogged conservationists tries to save a beautiful monkey species, the golden lion tamarin, from certain extinction by reinforcing their numbers with tamarins born in zoos. Will these immigrants learn to find enough to eat, find secure places to sleep, avoid predators, and survive attacks by wild tamarins? Will they find mates and make babies? The technique, known as reintroduction, is new, and the conservationists struggle to find the best method. Can they train the tamarins in zoos to meet the challenges of the wild? Once the monkeys are released in the forest, should the people give them food, shoo away predators, rescue them if they get lost, and treat them if they are injured? Or should they be hands-off, letting the monkeys fend for themselves and become wild as quickly as possible? Beck describes the reintroduction of the first 13 tamarins, capturing their fierce determination to survive, their loves and conflicts, their nurturant families, adorable babies, hidden language, sometimes hilarious attempts to solve the problems of adapting, and the agonizing deaths of those who don't make it. He describes the power and beauty of the rainforest, and the loves, loyalties, conflicts, and sometimes hilarious bumbling by their human caretakers. Challenging their better-known bosses, two women, a zookeeper and a Brazilian field assistant, discover the right way to reintroduce the monkeys. But a well-known Rio citizen almost destroys the program in a callous act of vanity. The story is vivid and authentic; Beck was there and has studied animal thinking and monkey and ape conservation for more than 40 years.

Dr. Beck has been a close friend of mine for many years and I know how deeply passionate he has been about this project. While we have disagreed from time to time about reintroduction projects that kill some of the animals, a topic of interest to the growing field of compassionate conservation (see also and), if it is decided that a project has to be done, then this is one to emulate. Dr. Beck is not heartless in any sense of the word and he dedicates this book to the approximately 160 golden lion tamarins who died for the good of their species and the numerous people who selflessly worked on this project for many years. It should also be noted that 50% of the profits generated from the book will be donated to the Devra Kleiman endowment for the support of ongoing conservation efforts with these wonderful monkeys. Dr. Kleiman was a renowned scientist who worked on this and many other important conservation and behavior projects around the world. 

In an email to me Dr. Beck wrote, "Also revealed for the first time is the despicable poaching of reintroduced tamarins at the hand of a well-known Rio citizen, a crime that killed one monkey and almost destroyed the conservation program." He also wrote, "I thought the lessons of aspiration; failure and success; adaptive management and innovation; conflict and cooperation; human strengths and frailties; evil, love, and loyalty; the power and beauty of a rainforest; and the drive of these remarkable monkeys to survive were too powerful to be buried in a droll scientific account. The story reveals for the first time that the fierce passions of a zookeeper and a Brazilian field assistant for the health and wellbeing of each monkey were the key to making the reintroduction successful."

If you want to learn about the ups and downs and the ins and outs of conservation biology on the ground, this is the book to read. It'll be great for undergraduate and graduate students who want to learn about what they may be heading into in their professional careers. You'll learn about how science is done in the most difficult of situations in which many people would have thrown up their hands and gone home. As a friend and colleague I thank Dr. Beck for writing this book and for not giving up on these most amazing beings who would have surely disappeared absent the dedicated people who worked on this groundbreaking project. 

 

 

 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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