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Scientists in Puerto Rico Are Trying to Save 1,500 Monkeys for This Important Reason

Monkeys move about on Cayo Santiago, known as Monkey Island, in Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, 2017. One of the first places Hurricane Maria hit in the U.S. territory Sept. 20 was Monkey Island, a 40-acre outcropping off the east coast that is one of the world’s most important sites for research into how primates think, socialize and evolve.
Ramon Espinosa/AP

Some 15 minutes off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, residents of a small island called Cayo Santiago are coping with the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Like inhabitants of the mainland, those on Cayo Santiago face shortages of food and water.

Unlike inhabitants of the mainland, the residents of Cayo Santiago are small in population and small in stature. That’s because the island is inhabited not by humans, but by 1,500 rhesus macaque monkeys.

Against the backdrop of the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans struggling to rebuild after a category four storm ravaged their home, the story of how Cayo Santiago, also known as “Monkey Island,” was also affected by Hurricane Maria illustrates the stark reality that climate change inevitably affects human and animal populations.

The relationship between human and monkey communities on Cayo Santiago provides a clear example of the interdependencies between man and the environment — and shows how both are threatened by climate change.

Read More: In the Wake of Hurricane Maria, Here’s How to Help People in Puerto Rico

The Cayo Santiago Field station is located on a tiny island off the coast of Puerto Rico. Here, primatologists have been studying the rhesus macaque monkey population since the 1930s. The field station is especially notable because it allows researchers to study these animals in one of the most natural settings imaginable.

Data from the island has yielded invaluable breakthroughs in primate behavior, evolution, and cognition over the years. Researchers from the world’s best academic institutions have used the findings from their research to further understand human behavior as well, including the causes and nature of autism.

Concerned scientists managed to reach the island about eight days after the storm made direct contact over it. Luckily, they reported that the six main social groups comprising the population of the Cayo Santiago were all accounted for.

But now, the island and its tiny tenants face many of the same problems experienced by humans in Puerto Rico whose houses, infrastructure, and access to basic resources were destroyed by the sheer force of climate-change-exacerbated Hurricane Maria.

“Although the animals have braved the storm, the vegetation on the island has been decimated, and the infrastructure providing life-sustaining fresh water has been destroyed,” University of Washington psychology professor Noah Snyder-Mackler told Yale News.

Maria’s winds of up to 150 mph ripped plants out of the ground, stripped trees of their leaves, and broke cisterns set up to collect fresh rainwater for the monkeys.

Additionally, the community of Punta Santiago on the mainland of Puerto Rico, which housed many of the staff who worked and studied on the island of Cayo Santiago, was left decimated by the storm. Residents there were left needing food, water, and gasoline to power the generators which would replace the damaged electrical grid. A heartbreaking aerial photo illustrated the severity of the needs for residents.

Without acting on climate change, places like Cayo Santiago, and the animals and people that call it home will continue to be at risk of extreme weather catastrophes. Global Citizen campaigns on the United Nations’ Global Goals for Sustainable Development, and climate action is number 13. You can take action on this issue to protect people and ecosystems at risk from climate change here.

Read More: Things Are Still Really Bad in Puerto Rico

Scientists in charge of rebuilding Cayo Santiago feel that ensuring the continued success of the research facility depends on also rebuilding the human communities that service the island, and vice versa.

In an article published in the academic news site The Conversation, Cayo Santiago researcher Alexandra Rosati addressed potential criticisms that spending resources helping the rhesus monkeys detracted from efforts to relieve the humanitarian crisis facing human residents of Puerto Rico.

“This is not an either/or choice,” Rosati wrote. “The Cayo Santiago Field Station is the livelihood of many dedicated staffers who live in Punta Santiago. We cannot aid the monkeys without helping to rebuild the town, and we aim to do both.”

Read More: Puerto Rico’s Crisis Is Not About ‘Broken Infrastructure.’ It’s About Poverty

GoFoundMe pages have been established for the rebuilding efforts on monkey island, as well as the community of Punta Santiago.

“Halting the immediate humanitarian crisis unfolding in Puerto Rico should be everyone’s primary goal,” Rosati concluded. “But long-term recovery from Hurricane Maria will also mean preserving Puerto Rico’s arts, culture and scientific treasures like the Cayo Santiago Field Station for future generations.”