The four new swamp monkeys at the San Diego Zoo have good reason to be a little wary. The last time they were in front of so many people, they were in a market in the Democratic Republic of Congo, destined for sale as exotic curiosities or else to be fattened up and eaten.
These four Allen's swamp monkeys, along with 30 other Congolese primates at five other zoos, will spend their lives in the US to highlight the illegal trade in "bushmeat" -- wildlife slaughtered to feed hungry families in poor countries -- which is decimating populations of many species in Africa and parts of Asia.
"All these little monkeys were bushmeat orphans, their parents and troupes had been killed for bushmeat," explained Karen Killmar, the zoo's associate curator of mammals, who in an unusual move bought the monkeys from a middle man who had acquired them at a market and hoped to turn a profit by selling them as pets.
Jane Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which helped coordinate the adoptions, called the acquisition "the right thing to do for the monkeys. This is a one-time-only thing, and we don't want to perpetuate the trade at all."
At the San Diego Zoo, the shy young monkeys, grayish brown and about the size of a cat, took turns exploring their new surroundings. The biggest of the group, a female, emerged from the cover of a small bush and briefly checked out a nearby tree before returning with a pounce to the safety of her cohorts.
The monkeys, all less than two years old, debuted in early May in the zoo's Ituri Forest area, an enclosure named for the woods in Congo where the animals are from. The remaining monkeys, representing various species, went to zoos in the Phoenix area, Denver, Houston, San Antonio, Texas, and Tampa, Florida.
Signs to educate visitors about bushmeat will be displayed at each of the monkey enclosures.
It took 13 months and US$400,000 to cut through the red tape and import the orphaned primates. The decision was a difficult one for the zoos, but they agreed it could raise awareness of the bushmeat problem.
The trade will take almost anything that moves for its flesh or skin, including snakes, big cats, primates and even hippopotamuses. Animals are sometimes used to create traditional medicines, particularly in southeast Asia.
Hunters also target wildlife to feed an increasing international appetite for bushmeat, as expatriates from the region resettle around the globe. A Liberian woman was arrested in New York City this year on suspicion of importing smoked bushmeat, including monkey skulls, limbs and torsos.
"It's an enormous problem that is eliminating populations and whole species of wildlife across the continent," said Heather Eves, director of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force in Washington, a nonprofit focusing on the illicit meat trade.
It's probably already too late for one primate species, known as Miss Waldron's red colobus monkey. The creature was declared extinct in 2000, though Eves said a few slaughtered monkeys have since shown up on the bushmeat market.
Further extinctions could follow. The impact of hunting on primate species is especially severe because monkeys and apes reproduce at a slow rate and produce fewer young, normally one baby at a time; killing even a few individuals can hurt a population.