June 16, 2010

Xcaret - The Secret Sanctuary

XcaretFor the majority of people, Xcaret EcoPark is a tourist attraction. It is the place for lying around in paradise, swinging on hammocks over white sand beaches; or snorkeling in the pristine, turquoise waters of the Caribbean.

Some may turn up to swim with dolphins or nurse sharks. Others to don an oxygen helmet and follow a guide along a seabed trek.

However, for many animals, Xcaret is much more than that. It is a sanctuary and relief from past abuses. It is life and the hope of a wonderful future.

This isn't a facet of the EcoPark that is greatly publicized. The majority of those animals rescued are not on public display. They are nursed back to health in private, then helped to readjust to a more natural, compassionate world. If possible, they will be rehoused or else released back into the wild. Xcaret will only keep them if they are indigenious to Mexico and if it is in the interests of the creature to stay; or, of course, if there is nowhere else for them to go.

Xcaret

For example, let's examine the case of Bryan the Chimpanzee. Bryan was approximately 18 months old when he arrived at Xcaret. It is believed that he had been born in Africa, where the likelihood is that he would have been torn away from his mother, then watched her killed for bush meat. The usual route is for him to have been smuggled into Mexico via Cuba.

Once here, he was put to work on a Cancún beach, as a photographer's prop. At only a few months old, he had his baby teeth knocked out, so that he wouldn't bite the tourists paying for a photograph with him. This is known because later health checks found fragments of the teeth embedded in his gums.

Such things are not tolerated in Mexico and, fortunately, he was spotted and reported to the Animal Protection Society of Cancún. Bryan's owner refused to co-operate with the authorities, but eventually the baby chimpanzee was seized in a joint operation between the Animal Protection Society and PROFEPA (Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente (Environmental Protection Agency)).

Baby ChimpanzeeChimpanzees are not indigenious to Mexico. There are primate sanctuaries in the country, but they are set up to deal with local species, like howler and spider monkeys. Chimpanzees are very different. They may be cute and loveable, doubling as surrogate human babies, before puberty, but once those hormones kick in they change.

They have 9 times the strength of a human man, coupled with aggressive, territorial tendencies. In the wild, chimpanzees live in families overseen by a powerful alpha male. To human eyes, this regime can seem brutal in its violence, as the alpha male puts down any pretenders to his crown. But this is their nature and these instincts are what would out as Bryan grew.

In anticipation of this, many chimpanzees are locked away or simply killed, as soon as they grow out of the cute baby stage. But Bryan's rescuers also had to anticipate this. If no home could be found for him, then whichever Mexican sanctuary took him may have to look after him into adulthood. No facilities were ideal, as no sanctuary had families of chimpanzees into which Bryan could be introduced. He was also mentally traumatized and in bad health. He was half-starved. The cost of looking after him, even in the short term, would run into the thousands. It was in full knowledge of these issues that Xcaret EcoPark invited Bryan in.

Spider Monkey at Xcaret
Spider Monkey at Xcaret

Xcaret has a number of sanctuaries within its expansive site. Butterflies, birds, endangered marine turtles and manatees are amongst those species with their own special areas. Xcaret works closely with national and international experts in ensuring the best conditions possible for the fauna that they rescue. They also have Monkey Island, which is home to rescued primates. The spider and saraguato (howler) monkeys there are local species and can be viewed by the public. Xcaret's site explains how they came to live in the EcoPark:

In February 2003, 20 saraguato monkeys arrived to Xcaret. 11 of them were in danger because of the destruction of their habitat by the cattle industry. Other 9 saraguato monkey babies were donated by the PROFEPA (Federal Office for the Protection of the Environment). Today we have 22 saraguato monkeys due to 2 births that occurred inside the park.
Xcaret - Monkey Island

However, neither of these species are chimpanzees.

Saraguato Monkey at Xcaret
Saraguato Monkey at Xcaret

For another 18 months, Bryan lived at Xcaret EcoPark. He was taken there without the need for sedatives and he was treated with such care, that he never required them for calming down during his stay. He was restored to full health and blossomed as he became well fed. There was also a program of behavorial correction, helping him become a chimpanzee again, instead of his unnatural pseudo-human habits. It is important to note that this wasn't done with punishments, but with rewards.

Little by little, Xcaret's compassionate people worked with love to salve Bryan's troubled mind. By the time he was three, he looked and acted like a different chimpanzee, as happy and settled as he could be without a family of his own. All of this time and expense, he was never exhibited to the public, because he isn't Mexican. He was there to be given sanctuary, not to make money for the park.

Bryan
Bryan at Monkey World.

Finally, a permanent home was found for him. After arduous months of bureaucracy and paperwork, Bryan was flown to England to the world-reknowned Monkey World. This is a sanctuary for over 240 primates, including 60 chimpanzees, rescued from across the world. Their primates have generally been traumatized and/or physically hurt, so the staff have a long history of caring for them. The chimpanzees are housed in families and environments as natural as possible. Here experts can access the needs of each individual chimpanzee and act accordingly.

Jim Cronin, the American born owner of Monkey World, was asked about Xcaret, while Bryan was there. He replied, "I think Bryan couldn’t be in a better place. We have worked with many organizations, but Xcaret is the most professional we have treated with. We are really happy. We can notice that Bryan was very well fed, they really took care of him and, above all, it seems to me that everybody there loves Bryan."

Once in England, Bryan was placed in the 'nursery', where an older female chimpanzee named Sally immediately adopted him as her own. Within days, he had been accepted by all of the others, instantly gaining a mother, an aunt, brothers and sisters. At three years old, his life could move on from the pain of the past and start again. He will be able to live there for his entire life, surrounded by his adoptive family, in a suitable environment. You can read about him on the Monkey World site.

An English tourist recently filmed Bryan playing with a seesaw in the nursery at Monkey World. He's watched over by his Aunt Lulu and appears to be having a lot of fun.



It is wonderful to know that Xcaret EcoPark played such a vital role in Bryan's rescue. Yet it's not just Bryan who benefits, as the work there goes on. The species of manatees indigenious to Mexico are on the brink of extinction. At the request of PROFEPA, Xcaret took in a couple of manatees rescued, in a critical condition, from a polluted lagoon. The pair are now thriving in their permanent home in the EcoPark, cared for by manatee experts.

The local flamingos are also considered endangered, but a special program at Xcaret has seen 55 live births amongst its population of 96 adults. The Flamingo colony grows and grows. Just two more examples of the amazing work done at this EcoPark.

So next time you are relaxing on their beach, sipping a cocktail, and trying to decide between the Shark Adventure or a meander through the Mayan Village, allow yourself a extra smile. You know that your entrance fee is being put to good use, not just in creating a stunning tourist attraction, but in saving lives behind the scenes.

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