On Island Tourists and Science

Today, a boatload of curious tourists went into Cayo Santiago, a government-run primate research island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. They surreptitiously entered right under the glaring NO ENTRY sign posted near the shore. With camera on hand and shouts of “Are there monkeys in here?!”, they disembarked from their speedboat and waded through waist-deep water. Probably thinking that the island was deserted because the CPRC lancha had left (i.e., it ferries the employees back to Punta for the lunchbreak), their guide let them through the mangroves and smack into a crowd of free-ranging monkeys.

I was partially hidden by the foliage while recording behavioral data on a sleeping monkey when I heard them coming. It is customary to have visitors snorkeling around the island, so hearing voices was not that surprising. Tourists usually come in rented boats and kayaks anchored about 20 meters from the shore. The sea around Cayo Santiago has beautiful sea grass beds and reefs festooned with all sorts of Caribbean marine life. Just a couple of days ago, a juvenile black tip reef shark swam along the cay, its dorsal fin jutting out of the glassy sea. I also saw three manatees a while back, bobbing their snouts in the air to catch breath while foraging on the lush sea grasses. The place does beckon nature lovers. And some of the riskier bent are just too reckless to ignore the danger signage posted everywhere on the island.

Seeing barefooted tourists on the island is unnerving, considering the risk of disease transmission between humans and rhesus macaques. CPRC sets a series of health and safety protocols to prevent the risk of zoonotic diseases. Failure to take even one test (of a host of other tests) means being denied from entering the island, even if your last name is Obama. Aside from this, researchers, students, and all those who come into contact with the primates have to pass a lengthy IACUC certification exam detailing the appropriate handling of the animals.

The safety measures are put in place precisely because of the real danger of zoonoses. Consider this excerpt from Jensen et al on the herpes B virus found in these free-ranging colony:

Whereas the effects of the virus are mild in macaque hosts, it causes a serious and frequently fatal disease in other primates, including humans. Once transmitted to a human, B virus infection has a nearly 80% case-fatality rate.

Tuberculosis, Shigella, and other pathogens, which might not be as lethal to humans, are very deadly to the macaques. Primate Info Net has an excellent list of zoonotic diseases recorded in the medical and primate literature. Primate Info Net:

Mycobacteria are responsible for tuberculosis, the scourge of the primate owner and veterinarian. Tuberculosis has been recognized as a common disease of captive primates for many years. Early outbreaks were devastating, causing the loss of hundreds of primates of many species.

So, there. For potential tourists who are reading this blog, the health risks are real.ResearchBlogging.org


The cultural anthropologist in me is amazed at the constant overlap of interests on the island.  It seems to me that there is a continuing tug-of-war with regards to the meaning of Cayo Santiago. For the scientists, the island is home to the free-ranging macaques, a repository of biological and behavioral knowledge for the past 70 years. For the tourist industry, Cayo Santiago is part of the Puerto Rico ecotourism package, the island of enchantment as they say. Tourism is what keeps the Puerto Rican economy afloat and Cayo Santiago does appear in tourist brochure as the enchanted monkey island. For the local fishers, the island is a crabbers’ paradise where they trap mantou crabs under the cover of darkness. They would catch the crabs, keep them for months to get the crabs “clean,” and sometimes sell them to roadside customers (who are mostly tourists too).

Before I got involved in a primatological research (of the biological bent), my original intention was to conduct an ethnoprimatological project as my dissertation. I wanted to investigate the social history of primates in Puerto Rico, with the purpose of understanding the axis of science, colonial politics, and primates in the island. There is a substantial glut about this in ethnoprimatological and anthropology literature and I thought this would be a nice dissertation topic. But I am on the verge of abandoning this project as I became more enamored by the biological side of primatology–a training that is almost absent in the Philippines (I got a few via a short Fulbright exchange program with New Mexico State University,  my involvement with the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, and with University of San Carlos, my home university).

Seeing the opportunity to learn more about anthropology and primates in general, I applied for the research job and got accepted. I believe, after this, I will be your typical Swiss knife anthropologist–not quite a specialist but got enough knowledge to teach anthropology students back home. I am hoping that once the research project is over I’ll get back to my home university and inspire students once again to get more interested in anthropology. Perhaps through this, the Philippines will have its own Jane Goodall or Louis Leakey in the future. Who knows really, right?


Before I leave, let me share these youtube videos of tourists in Cayo Santiago. I chanced on them while cybersurfing about the island.

Tourist hitting a male macaque after presumably feeding it

Tourists on the island (p.s. listen closely to the audio).

Iguana catching on the island. Puerto Rican iguanas are not scared of humans. You can actually pick them up without any hassle because the feral pet iguanas in Puerto Rico got no natural predators.

Jensen K, Alvarado-Ramy F, González-Martínez J, Kraiselburd E, & Rullán J (2004). B-virus and free-ranging macaques, Puerto Rico. Emerging infectious diseases, 10 (3), 494-6 PMID: 15109420


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