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2024 Whitley Award
Fernanda Abra Brazil Terrestrial
Building bridges: Primate canopy crossings in the Amazon

The construction of highways through Brazil’s forests is destroying habitat connectivity, with the associated effects being one of the main causes of declining primate populations. Despite 40% of the country’s primate species facing extinction, new infrastructure projects are failing to mitigate impacts such as road mortality and loss of connectivity. One such highway, BR-174, cuts through Amazon forest including the indigenous territory of the Waimiri-Atroari people. Fernanda collaborates with this community and the Federal Transportation Agency to install artificial canopy bridges that allow primates to safely cross highways from above.


The Amazon is one of the most important biomes on Earth, containing at least 10% of the planet’s biodiversity, as well as vital ecosystem services, and cultural heritage. However, it is threatened by a rapidly expanding road network, leading to habitat fragmentation, wildlife mortality, and secondary threats such as poaching. Even more so than terrestrial fauna, roads threaten the safety of strictly arboreal (tree dwelling) and some scansorial (climbing) mammal species. With the loss of canopy connectivity, animals either come down from the trees and try to cross roads, risking vehicle collision, or stay at the canopy level and suffer from population isolation, which can lead to declines in genetic diversity and resilience, known ‘the barrier effect’.


Different types of bridge support the locomotion of different species. Endangered target species for this project include: Guiana Spider Monkey, Groves’ Titi, Black Spider Monkey, Schneider’s Marmoset, Spix’s Red-handed Howler Monkey, and Purús Red Howler Monkey. Fernanda, an Associate Reseracher at IPÊ and Postdoctoral Fellow from Smithsonian, oversees the Reconecta Project which aims to test effectiveness of canopy bridges for different primate and arboreal mammal species, and drive a culture of sustainable infrastructure for the road network in the Amazon. In the past year, the team have recorded more than 500 crossings from 8 different species.


Since 2020, Fernanda has worked to gain the trust of the Waimiri-Atroari Indigenous Community, self-determined as the ‘Kinja’ people. The construction of Highway BR-174 in the 1970s directly impacted this community and their territory. Violence inflicted by the military regime resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 community members. This conflict is considered to be one of the most severe cases of indigenous genocide in Brazil. The impacts of the road on wildlife have also deeply affected the culture of the Waimiri-Atroari community. Acknowledging the damage done, the government allowed the community to restrict nighttime traffic on the highway. This measure provided greater safety for them and reduced roadkill, however they also recognised the need for reconnecting the canopy at optimal points along the road. This community has now not only approved the Reconecta Project, but is also actively collaborating in its delivery. With deep insight and understanding of the local habitat and wildlife, they are participating in the selection of canopy bridge installation sites and the construction to allow wildlife to cross the road safely.

Using her Whitley Award, Fernanda will:

  • Maintain and monitor 30 existing canopy crossings on the BR-174 highway
  • Install five new canopy bridges on the road-network in Alta Floresta, Mato Grosso state
  • Reduce the road mortality of tree climbing species by 25% within 500m either side of the BR-174 highway and Alta Floresta road-network canopy bridges
  • Train 200 people from Federal and State transport and environmental agencies across nine Amazonian states to enable the building of more sustainable and wildlife friendly infrastructure
  • Map priority roads in the Amazon to expand the ‘Reconecta’ project

top facts:

  • Since 1997, the Waimiri-Atroari people have been collecting data on wildlife roadkill along the 125km stretch of BR-174 that cuts through their territory. This database is the largest citizen science project involving Indigenous communities on the planet.
  • Other species that will benefit from the installation of canopy bridges include Guianan Red Howler Monkey, Bearded Saki, and Golden-faced Saki.
  • Brazil has the fourth-largest road network in the world, which President Lula plans to expand; last year he unveiled a 1 trillion reais (£156 billion) spending programme to boost infrastructure, including the construction of new highways.