Primate Watching Is the New Birding

Photograph by Russell Mittermeier

Primate Watching Is the New Birding

Counting species has long been a feathery obsession, but now a world-renowned conservation biologist wants globetrotters to pursue other finds, from mouse lemurs to mountain gorillas, that are downright hairy. 

By Richard Conniff
Published: July-August 2007

On a weekend a short time ago, Russ Mittermeier, the peripatetic president of Conservation International, was visiting the dusty town of Farafangana, on the southeast coast of Madagascar. His official goal was to build ecotourism in what is variously known as "the eighth continent" and "the twelfth-poorest nation on earth."

Mainly, though, Mittermeier was in Farafangana to bag two new lemurs to add to his already vast primate life list. Science currently recognizes about 650 species or subspecies of apes, monkeys, and prosimians (a group, including lemurs, lorises, and bush babies, that split off on its own early in primate evolution), six of them first described by Mittermeier himself. He has seen more than half of them in the wild, possibly more than anyone, ever. Among other things, he has sat nearby (wondering whether to avert his eyes) while mountain gorillas had sex. He has also stood watching (nervously) while chimpanzees ripped a live colobus monkey to shreds. Once, at a bai, or forest clearing, in the Congo, Mittermeier was watching lowland gorillas, when the gorillas sidled off, circled around, and sat down 30 feet behind, hidden by foliage, to watch him. (Maybe it was the start of a different sort of life list: Russ Mittermeier, Homo sapiens.Check.)

This trip to a couple of remnant scraps of forest 18 miles out of Farafangana was aimed at adding to his list one new species, the white-collared brown lemur, and one new subspecies, the southernmost variety of the black-and-white ruffed lemur. 

A tall, rangy 57-year-old, Mittermeier was dressed for the hunt in sneakers, white socks, shorts ("I like to see the leeches," he said), a khaki shirt, a web vest, and a baseball cap, turned backward for better visibility while thrashing through the underbrush. Leitz 10 x 40 binoculars hung from his neck, beside a Nikon digital camera with a 400-millimeter vibration-reducing telephoto lens. At his belt was a Brazilian machete in a duct-taped sheath, and a Nalgene water bottle containing the murky leavings of miscellaneous Cokes and Oranginas, diluted with water. (On a tour when the animated film Madagascar was in production, Dreamworks mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg professed horror at the "disgusting water bottle." But Mittermeier was unabashed: "I don't like to waste things.")

Up to now, life-listing has been largely an ornithological obsession, with birders trekking to the far ends of the earth to add some obscure feathered find to their lists. Mittermeier's 21-year-old son, John, for instance, has already checked off 4,000 bird species, which makes his list substantially larger than his father's. "There are millions of websites for birders, and it's a multibillion-dollar industry," said Mittermeier. "So why not primates?"

He is promoting primate life-listing at least in part for the sheer joy of counting coup. Status competition is an important behavioral phenomenon in most primate groups, including, notably, the Mittermeier family. Among other things, everybody in the family keeps track of countries and "country-like entities" visited; they exchange cryptic e-mails: "37" or "49." Mittermeier said there is not much his eldest son can't beat him at these days ("I used to have chin-ups on him"), but "he doesn't have my country list," which now stands at 114. (There is a corresponding, though less celebrated, list of exotic diseases: "I've had leishmaniasis, schistosomiasis, pinworms, hookworms, everything else. No malaria. Lucky.")


But apart from hardship and the thrill of one-upmanship, what's the appeal of primate life-listing for other travelers? Lemurs in particular swing through the treetops and pirouette along the ground more gracefully than any human ballet dancer. Primates also catch and hold the attention with behaviors that are a tantalizing mix of the deeply familiar and the foreign. And they are colorful, more so in some cases than birds. (The British naturalist Gerald Durrell once encountered a mandrill in full sexual display, its bottom like "a newly painted and violently patriotic lavatory seat," all blue on the outer rim and "virulent sunset scarlet" within. "Wonderful animal, ma'am," Durrell said to his guest, Her Royal Highness Princess Anne. Then he added, "Wouldn't you like to have a behind like that?")

Mittermeier is also promoting primate life-listing with the idea that it will be good for the primates, by bringing ecotourism dollars to local people who might otherwise value forests only for fuel and building material, and creatures like lemurs solely for meat. Madagascar, 250 miles off the east coast of Africa, currently gets about 180,000 visitors a year, far fewer than even its tiny neighbor, the Seychelles. But Mittermeier is hoping his idea will change that, and at the same time prevent lemurs and other primates from becoming extinct.

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Richard Conniff

Journalist Richard Conniff has written several books on natural history and human behavior, as observed from the perspective of a naturalist. His work has appeared in Audubon, The Atlantic, and Smithsonian, among others. 

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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