Primate Watching Is the New Birding

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

Madagascar is the only place on earth where lemurs live, and they are adorable, mostly small, often brightly colored, with round, bewildered eyes (blue, in one species). "The best arePropithecus candidus [silky sifakas]," said Mittermeier. "They're big and fluffy with a pink nose, and you think, 'This isn't a real animal. It's a Disney creation.' " (On the other hand, the aye-aye, Daubentonia madagascariensis, looks like something out of Stephen King.) Lemurs are extraordinarily varied, with 93 species and subspecies currently recognized on an island the size of Texas. Because of extensive deforestation, they actually survive in an area Mittermeier described as more like "three New Jerseys." In some protected areas, it's possible, with a little hiking, to see 10 different species. Visit five or six sites, and you can get 25 species in a trip. 

So is the notion of primate life-listing practical? "There's an obvious reason to be skeptical," says John Mitani, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Michigan, who studies chimpanzees in Uganda. "Unlike bird listing, it's not something you can do in your backyard." The United States has more than 900 wild bird species anybody can get started on. Birdwatchers can also buy field guides, birdfeeders, birdsong iPods, and even video "nest cams" to sustain their passion year-round. In fact, they spend at least $32 billion a year on the stuff. There's no equivalent for watching primates (unless you count eavesdropping on your human neighbors). Baboons and gray-cheeked mangabeys don't, as a rule, turn up in our backyards. So the only way for beginners to get started is to travel. "Here you're talking about something that appeals only to people who have money," says Mitani. Then it dawns on him: "It could be good to have people with money interested in this."


At the Manombo Reserve outside Farafangana, our hunt took place in French, English, and Malagasy, with Mittermeier's host, biologist Jonah Ratsimbazafy, pausing now and then to cry out, "Any ve ny biby?"--"Have you found the animal?"--to various local guides. Ratsimbazafy also tried speaking to the lemurs in their own language, a back-of-the-throat, gup-gup-gup sound. Finally, one of the guides said,"Aty!" or "There it is!"

The white-collared brown lemur, Eulemur fulvus albocollaris,sat on a branch 30 feet above the trail, serene as a cat, with its long fluffy tail folded over one arm. It had big, tawny, muttonchop cheeks, and its hazel eyes glowed in the afternoon sun. It gazed down curiously as Mittermeier crept underneath for one more close-up, and then another and another and another. Mittermeier needed the perfect picture, he said, for a new edition of Conservation International's guidebook The Lemurs of Madagascar. (He's also working on an encyclopedia of primates, to be published in two or three years, so future primate life-listers will know what to look for and where.) A half-hour later the lemur was still there, the sort of trusting behavior that often leads biologists to regard them as not too bright. "They're not chimpanzees," said Mittermeier. "They're not even capuchins."

Next day Mitteremeier was back, accompanied by a top official from the regional government, to look for the somewhat more skittish black-and-white ruffed lemur,Varecia variegata variegata. At a rickety log bridge a big Mercedes truck was stuck up to its hubcaps, with a load of freshly cut trees from the reserve in the back. 

"It's illegal," said Ratsimbazafy. "But nobody cares out here in the remote forest."

"Except for today," said Mittermeier, as the regional official ordered the driver to report with his boss to the gendarmerie.  

In the forest, the black-and-white ruffed lemur soon turned up walking on a branch overhead, looking like a small, arboreal panda. Mittermeier held up a tape recorder and played the call of another lemur, the indri, a high-pitched sound like air being slowly let out of a balloon. No reaction. But the chucking and squealing of other black-and-white ruffed lemurs caused the animal to look up sharply, cocking its head one way and then the other to locate the sound.

"He's coming, he's coming to fight! Look!" said Mittermeier.

The lemur leapt into the tree directly overhead, considered the possibilities for a moment, then moved off again. "He's chicken!" said Mittermeier, disappointed.

"He may have been feeling alone," said Ratsimbazafy.

On the walk back out of the forest, Mittermeier and the regional official talked about the potential of primate life-listing. "This is really a ticker thing to come here and get a black-and-white ruffed lemur and a white-collared brown lemur," Mittermeier said. "There are eight critically endangered primates in Madagascar, and we knocked off two of them here." The latter in particular exists nowhere else on earth. The regional official, an economist with a corporate background, seemed to agree, though he worried that Farafangana was too far off the usual tourist circuit.

"Improve the road, that bridge mainly," said Mittermeier. "Clean up the trails, so you're following the route of the animals. You could do it in two weeks with a few guys. C'est tres facile." Conservation International would put up the money, he said. 

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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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