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

"Each of these animals in the forest is worth a fortune to the region. If you eat it, you get a meal for one day. If you keep it in the forest, people will keep coming and coming to see it." 

Later, flying out of Farafangana in a chartered Cessna 172, Mittermeier circled over the patches of forest he had just visited, dwindling remnants in the vast landscape of deforestation. But it was his nature to be optimistic: "You come to a place like this, meet the No. 2 in the regional government and the big businessman, and soon people are saying, 'The vazaha came, the foreigners, and talked about how important the lemurs are.' And all of a sudden attitudes start to change."

The plane circled over Manombo and the other patch of forest he had visited, just across the road. Below, columns of smoke rose here and there where farmers continued to nibble at the forest. "This is basically it," said Mittermeier. "These two properties are the future for these animals."

Before You Go

The best general field guides to the primates are On the Trail of Monkeys and Apes (Barron's, 2000) and The Pictorial Guide to Living Primates (Pogonias Press, 1996). Regional guides include Mitteremeier's own Lemurs of Madagascar(Conservation International, 2006). World Primate Safaris, a year-old British company, bills itself as the only travel company that specializes in primate watching. For more on primates, go to Conservation International.--Richard Conniff, with reporting by Alexandra Davis 

I'll Be a Monkey's Lister

Just four countries--Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia, and the Congo--account for 70 percent of all primate species. But primates (other than humans) also live in 88 additional countries, in Asia, South and Central America, and Africa.

Many of the best places in the world for seeing them are still poorly developed. "These places are wild," says Amy Vedder, a wildlife biologist who helped launch mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda and who now works with the United Nations to conserve the country's montane forests. "They're not controlled. You're there on nature's terms. You're not guaranteed a viewing in most of these places. It's still an adventure, which is I think the great part."

So where to begin? These are some of the world's primate hot spots recommended by Mittermeier, Vedder, and other primatologists.



Dian Fossey (of Gorillas in the Mist) made Parc National des Volcans (PNV) in Rwanda famous when she lived and died there among the mountain gorillas. It's still the top spot in Africa to see them. PNV, encompassing 40,000 acres of the Virunga mountain range, has a number of mountain gorilla groups, with 38 viewing permits available daily at $375 apiece. Primate watchers can also track the golden monkey (even more endangered than the gorillas), and stop by the graves of Fossey and some of her favorite animals. The alternative for mountain gorillas (and a lot of other primate species) is Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, across the border in Uganda. You can combine Bwindi with a visit to Kibale National Park, which offers some of the best chimpanzee viewing in Africa (along with a dozen or so other primates). But beware that the vistas, the vegetation, and the changes in altitude at Bwindi aren't as spectacular as those at PNV.  

From PNV, it's about a five-hour drive to Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda.  Nyungwe has more than 30 miles of walking trails running along hillside contours, and because the landscape slopes so steeply, hikers are often looking directly across into upper forest canopy. Black-and-white colobus monkeys travel through in groups of 300 or 400 animals, sometimes allowing you to sit and observe their behavior for hours. "It's incredible!" says Vedder. There are also habituated groups of blue monkeys and gray-cheeked mangabeys. The park is currently habituating several chimpanzee troops, and a hiker's chance of seeing them is about 50/50. Nyungwe is also home to the l'Hoest's monkey, the golden monkey, the owl-faced monkey, and the vervet monkey.

In Gabon's Lope National Park, you can see the largest gatherings of nonhuman primates in the world--groups of up to 1,000 mandrills at a time. Lope has black colobus monkeys, western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, mangabeys, and the endemic sun-tailed monkey as well. Archaeologists have found traces of human activity from 400,000 years ago there, and petroglyphs of more recent vintage are common. In addition, Lope is home to an abundance of elephants, leopards, red river hogs, and (if you insist) 412 bird species. Ivindo National Park, five hours away by car, is another good place to see western lowland gorillas and elephants mingle at the recently discovered Langoue Bai, a natural clearing in the forest.

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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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