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

In Madagascar, three hours from the capital Antananarivo ("Tana" for short), Parc National de Mantadia-Andasibe boasts "the biggest and most attractive lemurs habituated," says Mittermeier, including groups of indri, diademed sifakas, and black-and-white ruffed lemurs, along with nine other lemur species. "You should get at least seven or eight if you spend three days there."    

Ranomafana National Park, in the southeastern rainforest, has 13 lemur species, and because researchers have been studying them for the past 20 years, many are tolerant of visitors and, with the help of local guides and a little hiking, easy to see close-up. The mouse lemur, the smallest primate in the world, will come out at night for pieces of banana.

South America

Manu National Park is located northeast of Cuzco, where every visitor to Peru goes to see the archaeological ruins of Machu Picchu. You can fly on to Puerto Maldonado; after that, plan on two days of travel upriver to reach the park. Or you can charter a plane to Boca Manu. In either case, you will have at least one more day of travel to enter the park. But once you get there, "the density of wildlife is just amazing," says Charles H. Janson, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Montana. You can count on seeing eight species of primates, including two species of capuchins, squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys, titi monkeys, spider monkeys, and the emperor tamarin, which has an impressive Fu Manchu mustache. Five other primate species are less common, but they include the Goeldi's monkey and the pygmy marmoset, the smallest monkey in the world. Two 100-foot-tall platforms make canopy-level viewing possible. (Among other things, it's a good way to avoid getting peed on by howler monkeys.) Only a few thousand visitors make the trip to Manu each year, says Janson, but that's still "a big blip in the local economy." 

In Brazil, two hours' drive from Rio de Janeiro, the Poco das Antas Biological Reserve represents one of the last surviving remnants of the Atlantic coastal rainforest, and it's the site of one of the only successful primate reintroduction programs to date. Golden lion tamarins, bred at zoos around the world, now thrive there. The conservation movement has also spread to neighboring farms, which serve as halfway houses for captive-bred animals on their way back to the wild, and as private ecotourism reserves. 

Also in Brazil, Vedder recommends the Mamiraua Ecological Station, a day trip by boat upriver from Manaus. From the Uakari Floating Lodge there, visitors do their primate watching by canoe. "It's such a kick to be in a canoe in a flooded forest 11 to 15 meters [roughly 36 to 50 feet] above land," she says. "You are canoeing in the lower part of the canopy," almost eyeball-to-eyeball with primates, including the endangered uakari.


Russ Mittermeier describes the Mentawai Islands off the west coast of Sumatra as "the Galapagos of Indonesia," with seven primates found nowhere else in the world, including an endemic primate genus. "I got four of the species, including the endemic genus, in two days." But the locals spend much of their free time hunting monkeys, so they can be skittish. Conservation International is now putting $400,000 into the island's Siberut National Park. To get there, it's a 12-hour boat ride from Padang in West Sumatra. 

In northern Borneo, about 80 orangutans, mostly orphaned by poaching, now wander freely in the forest at the Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve.  It's also a good spot to see proboscis monkeys. A few hours away, in the lower Kinabatangan floodplain, around the village of Sukau, visitors can track wild orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and Bornean gibbons with the help of Red Ape Encounters, a local organization that also arranges home stays for visitors interested in Malay culture

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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