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. 

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.

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 très facile.” Conservation International would put up the money, he said. 

“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 Lopé National Park, you can see the largest gatherings of nonhuman primates in the world—groups of up to 1,000 mandrills at a time. Lopé 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, Lopé 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.

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 Poço 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 Galápagos 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