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Going Ape
A conversation with the inventor of the “primate list.”

Russ Mittermeier, president of Conservation International

Courtesy of Conservation International

Perhaps no one has seen more wild primates than Russ Mittermeier, president of Conservation International—and with more than 300 species on his “life list,” he is certainly keeping track. But go ahead, “beat me,” he dares. Mittermeier is not just competitive—he wants his obsession with logging wild monkeys, lemurs, and apes to catch on because, like bird listing, it could be a powerful tool for conservation.

Traveling to faraway places to see wild animals encourages the local people who might otherwise cut down the forest or hunt the animals for food or pets to protect their natural heritage, he explains. “Primates are a wonderful diverse group of animals that can be seen more readily than most, in the same habitats as birds, and they are our closest living relatives.”

Audubon senior editor Rene Ebersole caught up with Mittermeier between his primate-watching forays and asked him for some tips.

Audubon: How do you go about finding monkeys? (They don’t sing.)
Mittermeier: They don’t sing, but they do vocalize a lot. Some vocalize at set times in the day. Some have dawn calls, just like birds do. Some of them make a lot of noise when they’re jumping around in trees. After a while you get good at identifying certain sounds of animals moving through the trees—a small animal makes a different swishing sound than a big one. You can find the nocturnal species by these auditory cues, and also their eyes shine.

A: Can you call them in? (Like pisching for birds?)
M: You can with certain species, not all. You can do playback [recordings of the animals’ cries] with animals that respond to auditory calls. The indri in Madagascar will almost always respond to its territory call. Some of the tamarins and marmosets will respond to a high-pitched whistling sound.  They come in looking for a fight. Others that respond to playback include howler monkeys, titi monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, and gibbons.

A: Do you need a tracker?
M: It’s always good, and highly advisable to go out with a local guide who knows the area. I’ve seen more monkeys in the wild than anybody, and I always hire a local guide who knows the fauna and knows the trails. Otherwise you’re pretty sure to get lost.

A: How do you know that you’re getting a good guide?
M: I’ll usually just ask a few questions, and show them a few pictures: What are the local names for these animals?  What do they eat? When was the last time you saw them? And I can usually tell if they will be good. Pay depends on local conditions. Generally, for a day’s worth of looking at primates, I usually pay in the range of $5 to $50, depending on the country and the economy.

A: What sort of equipment is essential?
M: Very much the same as for birding: a pair of binoculars, a camera if you like to take photographs, a machete in case you need to go off trail, a tape recorder if you want to do playback.

A: Is there anything you should not do if you find wild primates?
M: You should not eat them. You should not shoot them. You should not throw rocks at them to get their attention.

A: Are there different rules for watching apes?
M: Because you’re likely to see them mostly on the ground, and because they’re so closely related to us, there’s much more of a risk from disease. With gorillas, you have to have guides and guards, and you can only go for an hour. It’s hard to find them on your own.

A: Why should you go only for an hour?
M: There is some indication that prolonged interactions modify the gorillas’ social behavior. So interactions are limited to an hour a day, and only certain groups are visited by tourists. But if you don’t have gorilla tourism, then the economic incentive for protecting them isn’t there. It’s been working well for about 30 years.

A: What do you do if the apes approach you?
M: Sit still and be very polite. Don’t stand up and be intimidating. If a big male orangutan approaches you, he’ll be slow, and you should probably walk away. With gorillas don’t stare directly at them. Look small and humble.

A: Can primates be hostile toward humans?
M: Vervet monkeys and baboons can be hostile in areas where they’re fed; same with Asian macaques. I’ve been to a holy mountain in China that’s an excellent site for seeing the Tibetan macaque. You get thousands of people streaming up the mountain, and you have guys with sticks scaring off the monkeys because they’ll come up and grab tourists’ bags.

A: Are some primates naturally curious about humans?
M: Yeah, if they haven’t been hunted. If they have been hunted, their general response is to get out of there as quickly as possible. Apes and monkeys are cautious because a direct stare is a threat. They’ll just cast glances. Little primates will often come down and try to engage you in some sort of interaction.

A: Is it okay to entice them with food?
M: No. You shouldn’t do that. There are a few places in Madagascar where the lemurs are fed bananas and they’ll jump around on people’s shoulders. But it’s definitely not something we want to encourage.

A: Is there ever a time that you should not try to have a monkey or ape encounter? For instance, if you have a cold?
M: Certainly with the apes if you have any kind of transmissible disease you shouldn’t go. They share so much of our genetic makeup they really are at risk. If you’re likely to have close physical contact, you should be careful.

A: Are there diseases that a human could contract from a primate?
M: Yes, if you’re handling them in captivity, or if you’re a bush meat hunter, Ebola is a risk. But if you’re just watching them, there shouldn’t be any problem. For the most part you’re seeing these animals up in the trees. You should avoid handling them, or touching any waste products.

A: What’s your most reliable tip for finding primates?
M: Go to really good places, and get really good guides. Very often if a site has any level of visitation, if you’re not going to some remote area in the middle of the Amazon or Congo, there’s usually someone around who has some familiarity. The whole rationale is to stimulate the economic development for primate tourism, so you want to hire local people to help you. It’s also a source of local pride.

A: If someone wanted to start listing primates, can you recommend a destination that might provide opportunities to see a variety of species on a first time out?
M: Absolutely Madagascar. It’s extremely easy. It has more than a hundred species. The sites are easy to get to. You can go for 8 to 10 days and you’ll see easily 15 species. It’s high diversity, and it’s extremely good viewing conditions.

A: How do you keep track of your primate life list?
M: Very primitively. I keep notebooks. I’m in the process of trying to put together a website now. The idea with the website is to make it easy.  The model is the Center for Travelogy, which helps you keep track of the countries you’ve been to, which I also do. We want people to be able to go to our site and generate their own private primate list.  

A: Do you have any other tips to share?
M: You’ve got to get good reference materials. One of our objectives [at Conservation International] is to generate lists and field guides that people can use. If you go into an area that has a high diversity of primates, you might not be able to identify them readily. We’ve done field guides, and now we’re creating pocket lists. The lemur list folds 8 or 10 times, fits into any pocket. It’s a quick and dirty way to see what the animals look like, and how to tell them apart. We’re doing more and more of this. We’ll have 8 to 10 over the next year, and hopefully 20 to 30 over the next few years. If you go to low-diversity sites, like some places in Rwanda, you might find three species: gorilla, golden monkey, and baboon. But if you go to Madagascar or the Amazon you need some help because you can find more than 100 different species.

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