In the Year of the Monkey, could primate-watching be the next big thing?

Editor’s note: As Chinese New Year celebrations usher in the Year of the Monkey, we’re sharing an updated version of a 2012 blog by CI’s Russ Mittermeier about a passion of his: making primate tourism as popular as bird-watching. A version of this post was recently published on Mongabay.

You’ve heard of “bird-watching,” a hobby of millions of people around the world. The nearly 50 million bird-watchers just in the U.S. generate about US$ 50 billion in economic bird-watching activity each year. You may have even heard of “life-listing,” where individual birders keep lists of the number of species they have seen in the wild and compete with their fellow enthusiasts. The competition can sometimes be quite intense, as captured in the film, “The Big Year.”

But you probably haven’t heard about “primate-watching.” Primate-watching is poised to grow in the years to come, and what better time to move forward with this than in the Year of the Monkey, which begins today with the start of the Chinese New Year.

As a hardcore field biologist focused mainly on primates and reptiles, I have always been envious of the phenomenal dedication and interconnectedness of bird-watchers, be they Ph.D.-level researchers or enthusiastic schoolchildren. If you want to travel to another country to see birds, you have many options. You can join a high-priced birding tour led by an amazing guide; you can go it alone using one of hundreds of excellent bird field guides covering every imaginable geography; or you can visit a website and find a local birder who will be more than happy to show you “his” or “her” birds. This far-flung community is a global force, providing a wealth of data for conservation efforts and often contributing to remote human communities who benefit in many ways from bird-watcher visits.

I have long followed the bird-watching community from afar, occasionally using field guides to identify what I saw (not easy for a non-specialist!) and enjoying the company of birding colleagues on expeditions around the world. But it wasn’t until my oldest son, John, now 30, entered the realm of the fanatics at age 10 that I truly began to appreciate the potential that this community held for conservation. Now working on his Ph.D. at Oxford, he has seen nearly 5,000 bird species in the wild in 110 countries and is currently in a remote corner of the Solomon Islands trying to rediscover a bird long thought to be extinct. By the time he was 12, John’s avian field skills had left me in the dust.

The pivotal moment for me came during his first week of prep school in New Hampshire. While unpacking his bags and settling into his new room, he took a few minutes to visit a small pond nearby to do some bird-watching. One of the first species he encountered was a purple gallinule, a common bird in the southern U.S. but amazingly only the fifth recorded sighting of this species in New Hampshire. John excitedly posted his finding on a birding website, and within days, hundreds of New Hampshire birders had descended on the pond to tick this species off their state lists.

From that moment on, I decided that if birders could do it, so could primatologists. I have been studying non-human primates for nearly half a century. The time had come for primate-watching and primate life-listing to finally become serious endeavors.

Further reading

More than 90% of all primates are found only in tropical rainforests, the richest and most diverse terrestrial ecosystems on Earth. Primates are the most visible mammals in these forests, and they have long served as important symbols for tropical forest conservation, especially in the last few decades as these forests have suffered immense pressures from industrial agriculture, logging, mining, flooding by huge hydroelectric dams, the wildlife trade and bushmeat hunting.

Primates are not nearly as diverse as birds, which number more than 10,000 species and are found in almost every imaginable environment. But with 702 species and subspecies, primates are sufficiently diverse and exciting to make the challenge of seeing them all in the wild really daunting. What is more, we are living in an amazing age of species discovery, especially in the tropics. Since 1990, we have discovered and described 105 primate species and subspecies new to science — 78 of these since 2000.

Why bother to primate-watch? First of all, it’s fun. It takes you into nature, sometimes into remote and little-explored forests, and exposes you to rich and diverse parts of the world that you otherwise might never see. What’s more, by sharing your sightings with others, you can further our scientific understanding of these unique creatures. Who knows — you might even find a rediscover a lost species or find one entirely new to science, as I have done on several occasions.

By being a primate-watcher you can make a significant contribution to conservation. Non-human primates are the most endangered large group of mammals, with nearly half considered threatened at some level, and one in three falling into the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Critically Endangered and Endangered categories. Some species are down to a few dozen or a few hundred individuals. And if you took the all the remaining individuals of the Top 25 Most Endangered Primates (a list we produce every few years), you wouldn’t fill all the seats of an average college football stadium.

By visiting remote parks and reserves, you also interact with local human communities, contribute to their economies and show them that the world appreciates and values what they are protecting. Perhaps my greatest contribution to primate conservation has been to share my enthusiasm with local people, including hunters and farmers. I can’t tell you how many times I have had local people ask me, after noting how excited I was to see a species in the wild, “Don’t you have monkeys, lemurs or apes in America?” When I tell them that the U.S. doesn’t have any native primate species, you can see a gleam of pride in their eyes when they realize that they have something special right in their back yards.

So how many species have I seen in the wild? In 1970 I saw my first wild primate: a spider monkey at Tikal in Guatemala. Since then, I have carefully kept a list of species that I have seen, taking pride in each new one that I encounter. I have seen only about 340 of the 702 species out there, a little under half. Nonetheless, I think my list is by far the biggest.

Over the years, I have been able to make many contributions to primate and rainforest conservation, both financial and scientific, through Conservation International, the Primate Specialist Group of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission, and the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation. These institutions have funded a wide range of primate research projects, set aside large areas of primate habitat and — particularly relevant to primate-watching — produced a wide range of field guides and other products to facilitate the identification of primates in the wild. In October 2015, we launched the first-ever primate-watching app, this one for the lemurs of Madagascar.I am very pleased to witness many of my colleagues joining the primate-watching movement. On Twitter, I’ve noticed I’m not the only one.

So why not join us and make it your own Year of the Monkey? You don’t need to be a scientist — as with bird-watching, all you need is enthusiasm and love for the animals in question.

Russ Mittermeier was president of Conservation International for 25 years and currently serves as its executive vice chair. He also chairs the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Primate Specialist Group.

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