Primate-Watching: Building A Conservation Movement

Editor's note: CI celebrates its 25th anniversary this month; since 1987, we have been committed to conserving nature — including our planet’s incredible biodiversity — for future generations. Today on the blog, CI’s president and seasoned primatologist Russ Mittermeier reflects on years of studying our closest living relatives — and envisions expanding the conservation movement with the help of primate-lovers worldwide.

You’ve heard of “bird-watching,” the hobby, sport or even obsession that occupies the free time of millions of people around the world and has become a multi-billion dollar industry. You may have even heard of bird life-listing, where individual birders keep lists of the number of species they’ve seen in the wild. But what about primate life-listing? Maybe not … I’m one of the only people who does it.

As a hard-core field biologist focused mainly on primates and reptiles, I have always been a bit envious of the phenomenal dedication and interconnectedness of bird-watchers, be they Ph.D. level researchers, enlightened businessmen or backyard amateurs. 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 on your own using one of hundreds of excellent bird field guides covering every imaginable geography; or you can visit a website and find a birder in your country of choice, who will be more than happy to show you “his” or “her” birds. This far-flung birding community is truly a global force, providing a wealth of data for conservation efforts and often contributing to remote human communities who benefit in many ways from periodic bird-watcher visits.

I had been following the bird-watching community from afar, occasionally trying to use field guides to identify what I saw (it’s not easy!), and enjoying the company of birding colleagues who often joined me on expeditions to many different parts of the world. But it wasn’t until my oldest son John, now 26, entered the realm of the fanatics at age 10, that I truly began to appreciate the potential that this community held for conservation. He is now working on his Ph.D., has seen nearly 4,000 bird species in the wild in 100 countries, and has left me in the dust in terms of his avian field skills.

During John’s first week of prep school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, he went to a small pond behind one of the dorms to see what kinds of birds he could find, and saw a purple gallinule. A common bird in the southern U.S., this was only the fifth on record for New Hampshire. Excited, John posted 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! Wow — that is power.

From that moment on, I decided that if the birders could do it, so could the primatologists. I have been studying nonhuman primates — the great apes, gibbons, monkeys, lemurs, lorises, galagos and tarsiers that are our closest living relatives — for well over 40 years now, and have always kept a list of species that I have seen. But following my son’s experience in New Hampshire, I decided that the time had come for “primate-watching” and “primate life-listing” to finally become serious endeavors.

More than 90 percent 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 agribusiness, logging, mining, flooding by huge hydroelectric dams, the wildlife trade and bushmeat hunting.

Primates are not nearly as diverse as birds, which number at least 10,000 species and are found in almost every imaginable environment. But with some 670 species and subspecies — a growing number, as we discover new species every year — primates are sufficiently diverse and exciting to make the challenge of seeing them all in the wild a really daunting one.

Why should we bother to “primate-watch”? First of all, it’s a lot of fun. It takes you out into nature, sometimes very far into remote and little-explored forests, and exposes you to wonderfully rich and diverse parts of the world that otherwise you might never see. What’s more, by recording the information that you see and sharing it with others, you can further our scientific understanding of these unique creatures. Who knows — you might even find a species new to science, as I have done on several occasions.

But most importantly, by being a primate-watcher you can make a significant contribution to conservation. Nonhuman 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 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 couple of years), you wouldn’t fill all the seats of an average college football stadium. By visiting remote parks and reserves, you interact with local human communities, contribute to their economies and show them that the world appreciates and values what they have in their backyards. And when you come home, you are so pumped up that you get your friends to share in your enthusiasm and maybe even join the ranks.

Although I have been doing this for more than four decades now, I have only seen about 350 of the 670 different kinds of primates. Still, I think my list is by far the biggest, and it has taken me to some amazing places. In the process, I have made many contributions to primate and rainforest conservation, both financial and scientific, and through CI we have produced a range of different field guides and other products to facilitate identification of primates in the wild. Since the late 1970s, I have chaired the Primate Specialist Group of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission, working with a wide range of colleagues to prevent the extinction of these wonderful animals.

But perhaps my greatest contribution has been to share my enthusiasm with local people, including hunters and slash-and-burn farmers — showing them that what they have is truly special and that their resources and assets are both appreciated by the world and essential for their own future.

I still have a long way to go … so why don’t you join me? I will soon be launching a website for primate-watching and primate life-listing, and I would be happy to share with you how to join the team. And if you want some of our field guides, pocket guides, videos, and other products, just check out our website and let us know.

Russ Mittermeier is the president of CI and chairman of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group.