Conservation news

Primate-Watching: In the Year of the Monkey, let’s build a Conservation Movement

Juvenile aye-aye/ Photo by Russ Mittermeier

  • Russ Mittermeier, long-time Chair of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group and Executive Vice-Chair of Conservation International is using the “Year of the Monkey” to highlight the concept of primate-watching based on a bird-watching model.
  • Here he explains what it means and how it can play a major role in conserving these wonderful animals, our closest living relatives.
  • This post is a commentary — the views expressed are those of the author.

Russ Mittermeier, long-time Chair of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group and Executive Vice-Chair of Conservation International has spent the better part of the last 46 years working on the conservation of primates and their tropical rain forest habitats. During this time, he has rediscovered species thought to be extinct, discovered species new to science, and become the first outsider to see many others. About 15 years ago, he came up with the concept of primate-watching based on a bird-watching model, and has developed the concept ever since. Here he explains what it means and how it can play a major role in conserving these wonderful animals, our closest living relatives.

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. Indeed, some of the figures that I have seen just for the U.S. indicate that there are nearly 50 million bird-watchers in our country, and that the “industry”, if you can call it that, generates about $50 billion in revenues each year. You may have even heard of bird life-listing, where individual birders keep lists of the number of species they have seen in the wild and compete in many ways with their fellow enthusiasts. Indeed, the competition can sometimes be quite intense, as captured so nicely by the hugely entertaining Hollywood film, “The Big Year”. But I bet that you haven’t yet heard about “primate-watching” and “primate life-listing” because there are still only a handful of us primate-watchers out there. But stay tuned – primate-watching is sure to grow by leaps and bounds in the years to come. And what better time to move forward with this than in the “Year of the Monkey”, which begins with the Chinese New Year, February 8, 2016.

An aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) from Nosy Mangabe Special Reserve (photo by E. E. Louis Jr.).
Ed Louis’ field crew searching for aye-aye nest. Photos by Russ Mittermeier.

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, backyard amateurs, 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 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 for a non-specialist, even for a mammal-focused field biologist!), 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 30, 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. at Oxford, has seen nearly 5,000 bird species in the wild in 110 countries, is currently in a remote corner of the Solomon Islands trying to rediscover a bird long thought to be extinct, and left me in the dust in terms of avian field skills by the time he was about 12.

Ultra-marathoners photographing gorillas. Photos by Russ Mittermeier.
Mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) feeding on bamboo. Photos by Russ Mittermeier.

I think that the pivotal moment for me came during John’s first week of prep school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. While unpacking his bags and settling into his new room, he took a few minutes to visit a small pond near the school 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 record for this species in New Hampshire. Not a big deal, right? Well, it sure was for the birders! John was very excited, posted his finding on a birding website, and within days hundreds of New Hampshire birders had descended on the pond just 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, pottos, galagos and tarsiers that are our closest living relatives — for nearly half a century now, and have always very carefully kept a list of species that I have seen, taking pride in each new one that I encounter in the wild. 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 shared with the community at large.

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 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 some 17 families, 78 genera, and 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 as a community have discovered and described 105 species and subspecies new to science, with the bulk of those discoveries, 78 in all, coming since the start of the new millennium.

Golden monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellana qinlingensis), male and female resting, Shaanxi Province, China. Photo by Russ Mittermeier.

Why should we bother to “primate-watch”? First of all, it’s a lot of fun. It takes you out into nature, sometimes 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 is 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 rediscover a lost species or find one entirely 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.

Golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) in the wild, state of Rio de Janeiro. Photos by Russ Mittermeier.
A pair of golden-headed lion tamarins in a cabruca cocoa plantation, southern Bahia, Brazil. Photos by Russ Mittermeier.

Over the years, I have been in positions that have enabled me to make many contributions to primate and rain forest conservation, both financial and scientific, especially through Conservation International, the Primate Specialist Group of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission, and the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation. With their support, we 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 different field guides, pocket guides, and other products to facilitate the identification of primates in the wild. Most recently, in October, 2015, we launched the first-ever primate-watching app, this one for the Lemurs of Madagascar, which we presented in the capital city of Antananarivo as part of the Second World Lemur Festival.

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 natural assets are both appreciated by the world and essential for their own future. Indeed, I can’t tell you how many times I have had local people ask me, after noting how excited I was to see their species in the wild, don’t you have monkeys, lemurs or apes in America?. When I tell them that the U.S.A. doesn’t have any native primate species, they are indeed surprised, and you can see a gleam of pride in their eyes when they realize that they in fact do have something special right in their backyards.

Northern muriquis in Fazenda Montes Claros, Caratinga, Minas Gerais, Brazil. Photos by Russ Mittermeier.
Indri (Indri indri) mother and infant, Andasibe, Madagascar. Photos by Russ Mittermeier.

So how many species have I seen in the wild? Well, although I have been a primate-watcher since 1970, when I saw my first wild primate, a spider monkey at Tikal in Guatemala, I still 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, and it has taken me to some amazing places. In fact, I am still in the process of updating my list, a time-consuming endeavor given all the taxonomic changes that have taken place over the past 46 years.

I still have a long way to go, and I doubt that I will ever see all species and subspecies in the wild. However, it’s not just about seeing all the species. Listing success can be measured in many different ways and broken down by sub-components. For instance, we currently recognize 78 genera of primates, and I have seen 74, including all of those in the South and Central America, Madagascar and Asia, and am missing only four in Africa. One can also try to see all the members of a particular group of primates, e.g., all 14 of the great apes, all seven of the elusive snub-nosed monkeys of China, Myanmar, and Vietnam, all nine of the beautiful sifakas of Madagascar, or all eight genera and 62 species and subspecies of the South American marmosets and tamarins, depending on your interests, both scientific and geographic. The possibilities are many.

What is more, I am very pleased to say that many of my colleagues are joining the primate-watching movement. I have a Twitter account called @PrimateWatcher, Andie Ang from the University of Colorado, Boulder, has another called @PrimateWatching, and many others have expressed an interest or are already engaged in listing. So why don’t you join us? You don’t need a Ph.D., you don’t need great scientific knowledge, and you don’t need to be wealthy. As with the bird-watchers, all you need is enthusiasm and love for the animals in question.

If you want more information, 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 let us know at rmittermeier (at)

Subgroup of females, juveniles and infants, with silverback and juvenile in background, (Gorilla beringei beringei), Democratic Republic of Congo, Photo by Russ Mittermeier.
Baby male aye-aye from Kianjavato. Photos by Russ Mittermeier.
Young bonobo moving through forest. Baby male aye-aye from Kianjavato. Photo by Russ Mittermeier.