'I Am the First Person on Earth to See All 80 Genera Primates in the Wild'

I was in the magnificent Mayan ruins of Tikal, in the middle of the Guatemalan rainforest. It was 1970 and I was a 20-year-old student at Dartmouth College, travelling through Central America.

Several years earlier, I had decided that my early fascination with nonhuman primates was to be the focus of my career—but I still hadn't ever seen a wild primate.

That was about to change. As I walked back along a forest trail leading to the ruins, I heard a swishing sound above me in the trees and looked up to see a Central American spider monkey staring down at me.

A magnificent animal, the aptly named spider monkeys are true aerial acrobats, brachiating—swinging by their arms below branches—through the trees. I was thrilled and decided on the spot that I needed to see every primate in the world. The stage was set for the next half-century.

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When I was a young boy growing up in New York, my mother, a German immigrant and housewife who loved animals, would frequently take me to the Bronx Zoo. On one of those early trips in the late 1950s, I saw an unusual animal that would heavily influence my career.

It was a white uakari, a very strange species from the central Brazilian Amazon with long shaggy white fur, a bright red bald head, and a very short tail. I was immediately fascinated for a variety of reasons.

Not least because the white uakari resembled early renditions of the "abominable snowman" or "yeti", which had been in the news quite a lot in those years, following Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. The image of this creature stuck with me for the next 15 years, and I became obsessed with seeing it in the wild.

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In 1973, I decided that I would look for the uakaris in their habitat in the remote flooded forests of Amazonia, which back then was still very poorly known. The route that I chose to follow was mainly to retrace the steps of the great 19th Century British explorer-naturalists Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace.

Primates, Wildlife, World, Nature, Animals
Russell A. Mittermeier with giant baobabs in the background in South West Madagascar in 1993. A baobab is a genus of tree and this stretch is known as the "Avenue of the Baobabs", and is found near the town of Morondava, Madagascar. RUSSELL A. MITTERMEIER

Both of these esteemed gentlemen had mentioned the bizarre uakaris, but had only seen them as pets and food items in villages, and never in the wild. In fact, after some research, it became obvious that no outsider had ever seen wild individuals of the three different kinds of uakaris recognized at the time—the white, the red, and the black.

Not only was this a great opportunity to develop a thesis project, it would also be a contribution to conservation because the uakaris were all thought to be endangered. What is more, seeing them would also represent major ticks on my quest to see all genera and species of primates in the wild.

I spent four months on a riverboat in the Brazilian Amazon, going up the mainstream of the Amazon itself to the Colombian border, and also many of its major tributaries such as the Tapajos, the Trombetas, the Japurá, the Içá, and the Negro, and managed to see all three uakari species. In fact, the black uakari turned out to be one of the most common monkeys in the small black-water tributaries of the Rio Negro and not nearly as threatened as had been believed.

But the culmination of the expedition came when I made a side trip to the small white-water, mosquito-infested Auati-Paraná Canal. There, after several days of paddling through the flooded forests, we managed to locate several groups of the white uakari.

Mission accomplished, another primate added to my list, and a foundation laid for future conservation efforts.

Although many of my first sightings of primates took place without incident, a number of my other encounters were somewhat riskier. One that stands out was my first sighting of wild gibbons of the genus Hylobates—a name that means "forest walker".

When excited, gibbons can literally fly through the trees just by flexing their long powerful arms. It is one of the most spectacular forms of locomotion in the animal kingdom.

Back in 1979, I went looking for gibbons on my first day ever in an Asian tropical forest in Khao Yai National Park in Thailand. I was with a graduate student from University of California, Berkeley who was also on his first field trip to Asia and was interested in studying gibbons in the wild.

Primates, Wildlife, World, Nature, Animals
Russell A. Mittermeier and an inquisitive red-fronted brown lemur in South West Madagascar in 1985. RUSSELL A. MITTERMEIER

We were a little cautious because this was tiger country, and we'd been told a tiger had mauled a girl a couple of months earlier and killed a ranger the year before. But that didn't stop us. We began our search early in the morning, and to our delight found a gibbon group very quickly. But a short while later we were stopped dead in our tracks.

There in front of us, about 30 feet away, was a large tiger lying in the middle of the trail. The tiger jumped up, and simultaneously the student, who was in front of me, began to run.

I yelled, "don't run, don't run!", but my legs had a mind of their own, and I quickly passed him by. We both ran for at least a mile before we realized that we were out of danger. The tiger, probably at least as surprised as we had been, was obviously not interested in eating us. And, of course, we had found our gibbons.

In April 2019, 49 years after my first primate sighting, I completed one of my primate quests. I became the first person in history to see all 80 genera of primates in the wild. This happened when I saw my first kipunji monkeys in the Mbeya region of southern Tanzania. It was only known from a handful of sites and is considered one of most endangered primate species in the world.

That day, I achieved one of my lifetime goals – one that began in the ruins of Tikal so long ago—and I hope others are inspired to do the same.

I study primates because I think they are cool, cute, endearing and quite diverse in behavior and ecology.

Why did I focus on primates? First, they are the best symbols – the flagship species – for the tropical rainforests of the world where more than 90 percent of them are found, and these forests are the world's richest terrestrial ecosystems.

However, equally important from my personal perspective is that I study primates because I think they are cool, cute, endearing, quite diverse in behavior and ecology, and generally fun to search for and observe.

It's not necessary to become a primatologist to become a primate-watcher and see as many primates in the wild as possible.

And you don't have to paddle through the flooded Amazon forest searching for primates that haven't been documented by science in generations, like I did.

Primates, Wildlife, World, Nature, Animals
The kipunji monkey represents the 80th primate genera that Russell A. Mittermeier has seen in the wild, making him the first to see all primate genera in the wild. JOHN C. MITTERMEIER

It is relatively easy to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda. In Madagascar, lemur-watching is the top attraction for tourists. In Brazil, you can see the golden lion tamarin in the Poço Antas Reserve in the state of Rio, or the northern muriqui in the state of Minas Gerais. In India, you can see the hoolock gibbon at a reserve in Assam.

Over the course of my lifetime, I have seen both encouraging success stories and dramatic losses of primates in different parts of the world.

Primates are the most threatened larger group of mammals. The rampant destruction of tropical forests over the past half century has had huge impacts on them. What's more, primates are hunted as a source of food, for sport, and often for live capture as pets or for medicinal purposes.

But the fact is that we as a conservation community have learned over the years how to conserve primates, not to mention a growing cadre of trained primate experts who can carry out the needed work.

One of the best things everyone can do to help endangered primates and the local communities around them is to go and see them, creating an ecotourism industry that benefits wildlife and humans.

In spite of all the challenges that we face, not the least of which is the temporary closure of almost all primate-watching sites around the world because of COVID-19, I am optimistic that primates can once again thrive, especially with the help of a growing global community of primate-watchers anxious, as I was, to see them in the wild.

Russell A. Mittermeier is chief conservation officer of Global Wildlife Conservation and chair of the Primate Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Species Survival Commission. The moment Russell achieved one of his lifetime goals—to see all genera of primates in the wild—is captured in the BBC documentary, Primates.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

'I Am the First Person on Earth to See All 80 Genera Primates in the Wild' | My Turn