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Planet of the Primates

Added 13 May 2014
Planet of the Primates

Many of us regularly spend time visiting our closest relatives to catch up on the latest family news. We share meals together, swap stories over cups of tea and take part in shared activities. However, sometimes it is our less-visited distant cousins who have the most fascinating lives and it is worth some extra effort to catch up with them.

Humans are primates – a large order of animals which includes apes, monkeys and prosimians (pre-monkeys).  They are fascinating to watch – especially the Great Apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, orang-utans and bonobos) – perhaps because they have characteristics which remind us of ourselves.  So where do you need to go to meet some of our most fascinating genetic cousins?

primates gorilla
To see the greatest of the great apes in the wild is one of nature’s most exhilarating wildlife encounters.  Habituated groups provide a way for humans to view gorillas without disturbing them. At a respectful distance, you can watch gorillas feed and groom each other while exuberant youngsters play in the undergrowth.

• There are two species of gorilla; the western gorilla and the eastern gorilla. Each species is made up of two sub-species. Mountain gorillas are a subspecies of the eastern lowland gorilla.
• Gorillas are mostly vegetarian and spend much of the day eating. They also eat small insects such as termites and ants. They can eat up to 30kg of food a day!
• Gorillas can live for 40-50 years.  

How do I go and see them?
Group travel – Uganda - Gorilla and Chimp Safari
Tailor-made – see suggested itineraries in Rwanda
Tailor-made – see suggested itineraries in Uganda

primates chimp

Sharing about 99% of their DNA with humans, chimpanzees are our closest relatives. Living in groups of 30-80 individuals, this great ape is as much at home on the ground as it is in trees. Noisy, curious and intelligent they are probably the primate which most reminds us of ourselves.

• Chimpanzees are omnivores, eating both vegetation and meat. Working as a team, they hunt monkeys, young antelopes and goats. However, the majority of their diet is made up of fruit, leaves and blossoms.
• When it is time to sleep, chimpanzees make a nest up in the trees by weaving foliage together.
• Different groups of chimpanzees have learned different ways of using tools. Some ‘fish’ for termites by poking a stick down into nests. Others crack hard nuts using stones or use crushed leaves as sponges to soak up water which they can then suck out.

How do I go and see them?
Group travel – Uganda - Gorilla and Chimp Safari
Tailor-made – see suggested itineraries in Uganda

primates orangutan

Large, red-haired and with disproportionately long arms (all the better for swinging through the trees with!), orang-utans are the only great ape to live in Asia. Their range is limited to the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra where they mainly eat ripe fruit. Eating over 400 different food items means that whatever the season is, an orang-utan can find something to eat – as long as they have a large enough area of forest in which to forage in.

• In Indonesia and Malaysia, orang-utans are known as ‘orang hutans’ which translates as ‘person of the forest’.
• Orang-utans are very intelligent and have excellent powers of reasoning. Young orang-utans have a lot to learn about how to survive in their forest home so stay with their mothers for 7 or 8 years.
• The Latin (scientific) genus name for orang-utans is ‘Pongo’ – the Sumatran orang-utan is Pongo abelii and the Bornean orang-utan is Pongo pygmaeus.

How do I go and see them?
Group travel – Borneo – Sabah Naturewatch
Family group travel - Borneo -  Land of the Orang-utan
Tailor-made – see suggested itineraries in Borneo

Japanese Macaque (Snow Monkey)
primates snow monkey

These monkeys are one of the few species to live in places where winter temperatures drop below freezing. They have achieved iconic status for having worked out that if they sit in the waters of hot springs, winter time becomes a lot more bearable. This behaviour only dates back to the 1960s when a monkey entered the warm waters after someone had thrown some soya beans into the spring.

• Snow monkeys sometimes make and throw snowballs for fun – just like us!
• These monkeys have also learned that washing their food in salt water makes it taste nicer.
• Snow monkeys are the most northerly occurring non-human primate

How do I go and see them?
Group travel – Japan – Sapporo Snow Festival

primates lemur

Lemurs are a member of the prosimian group (which includes loris and tarsier) and are only found in Madagascar. There are nearly 100 known species of lemur in Madagascar from the tiny pygmy mouse lemur which fits into the palm of a hand to the teddy-bear like Indri which measures 60-80cm. Two of the most familiar species are the endearing ring-tailed lemur and the cream-coloured Verreaux’s ‘dancing’ sifaka.

• The aye-aye is a nocturnal species of lemur which uses echo location to find grubs which live under tree bark. It uses its long middle finger to hook them out.
• When there is a shortage of food or shelter, lemurs can shut down their need to mate.
• Lemur society is a matriarchal one; it’s the females who lead the troop. Even the lowest ranking female ranks higher than any male.

How do I go and see them?
Group travel – Madagascar – The Lost Continent
Group travel – Madagascar – Madagascar Wilderness Trek

By Louisa Richardson