Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Remembering my primate encounters as the Year of the Monkey looms

A mother orangutan with baby, at Semenggoh, Borneo.
The eerie sound of a howler monkey reverberated through the South American forest as our guide shook my tent gently to awaken me - unnecessary in this instance. Although it was only 6 a.m., I'd been awake for at least 30 minutes, soaking up the sounds - the monkeys, the birds, the insects - that reminded me I was on a paddling trip in the Amazon.

That was the first time I'd ever heard a howler monkey, and once you hear it, it's a sound you never forget.

It was not the first time I'd been around primates in the wild, mind you. That came probably 10 years before, in Africa.

This weekend, in many places around Asian cities and towns, and also many places closer to home in Vancouver, the sounds heard will not be those of monkeys calling out, but rather the sounds of "Gung hay fat choy!" (and all its various spellings).

The Chinese New Year is upon us, and with it, we enter into the Year of the Monkey. I myself was born in the Year of the Monkey, and so I'm hoping that means it will be an auspicious year for me.

To mark the event, I thought it would be interesting to look back at all the times I'd experienced and encountered wild monkeys in my travels. However, I won't just restrict it to monkeys - I'll also include other primates. I've been lucky enough to see three of the four great apes in the wild: gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons. I have not seen chimpanzees in the wild, however. (Note to self: go back to Africa some day, see some chimps as well as some African grey parrots.)


I first encountered wild monkeys in Tanzania. We were on a six-week trip through Africa and as we drove down onto the plains of East Africa from the Central African highlands of Burundi, we could see groups of animals moving through the bush Savannah, alongside the road. They were troops of baboons, a fairly common sight along the plains of Africa, as we were to learn in the ensuing weeks. (A huge pain in the behind, too, around areas where people congregate. They have no fear of man, can be aggressive, and pack a nasty bite. Vehicles always have to be closed and locked tight in parking lots where they frequent, lest you come back to an interior decimated by their hunting for food or other objects that might catch their eyes.)
Maheshe climbs down.

While baboons are fairly common, a week earlier in that trip, I'd encountered something much more rare, one of those experiences that usually only comes once in a lifetime - if you're lucky. On the other side of Burundi sat Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and it was in that country's Kahuzi Biega National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that I got up close and almost personal with a family of eastern lowland gorillas, an extremely endangered species.

After trekking through the jungle for four hours, we finally spotted the silverback (or he first spotted us, more likely) sitting on a log, checking us out. We passed muster, he wandered back to the rest of the gorillas. We watched a mother nursing a baby on the forest floor, were pelted by fruit flung by some bratty juveniles, then were treated to the sight of Maheshe climbing down from the tree in which they'd been feeding and saunter off into the jungle with his charges.

We were to encounter more monkeys in Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, as well as baboons off and on throughout our African odyssey. Our route did not take us near any wild chimps, though.


Just as endangered as the gorillas of Africa are the orangutans of Asia. They exist in the wild on only two islands, Sumatra and Borneo. I've been fortunate in that I've seen them in two different rehabilitation sanctuaries in Malaysia - Semenggoh and Sepilok - where they live in the forest, but are undergoing gradual re-acclimatization to the wild. They do come to the reserves' feeding stations twice a day, where they can acquire papayas, bananas, cabbages, and other food, then melt back into the forest to pursue the solitary lives they tend to lead.

A young proboscis monkey shows signs of a big nose.
I was even luckier that on two different evenings while participating in wildlife viewing cruises along the Kinabatangan River, I saw two solitary orangutans climbing trees, preparing "night nests" to sleep in.

Many of the creatures at the sanctuaries arrive there after becoming victims of the pet trade. But a much greater threat is posed from habitat loss as a result of the massive deforestation going on so companies can reap the rewards from the palm oil industry.

Obviously, the orangutans are not the only species of animal threatened, although they are arguably the closest to extinction in the wild. But some other iconic primates are also threatened by industrial development.

One of those is the proboscis monkey, a primate that can actually say "size matters" when it comes to the mating game. The size of the males' noses, that is. The males with the biggest, most bulbous, most prominent schnoz tends to get the pick of the ladies. We saw plenty of those monkeys along the Kinabatangan, as well as in Bako National Park, located near the Malaysian city of Kuching.

A gibbon hangs out in the trees of the rain forest.
In addition to the proboscis and other monkeys that live along the Kinabatangan, we also found several gibbons. Like the howler monkeys of the New World, these apes have a very distinctive call that echoes throughout the jungle. However, they are apes, not monkeys - even though they appear to be monkeys, the way they move through the trees - and are more closely related to orangutans and gorillas than their long-tailed cousins.

Like orangutans, gibbons also face dangers from the pet trade and deforestation.

These species are some of our closest relatives in the animal world, many of them having DNA estimated to be 97 per cent similarity to humans.

I feel very privileged to have been able to see many of them in the wild. I would be very sad if that opportunity is lost to the next generation. So in this Year of the Monkey, maybe give some thought about helping out our primate cousins and helping out in any way you can - whether it's through volunteering your time, donating money, being aware of your shopping choices, or even just passing along information about this situation on social media channels.

Here are some websites to help you get started (many of them also have social media pages on Facebook and other platforms):

Note that I haven't vetted any of these sites; they're just to help you get started.

Although the thought of losing a species of ape or monkey to extinction is extremely sad, there is still hope. And where there is hope, there can be reason to celebrate efforts to halt the path to extinction. On that note, I'll close out with a silly song featuring monkeys and an orangutan and a place I have not been to yet, India. Enjoy! And since the words are included, feel free to sing along - or even dance!)

Oh, and Happy Year of the Monkey!

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