Primate spotting: a new brand of eco-tourism?

August 5, 2008

A Ring Tail lemur sits on a leaf at the Lemurs Park, a private eco-tourism enterprise which hosts nine species, at 22 km (14 miles) from Antananarivo December 5, 2006. The lemurs, which are found only on Madagascar, are an endangered species due mainly to deforestation and hunting in the Indian Ocean island. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti (MADAGASCAR)A scientist who claims the world record for spotting the most types of primates wants more challengers — via a new brand of eco-tourism that might stave off extinction for many apes, monkeys and lemurs.

Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International and head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) primate specialist group, reckons he has seen 350 out of 634 known species and sub-species of primate in the wild.

“There are another couple of people in the running but I think that’s the highest,” Mittermeier, born in 1949, told me of his list compiled over about four decades of work often in the world’s tropical forests.

He said that he was planning to launch a website with the lists of the top experts’ sightings.

“Then people can try to catch us,” he said. RNPS IMAGES OF THE YEAR 2007 - Officials look at four dead mountain gorillas that were illegally killed in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the week of July 26 in this handout photo released by International Gorilla Conservation Programme on August 10, 2007. The silverback male and three females were shot in the southern sector of the park, which contains more than a fifth of the world’s population of 700 mountain gorillas, according to World Wildlife Fund. REUTERS/Altor Musema/ International Gorilla Conservation Programme, Goma/Handout (DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO)

Eco-tourism to remote jungles could be a way of easing deforestation and human hunting for primate meat, a delicacy in some countries. Almost half the world’s primate species are under threat of extinction because of human activity, according to a report by the IUCN on Tuesday.

Personal tallies of species work with birdwatchers, some of whom zealously record how many of the 10,000 or so species worldwide they have seen. The late American Phoebe Snetsinger is the record holder with more than 8,000; a tally of several thousand is enough to inspire awe (…at least among fellow enthusiasts).

A drawback for primate spotting is that birds are obviously easier to see — a glance out of my office here over a square in central Oslo reveals several pigeons, a gull swooping past and a couple of sparrows. There’s not a single chimpanzee, gibbon, orang-utan or gorilla (…though I wonder about that big guy in the heavy coat over in the corner).

So my species scorecard so far today — Birds: 3, Primates: 1 (he’s human).

Trips to remote tropical region to spot primates could be one way of putting a price tag on primates and their habitats: local people would have a stake in conservation if their income from tourism were higher than from hunting or logging.

Of course there would be a host of environmental problems in bringing more visitors to the jungles. But maybe they could do more good than harm?

So would you pay for a trip to a tropical forest in the Congo basin, or along the Amazon? Perhaps to the Ivory Coast to try to track down a Miss Waldron’s red colobus? — a type of monkey not seen by a primatologist since 1978.

What do you think? Please tell us your views.

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