King of the swingers: what Primates tells us about our locked-down world

One day 23 years ago, scientists were exploring a lost world called Batang Toru when they glimpsed something moving in the forest canopy. What they saw was a great ape that had lived in splendid isolation for 700,000 years. With its kindly black face, orange fur and vast proto-artisanal beard, it looked like the familiar Sumatran or Borneo orangutans, but was neither. In 2017, the Tapanuli orangutan was recognised as a new species. It is smaller, and has paler, thicker fur than its lowland cousins and lives in reproductive isolation on that remote plateau in the north Sumatran jungle 1,000m above sea level.

The news about this addition to world species lists prompted producer Nikki Waldron to scramble to the Sumatran jungle, to film the Tapanuli orangutan for the first time. After a few weeks, she and her crew found a mother and daughter in their natural habitat. “When we first arrived, the cameraman sighed. The light levels were really low because of the density of the leaves, and the orangutans live 40m up in the trees.”

“We’ve made series about sharks, which are difficult to film, and big cats which are more difficult, and now primates that are arguably the most difficult of all,” says Mike Gunton, executive producer of the new three-part BBC One nature documentary Primates. “They move quickly. It’s hard for camera crews to keep up with them. What’s more, they tend to live in very inaccessible areas like steamy jungles at the top of tall trees.” Yet Waldron and her camera crew captured some poignant shots of a mother teaching her baby daughter how to forage in the trees. The Tapanuli orangutan needs a more varied diet of plants than other orangutans, and baby needs to learn these life lessons fast: after five years, she will leave her mother and forage independently.

But the tender images are bittersweet since the world in which the baby will grow to maturity is a threatening one: logging, gold mining and a huge hydropower scheme now menace its habitat. As a result, the Tapanuli orangutan is not only the newest but also the most endangered of ape species: there are only 800 left. “Within a generation they could be gone,” says series presenter Chris Packham.

More than half of primate species are under threat of extinction. “The future of them all is in the hands of one primate: us,” says Packham. We are the cause of – as much as the solution to – primates’ problems. One sequence in Primates makes this point eloquently. In Malaysia’s Penang province, a busy road cuts through the habitat of a colony of dusky langurs. Undaunted, the langurs have taken to swinging across the power cables stretched high over the roads, risking electrocution.

Monkey on a wire … a langur in Malaysia.

Monkey on a wire … a langur in Malaysia. Photograph: Alexey Pelikh/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Wildlife researcher Jo Leen Yap, along with some other volunteers, has built a monkey bridge from recycled rubber. Since they filmed this sequence, though, Malaysia has gone into lockdown, traffic is minimal, and roads are safe for langurs to cross. Primates the world over are being given a preview of what would happen if humans became extinct.Nature returns as humans, albeit briefly, step aside.

The prospect of human extinction would be dismal for arguably the most delightful primates in the series, the rhesus macaques of Kathmandu. In Nepal, they are worshipped as gods and take up positions in city streets where the faithful gift them offerings of food. Better yet, there is a fountain reserved for their use and it is here that camera crews captured some of the loveliest footage. Rhesus macaques, it turns out, love athletically spinning into the pool and cannonballing each other wildly. “It’s not impossible of course that they are performing for the cameras,” says Gunton.

In a sequence shot in Tanzania, primatologist Russell Mittermeier completes a lifelong personal quest by spotting the last of 79 genera of primates that exist on our planet. The kipunji monkey wasn’t described by science until 2015 and is one of the most endangered primates in the world.

Gestures … a chimpanzee from episode one of Primates.

Gestures … a chimpanzee from episode one of Primates. Photograph: Abi Brown/BBC

We live in such a crazily unnatural world that, as we learned from the Netflix documentary Tiger King recently, many more tigers are in American captivity than live wild on the entire planet. It is a world, too, in which there is an online trade in gibbons for pets – which are often abandoned once they grow up and their propensity to domestic destruction eclipses their charm.

In Primates, we see conservation groups habituating such domesticated primates to the wild. Mittermeier argues that the best way to save such animals is to promote ecotourism, often to conservation initiatives where primates can be watched unobtrusively by humans. Primate watching, he argues, provides income for local communities and an incentive to protect primates and their habitat.

But such initiatives are in peril now so few people are travelling. What’s more, great ape sanctuaries are in lockdown. “We don’t know for certain yet whether primates can pass on Covid-19,” says series producer Gavin Boyland. But given the Ebola virus is thought to have killed thousands of chimpanzees and gorillas in Africa, lockdown is a sensible precaution.

“It also means we could not have shot the series now. And, going forward, it is not clear how we will be able to work.” At the same time, lockdown means Primates has an unprecedentedly captive audience. “Lots of people are yearning to experience nature now,” says Boyland. “We certainly didn’t have any idea that Primates would be shown at a time of lockdown but we hope it will not just inform people but give them a virtual experience.”

There’s a lot to bewitch in this consistently beautifully photographed series. Made over three years, it’s a virtual nature walk in which we meet 25 of the 500 species of primates that exist in the world today, including Madagascar’s beguiling and nocturnal blue-eyed black lemur, which is about 150 times smaller than the biggest creatures in the series, Congo’s mighty mountain gorillas.

A female drill with her infant on Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea.

Bewitching … a female drill monkey with her infant on Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea. Photograph: BBC

Primates also gives us mere humans valuable life tips. What should males do when females are exhausted by pregnancy and giving birth? We could emulate the male golden-headed lion tamarins that Waldron filmed in Brazil. “We never expected to find the story of a male who does childcare, but that quickly became the story we told. He becomes the guardian, the navigator and a taxi for his daughter. He can’t really be otherwise because her cry is so loud. She’s the most demanding offspring, but he just gets on with his job.”

How should we communicate with our offspring when they aren’t listening? We could develop a series of gestures such as those developed by Ugandan chimpanzees. When it’s time to go home, a mother chimp will show its offspring the base of its foot, the little chimp will climb on her back and they will head off. University of St Andrews primatologist Cat Hobaiter has found, from long hours studying footage on her laptop, that chimpanzees in Budongo Forest in Uganda have a repertoire of 80 such gestures.

Most topically, the series teaches us the value of collective endeavour, something we may have neglected in our individualistic society, but which we can rediscover by watching dusky leaf monkeys gang up on a menacing python and shake it from a tree. “Primates are the most social animals,” says Packham. Collaboration and neighbourliness are key not just to survival but to quality of life.

Closer to nature … long-tailed macaques on Thailand’s east coast use rock tools to catch shellfish.

Closer to nature … long-tailed macaques on Thailand’s east coast use rock tools to catch shellfish. Photograph: BBC/NHU

All of these wonders have been made possible by new kit. Back in 1990, on David Attenborough’s The Trials of Life for instance, a medical endoscope was used to film inside a bivouac of army ants in Panama. In Primates, a 360-degree camera gives us a sense of what it is like to be a gibbon, hurling oneself through the treetops. The camera, which is a sphere equipped with 24 individual lenses, is mounted on a cable that traverses the canopy alongside the gibbons. By digitally stitching together the multiple images it captures, the production team gets closer to a gibbon’s-eye perspective than ever before.

“I’ve been working on these documentaries for 30 years and so much has changed,” says Gunton. “Trials of Life was a watershed because it was then that we started following the journeys of individual animals in a way we couldn’t before. And that led to a richer and more intimate experience for viewers.” But, he argues, the biggest change in nature documentaries is not so much in the sophistication of the technology as the sophistication of the viewers. “We don’t just want images of cute animals. We do still want that – but there’s a growing desire to think about what nature is and our role in protecting it.”

One sequence in the series particularly touched me. High in the Atlas mountains of north Africa, a broken-nosed old Barbary macaque sat alone. Back in the day, he was an alpha male commanding of a 40-strong crew. Since then, he has become socially redundant, living in 24-hour social isolation. Then temperatures tumbled and a snow storm whipped down from the heavens. Suddenly, several young macaques crawled along the branch on which the venerable male was settling for the bitter night, and hugged him for warmth. Thanks to this hitherto expendable monkey, the juvenile pile-on might survive the night.

How lovely to see a superannuated old dude, deemed expendable by society, showing what he has to offer a community in crisis. Or perhaps that’s just me.

Primates starts on BBC One on 26 April.


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