How to Track Apes and Monkeys in the Wild
Updated: Feb 24
When it comes to fieldcraft, primates can be split into two main camps: those that are habituated and those that aren’t. Habituated primates have been acclimatised to the presence of humans; they are often the subject of scientific field research and offer some of the closest and most rewarding encounters. Tracking them usually relies on following a guide who is in radio contact with scouts that have kept a close watch over your target primates since daybreak. Unhabituated apes or monkeys, on the other hand, present a far greater challenge. To catch even a fleeting glimpse of them you’ll need to pit your wits against some of the smartest minds in the animal kingdom. There are exceptions, of course – savannah dwelling baboons are not exactly shy, while some species of langur and macaque have adapted to urban areas, becoming streetwise monkeys ever on the lookout for free food. India’s temple monkeys and Gibraltar’s rock apes will probably find you long before you find them.
Not all primates are diurnal. Take a walk at night in the forests of Africa, India or South East Asia, cast a torch beam into the trees and you could well find a pair of round eyes shining back at you. Largely nocturnal, prosimians are the oldest members of the primate family and include lorises, pottos, bushbabies, lemurs, tarsiers and the aye-aye. Holed up in trees by day, these goggle-eyed gremlins only emerge to feed under cover of darkness. In Latin America, the nightshift is filled by owl monkeys which not only resemble owls with their huge, disc-shaped eyes, but also sound like them, uttering low-frequency hoots.
Howlers and cry babies
Listening out for their calls can be a good way to track down nocturnal primates. Bushbabies, in particular, have a loud shriek that has an unnerving resemblance to a crying human infant. Some diurnal lemurs kick up a racket during the day. One of the most haunting calls in nature, the song of the indri can carry for around 3km, adults joining in duets to proclaim their territories. For forest dwellers this is an effective way to declare their location to other primates. Other species are equally vocal, from bellowing howler monkeys and pant-hooting chimpanzees to the wonderful whooping of gibbons. In many forests, the dawn chorus of primates rivals anything that birds can offer. In addition to marking territory, primates make a song and dance over predators. Alarm calls could be anything from baboons barking at a leopard slinking from its daytime cover to langurs grunting indignantly at a tiger. Keep your ears open and these tell-tale sounds can lead you to all kinds of interesting wildlife.
There’s nothing more irresistible to most primates than a tree in flower or fruit. Stake one out, rather than stroll randomly through a forest, and you’ll greatly increase your chances of spotting primates – particularly the more elusive canopy-dwelling species. Orang-utans, for example, are notoriously difficult to see in the wild, but they’ll travel large distances to gorge themselves on fruit. You will know when there’s one feeding in the tree above you when empty fruit husks start raining down. Other primates frequent particular habitats for feeding – lowland gorillas, for example, are partial to the tubers and shoots of water plants growing in swampy bais (or clearings) in the Congo rainforest.
This is what intrigues us most about primates. A mere sighting will always leave us wanting, because it’s only through patient and sustained observation that you begin to recognise so much familiar behaviour – playing infants, social dominance, even tool use. Ultimately, it’s the experiences of primatologists like Jane Goodall that provide the best lesson in fieldcraft: take your time, sit quietly and simply observe.