Primatologists Aim to Ape Bird Watchers
ANTANANARIVO With time running out for many wild primates, one field biologist is attempting to help save them by aping the online success of bird watchers.
"Bird watching is a multi-billion industry and enthusiasts are always ticking new species they see. But no one is doing this for primates," said primatologist Russ Mittermeier, president of NGO Conservation International.
"I have probably seen more primates in the field than anyone so I decided it was time to encourage primate watchers to also begin counting the species they have seen," he told Reuters at a conservation conference in Madagascar's capital.
Mittermeier, who has seen over 300 of the planet's roughly 650 species and sub-species of wild primates, plans to set up a Web site in the next couple of months that will allow watchers to record their sightings.
He is hoping to tap into the competitive streak in nature lovers that sees bird watchers attempting to reach higher tallies than their peers.
"People love to count things and keep lists," he said. "People will be able to maintain their lists on that site. I want people to get out and get passionate about this the way the bird watchers are."
"You go to a site to see gorillas but at that site there may be two to a dozen other species (of primates) that nobody pays any attention to but they are just as interesting as the apes," he added.
Bird watchers are sometimes teased for their enthusiasm as, with field guides and binoculars in hand, they search for obscure weavers and warblers.
But it is a wildly popular hobby that has sparked many efforts to protect crucial avian habitats such as wetlands.
Mittermeier said he got the idea when his son, a keen ornithologist, spotted a small bird in a New Hampshire pond that was common in Florida but was only the fourth recorded sighting of the species in the north-eastern U.S. state.
"He put it on the Web site and within a day he had hundreds of people at that pond hoping to see the bird. And I said this is power and it's mad if we don't use this power for primates," he said.
Getting people out to observe primates, whether they are the mountain gorillas of Rwanda or lemurs in Madagascar, is regarded as crucial because of the revenue that ecotourists bring to the poor tropical regions where most of these animals are found.
"We want to demonstrate that they have more value as sources of income by looking at them live than by going out and killing them," Mittermeier said.
Apart from habitat destruction, the market in bush meat -- wild animals killed as a source of protein -- is pushing many primates including the great apes, humanity's closest living relatives, toward extinction.
"If we can get enough visitation, enough people coming then the whole dynamic of how local people view them is going to change," Mittermeier said.