Primates on BBC: A Review

“The future of them all is in the hands of one primate….. us.”

Chris Packham

BBC’s natural history unit recently aired a three part series exploring the world of our closest living relatives, the Primate order, so rightly names Primates. Despite only being three hour long episodes the series presenting breathtaking, and in some places never seen before footage of a variety of primate species from across the globe, giving its viewers incredible access and insights into this diversity order, their behaviour, their day to day life and the extraordinary lengths conservationists and scientists around the world are going to in order to safeguard their future.

As a lover of primates i knew i would love this series from the moment i heard about it. Yet somehow the team behind the series still managed to in many places take my breath away, fill me with happiness, anger, frustration, hope and overall pride. For those of you who haven’t watched it yet i urge you to, you will not regret it. For those of you who have and find yourself reading this blog please let me know what your favourite part was, what was your favourite species, or even what part of the series struck you the most.

Here, without spoiling too much for those who haven’t watched it, i aim to provide a brief summary and personal perspective on the three episodes and their content.

Episode 1: Secrets of Survival

At present, there is currently 79 genera and 514 species of primate described by science worldwide, widely distributed across Central and Southern America, Africa and Southern Asia, with the exception of a population of Barbary Macaques (Macaca sylvanus) found in Gibraltar. As well as being found across various continents primates are also found in a diverse range of habitat types, from snow-capped mountains to flooded forests to savannah’s and even to dusty city streets. Primates have adapted various strategies to survive in such habitats and conditions and this first episode in the series aimed to explore these strategies that have aided primates in their survival in some unlikely places.

Half way through the episode viewers were transported to a remote and isolated island off Africa’s west coast, with stunning beach and ocean views, to meet one of the least known primate species, the drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus). Footage of the species, thought to never been shown on TV before, showed a senior male outcast scavenging coconuts from a beach, adapting to a life outside of a family unit and making unlikely associations with other males.

Male drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus)

On a personal note a big research interest of mine is the impact humans are having on primates. This is a large and diverse topic of study ranging from the impacts of tourism and tourist practises on primate behaviour, health and welfare, through to the large study of the impacts of anthropogenic disturbance, through habitat loss, fragmentation and destruction on primates. Human impacts is consider to be one of the leading causes of biodiversity loss globally for nearly all species, with primates being no different, so it was only fitting that this series should explore this in more detail. A lot of TV shows or documentaries who explore this area of conservation often have an element of ‘doom and gloom’ surrounding it, and quite rightly so, it is a pressing issue which needs attention from scientists and the general public. However, the team behind Primates tackle this issue facing primates in a slightly different way, showing how different primate species are adapting and surviving in light of these pressures, showcasing the resilience of the order. One of these examples can be seen in this first episode, where we were introduced to a city living group of Long-tailed macaques (Macaca fasccularis) in Thailand, who are seen to use human hair as dental floss, and barter with tourists for high value food items. The footage then goes on to show swayambhunath stupa, in Kathmandu, the temple more commonly known as Monkey Temple. Here a troop of Rhesus macaque’s (Macaca mulatta) are regarded as sacred and worshipped by people, and the groups surrounding the temple survive off various food offerings from visitors. The impact of such offerings and the close proximity of these primates to people is still not fully understood but we do know that these interactions are not always positive despite how they seem from an outside perspective. But city living isn’t always hard for these macaques and we shown younger members of the troop enjoying a midday dip in the pools surrounding the temple.

Rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) enjoying a well earned dip in the pools surround swayambhunath stupa.

Overall this episode was a insight start to a brilliant series that any animal fan will surely love. Other primates and their strategies for survival explored within the episode included, blue-eyed black lemurs (Eulemur flavifrons) from Madagascar, bearded capuchins (Sapajus libidinosus) from Brazil, lion-tailed macaques (Macaca silenus) from India’s Western Ghats, as well as silverback mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) from the Congo basin.

Female blue-eyed black lemur (Eulemur flavifrons).

Episode 2: Family Matters

After the excitement of the first episode i couldn’t wait for the second, and obviously it didn’t disappoint. The second instalment of the three part series looked to explore family life and the complex social lives of this diverse order. Primates have some of the most complex social structures of any animal on the planet, often spending their lives in large social groups or communities which rely heavily on each other, providing support and protection. There are a variety of benefits to animals who live in social groups and audiences of this episode had the opportunity to learn of a range of these across an array of species who live in both large and small family groups.

A big favourite of everyone’s from the start of the episode was the moment viewers got to watch infant lar gibbons (Hylobates lar), in the forests of southeast Asia learn their tree top dare-devil acrobatic skills they are most famous for, from other members of their family group. Gibbons arms are around 2x the length of their legs and they move using a form of locomotion known as brachiation, or arm swinging. This form of locomotion makes up around 80% of their locomotion activities and gives them their quick speed when swinging from tree to tree. After an incredible opening sequence of gibbons swinging from tree to tree viewers discover what is takes for young gibbons to learn this potentially fatal skill through trial and error.

Lar gibbon (Hylobates lar)

As with all BBC natural history unit productions the last approximately 10 minutes of each episode viewers gain a behind the scenes perspective of filming the series, called ‘Primate Tales’. In this episode viewers got to see the amazing work of conservationist Mariana ‘Bam’ Ramli in Malaysia, who rescues infant Lar gibbons from the pet trade, preparing them to be released back into the wild.

This part of the episode also highlighted another issue close to my heart, illegal primate pet trade through social media platforms. Primates such as gibbons, particularly when they are young, are ‘cute’ and ‘adorable’ and it is easy to see why people might get sucked into keeping them as pets, as stated by Steve Flanagan, camera operator for the series, but primates are not pet. The trade in infant gibbons is one of the biggest threats facing gibbons in Malaysia, however it is not just gibbons that are affected by this. Various primate species are sold illegally in the pet trade, with many of these sales occurring through social media. It is also important to highlight here that it is not just the directly selling of primates via social media which causes harm but also the exploitation of primates, and various other animal species including tigers and elephants, as photo props. This is an issue seen across a variety of primate species, where young individuals are bought illegally or taken from the wild and exploited for entertainment purposes and photo opportunities for tourists, who often don’t realise the harm they are causing. This has been seen in Barbary macaques in Morocco, Slow Loris in Thailand and Orangutans in Sumatra, to name a few.

This issue brings me much sadness and anger, however the shining of the spotlight on this issue by the team at BBC also bought me hope. Often many people see a photo or video of a primate, or another animal, on social media and they don’t see the harm its causes as the animal isn’t being directly hurt or injured. My hope is that with series like this which will hopefully be seen by millions, along with the variety of campaigns and education initiatives being promoted worldwide, will encourage people to be alert and conscious of their actions on social media, making them think twice before liking, commenting or sharing that photo/video of the chimpanzee on Facebook.

The episode also included the beautiful dusky leaf monkeys (Trachypithecus obscurus) competing for the chance to babysit, white-cheeked spider monkeys (Ateles marginatus) feeding in an unlikely place in the Amazon, as well as the recently described Tapanuli Orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) in some of its first TV footage.

White-cheeked spider monkey (Ateles marginatus)

Episode 3: Protecting Primates

And just like that we are on to the last episode! This last episode, by far my favourite of the three centres around the work being carried out around the globe by researchers, scientists and conservationists to protect all primates, both large and small.

As it stands today over half of the worlds primate species are at risk of extinction, with some families faring worse than others. For example a staggering 95% of Madagascar’s lemurs are facing extinction. However, its not all doom and gloom. In this episode viewers get the opportunity to meet the scientists, researchers, conservationists and down right heroes doing all they can to save our closest living relatives and secure them a future.

Firstly, we are introduced to Dr. Cat Hobaiter, a primatologist and researcher who has dedicated her life to understanding the role communication and gestures play in Chimpanzee societies and communities. Work which will help scientists better understand chimpanzee cultures and in the long term help conservationists better target conservation efforts for the species.

Later on in the programme audiences get the chance to see the role technology plays in research and conservation, through the use of drones to monitor Lac Aloaotra gentle lemurs (Hapalemur alaotrensis) populations in the reed beds surrounding Lac Aloaotra. Research carried out by Prof. Serge Wich, Dr Heri Andrianandrasana and their team. The reed beds surrounding the lake are vast and the lemurs are notoriously difficult to find without the issue of the reed beds, so in comes the drone. Using thermal imagery on the drones researchers are able to pinpoint the exact location of the lemurs within the reed beds across the huge lake, allowing them to target conservation efforts for the species. Very exciting advances in the use of technology to aid conservation, but i am a little bias due to the fact its lemurs!

A episode was filled with moments of happiness and joy, including the moment primatologist Dr. Russell Mittermerier saw the last primate genera on his list the Kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji), making him the first person to see all 79 genera of primate in the wild. However, the episode also showed viewers the harsh realities and life threatening situations some conservationists find themselves in when protecting the animals they care so deeply about. Here i am talking about the risks that park rangers, such as Innocent Mburanumwe who is introduced in the episode, of Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, face on a daily basis when protecting the Mountain gorillas they view as their second family. Nearly 200 park rangers who have dedicated their lives to protecting these gorillas have lost their lives in the past 20+ years due to fighting caused by political instability in the region. No amounts of thanks to these heroes will ever be enough but i am almost 100% certain that every single person who watches this scene will be saying thank you to those who lost their live in the name of conservation.

Dr. Russell A. Mittermeier ticking off the final primate genera on his list.

The episode also showed viewers research by Verdrana Slipogor who aims to better understand the role of animal personalities in some of the world smallest monkeys, common marmosets (Callithrix jacchus). As well as the highlighting the importance of connecting habitats for dusky leaf monkeys, research being carried out by Jo Leen Yap from Langur Project Penang, as well as many more exciting projects which hold the key to safeguarding the future for this primate family.

If this quick summary has made you itching to watch Primates, well you are in luck as the three part series available on BBC iplayer for the next few months, as well as a variety of clips and blogs from those behind the series. I really do urge you if you haven’t already watched it give it a go, i promise you wont regret it! I also recommend following BBC Earth on Twitter, as they have some of the best Primates gifs.

Till next time


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