Close encounters with primates

Slide show: The furry beasts are hauntingly familiar, but their habitats are fragile and remote. We take a visit

  • Sprinting after chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda

    Consider doing a few deep-knee bends as you wait in the moist dawn to begin tracking chimpanzees. You won’t be strolling along manicured paths this morning. Rather, it’s a full-on sprint through the rain forest’s brambles and tangles, chasing after tree-swinging, fig-gobbling primates. Don’t be disappointed if you’re outpaced by the baboons racing beneath the trees to scarf up whatever drops. If you’re lucky, a chimp will come down to roam. Humans and these great apes share more than 98 percent DNA, so we exhibit similar ranges of motion. You might see chimp as toddler (licking, jumping and generally just spazzing), chimp as thinker (huddled, with chin in hand or tucked to chest) or chimp as dreamer (ankle crossed at knee). You might see yourself.

  • Soaking with snow monkeys in Shibu Onsen, Japan

    In the Nagano Prefecture, crystal-clear, snow-fed mountain streams course down from the volcanic peaks through Hell Valley — an area literally bursting with subterranean thermal activity. There are dozens of hot springs and spas in the area, ranging from super-swanky to really rustic. In Jigokudani Park, the locals opt for the latter. Here Japanese macaques (snow monkeys) roam free and get their spa time in the warm rock-lined pools. You can get very close and watch the family groups lounge, flirt, fight, groom, snuggle and splash around. While you aren’t allowed in their private hot spring, just downstream is the Korakukan Ryokan, where the macaques often drop by for close encounters with their less furry cousins.

  • Touring sustainably amid lemurs and baobabs in Madagascar

    Everyone loves lemurs. The challenge is to find them in the wild — endangered and scrambling for room in shrinking habitats — while respecting their space. Fortunately, Fanamby, a Malagasy non-governmental organization, has been tasked with sustainable environmental conservation through community participation in six specially protected areas of Madagascar, including some where lemurs are common and endemic baobab trees soar. To aid both host and visiting human communities in achieving responsible tourism objectives that honor the needs of animal communities and nature, Fanamby has helped establish four ecologically sound, privately managed and local community-owned “Tented Camps” accessible via exclusive ecotours that really do the right thing in places like the Marofindilia Forest, Ankarana National Park and Anjozorobe-Angavo Protected Area.

  • Getting shaken down in Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

    The white-faced capuchin monkey is cute, agile and quick. He’s also a thief. This little criminal makes his home in the Manuel Antonio Park of Costa Rica where life has been good lately. Much thanks go out to the many beach-goers who drop their bags in the pristine white sand and head for the rough and tumble waves of the Pacific Coast. With few amenities in the park, these bags are chock-full of essentials — food, sunscreen, even a change of clothes. A word to the wise: Don’t beg the monkey to give your belongings back. He’s likely to look down from the tree, laugh and throw your underwear at your head.

  • Ignoring the monkeys in Kowloon, Hong Kong

    Instead of going to the zoo to see monkeys behind bars, why not visit them in their natural environment? Wild rhesus and long-tailed macaques rule the territory at Kam Shan Country Park, known to the locals as Monkey Hill. Up in the trees and down the steps, with curious babies turning to stare while clutching tightly to mothers and others casually grooming in the shade, the macaques easily outnumber any passing human hikers. So just keep in mind that you are the uninvited guest at their daylong social gatherings and contain your excitement as you nonchalantly stroll by. Much more than junk-food handouts and taunts, they’ll appreciate your muted respect for their home and their dignity.

  • Meeting the stars of Chimp Eden in Nelspruit, South Africa

    Even if you haven’t seen the show on Animal Planet (if you have, consider petitioning A.P. to sponsor more seasons) you will quickly fall in love with the chimpanzees as they and their stories of rescue from heartbreaking situations are introduced to you, one by one, by a sanctuary guide. Chimp Eden is a forested home to nearly 40 unique personalities, from the immensely lovable Cozi, rescued from a cage so small he hadn’t the muscles to walk when he was rescued, to Zac and Gida who had lived chained to a tree, and Josephine who had been confined to a shipping container with no sunlight. Many chimps were orphaned in the bush-meat trade and kept as pets in appalling conditions. Watching them play in the grass, rolling somersaults and tickling each other in the fresh air and freedom will bring a smile to your face and a memory you can’t dislodge.

  • Getting frisked in the forest in Ubud, Bali

    As you walk into Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest, you may be so stunned by the hordes of monkeys that you forget about the banana you bought at the entrance. Entranced by their proximity, out comes your camera to snap the baby clinging to its mother’s belly on your right, the two mates lounging as they groom each other on your left. Your reverie lasts until the alpha male behind you jumps up your torso, onto your shoulder and — before inducing complete panic — grabs the banana out of your hand and jumps off. After your bananas are gone, walk around the temple where the monkeys bathe, enjoying the peaceful cool of the verdant grounds and the almost-human dramas that unfold before your eyes. The sanctuary feels like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, but with friendly Balinese guides who wait around to keep the humans, and sometimes the monkeys, under wraps.

  • Seeing the “Big Sixth”: The mountain gorillas in Southwest Uganda

    Gazing into the soulful eyes of a powerful mountain gorilla is humbling. Add to that the trek through the wooded slopes, entwined vines, and thick, steamy bush and bamboo of southwest Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and you will have lived the stuff of legends. Bwindi (home of the Batwa Pygmies) is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed sanctuary for approximately half the world’s population of mountain gorillas. Only a few lucky people interact with them in the wild, now including travelers stalwart enough to make the journey and respect a delicate process that has gradually brought the gorillas to tolerate the presence of humans for a brief period every day. Nothing can prepare you for the first moment you come face to face with these gentle giants.

  • Playing with monkeys at Inti Wara Yassi in Villa Tunari, Bolivia

    The spider monkeys run around and jump freely from steady limb to sagging branch, unencumbered by a leash or cage. You may also catch sight of a puma being led on his morning walk or one of the many avian species. The Inti Wara Yassi Preserve was established to tend to animals that have been neglected, abused or abandoned. Upon entering, you’ll be asked to lock up all your valuables lest you find a monkey digging around in your pockets and running off with that nice Nikon you bought. Spread out on several hundred acres, a short walk provides beautiful vistas of the river valley and foothills beyond. Admission is nominal but donations are happily accepted as volunteers sustain the workforce and upkeep of this poorly funded and desperately needed sanctuary. Better yet, see how you can volunteer as an animal keeper, naturalist, tour guide, or cook while you visit the heart of Bolivia.

  • Hoping for orangutan no-shows in Sarawak, Borneo

    They come out of the verdant rain forest, these “men of the forest” — orangutans — appearing suddenly as if someone had paged them on an inter-jungle intercom. Gathering in the treetops, they wait for the wardens to place fruit on platforms, then slowly climb down to partake of the juicy dietary supplements. After watching them feed, you can walk back along the jungle trail to the education center. While there are no guaranteed sightings during a 9 a.m. or 3 p.m. feeding at the Semenggoh Wildlife Center on Malaysian Borneo, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The orangutans are in various stages of rehabilitation as they prepare to return to the wild, and if they don’t show up for free food, it means they are foraging successfully. Located 25 kilometers south of the city of Kuching, the center is part of the larger Semenggoh Nature Reserve, established in 1975.

  • Provoking primates in Shimla, India

    The Shimla locals roll their eyes when you — invariably foreign and giddy about the primate presence — toss another banana up into the tree. They’ve seen it before, and they know what happens next. The ubiquitous langur monkeys are as common as squirrels in this part of India, and 100 times as pesky. So when the Hitchcock scene rolls and you hear but not see the langurs scampering around the roof, conniving, plotting and scheming ways to feces-fling their way into your hotel room and steal your M&Ms, it might be too late to put up a fight. Just don’t say no one warned you.

  • Taking a fresh look at the world in a Lake Manyara N.P. Tanzania

    Winding down the road in Lake Manyara National Park, you’re surrounded by lush jungle forests and hundreds of olive baboons. Curious, lively and agile, the baboons seem to enjoy watching you as much as you do them. Several even climb up on the jeep for a closer look. Their curiosity satisfied, they nonchalantly go back to their business and allow you a glimpse of their everyday life — their communal grooming, the recess-like antics of the young males, and the tender attention given a newborn as it takes a fresh look at the world.

  • Zipping from tree to tree with gibbons in Bokeo, Laos

    Can ecotourism really save the world’s endangered forests? Until recently, deep in the Bokeo Nature Reserve, unsustainable logging, slash-and-burn farming, and poaching kept the local economy afloat. But now there’s another option. With an enthusiastic local collaboration, the Gibbon Experience built thatched-roof treehouses in the rain forest canopy and invited travelers to take a detour into this wild world. Hike in, climb up and feast your eyes on a gibbon’s-eye view of the forest. Local guides show you around, as you channel your inner (socially and environmentally responsible) Tarzan, flying over the treetops on zip lines to meet the wildlife. The proceeds from your stay will all go right back into the forest and the community.

  • Seeing no evil, hearing no evil, speaking no evil in Nikko, Japan

    The old adage “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” was first pictorialized and popularized by the 17th-century carving of the Three Wise Monkeys at the Tōshō-gū Shrine in Nikkō. Tōshō-gū is one of Japan’s most elaborate Shinto shrines, with bold colors, gold leafing and intricate woodcarvings quite uncharacteristic of Shinto’s typically humble religious sites. But one building at Tōshō-gū remains unpainted and unvarnished, with a dull grayish-tan wood exterior, weathered shingles and softly colored woodcarvings. This drab structure appears washed out among the brilliant reds and greens and golds, yet it’s the most photographed building at the shrine. You too will want to wield your camera to capture this building’s delicate depiction of three anthropomorphic monkeys — one covering his ears with his hands, another covering his mouth, and the last covering his eyes.