Close encounters with primates

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

Published December 12, 2010 2:01PM (EST)

When our ancestors climbed down from the trees and set into motion an incessant wandering in search of greener pastures, most humans lost touch with our fellow primates. Perhaps this is why finding ourselves face to face with furry long-lost cousins can be so compelling. How could we not recognize ourselves in those faces, fingers and familiar gestures? While Homo sapiens have spread all over the rest of the earth, 90 percent of the world's primate species live in tropical forests -- fragile ecosystems that are hard to navigate without a prehensile tail or grippy toes, and which chain saw-wielding bipeds seem hellbent on destroying. To get to the habitats where wild primates live often requires an arduous journey off the beaten path to remote national parks, reserves or rehabilitation centers. Many of these places are learning how to save the forests by encouraging a new kind of sustainable tourism -- one that makes conservation a more attractive option for local communities than poaching and slash-and-burn deforestation.

Travelers unaccustomed to living with monkeys in their midst can get into some pretty entertaining trouble when the opportunity for contact arises. The animals often come out of neighboring forests and into tourist towns plying their furry wiles and foraging for easy snacks. A magical monkey moment can quickly morph from the mystical meeting of the minds depicted in "Gorillas in the Mist" to the menace of "Planet of the Apes." Sticking with more conservation-oriented protected areas will get you closer to the family groups and simian social clubs in their natural setting. Here they put the kibosh on full body contact and feeding the animals, but in return you get to observe the comings and goings, grooming, mating rituals and general goofing off of non-captive primates. It's far more entertaining and insightful than any reality TV -- though strangely similar plot-wise, what with the nitpicking, scuffles, primal screams, intense snuggling and silly posturing.

By Megan Cytron

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