Monkey Business: Best African Safaris to Observe Primates in their Natural Habitat
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Did you know? There are three primate groups that you can encounter and observe in Africa – monkeys, apes and humans. We all have complex brains, excellent eyesight, the ability to walk upright and skillful opposable thumbs, and the interesting part is that this is only where our similarities begin!
There are currently 51 species of non-human primates living in Africa, with new ones just waiting to be discovered. At the same time, most of them face extinction due to habitat destruction. In fact, all forest-living monkeys are considered endangered species, with tropical forests being destroyed at an alarming pace.
That said, during most African safaris, tourists are still very likely to come across widespread species like baboons, vervet monkeys and bush babies. If you wish to meet Africa’s great apes, man’s closest living relatives, you’ll have to dig deeper and aim for specific habitats on a guided primate safari. Without further ado, here are the best places in Africa to observe primate behavior:
The Mountain Gorilla
Photo by Rod Waddington
Only two primate species build sleeping platforms on the ground – humans, and gorillas. Yet the world’s largest primate struggles for survival in the last protected patches of African rainforests – thanks to deforestation.
Humans and apes share about 98% of their genetic material. That’s unbelievably close. Ignore the fur, and you’ll begin to the similarities. Although chimps are considered are closest relatives, gorillas might resemble us more. Mountain gorillas are primarily terrestrial and their feet are adapted for walking, not to mention that their facial expressions are worth a thousand words.
Gorillas are gentle, non-territorial, leaf-loving creatures that travel a lot and do not seek to control a certain area. They live in small groups in the equatorial forests of Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Communities usually consist of one to four adult males called silverbacks – due to the silver hair on their back. When the other males reach adulthood they are cast out of the group to form their own communities.
Photo by Rod Waddington
Gorillas display an advanced communication system that uses complex facial expressions, smell and touch. Just like we humans give reassurance and comfort by patting each other’s backs, so do gorillas. A highly endangered species, less than 1,000 mountain gorillas live today, spread in four national parks. Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda is home to half of the world’s remaining mountain gorilla population and is the first choice for travelers to Africa. Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda are great for observing other primates as well. Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest national park, and a UNESCO World Heritage Center, is home to about 200 gorillas. There is some good news, though. Revenue from gorilla safaris is slowly helping the population get back on its feet.
One of Africa’s least threatened primates, the vervet monkey is a common sight in eastern and South Africa. They’ll probably take your car by assault as soon as you enter the park grounds. It’s not curiosity, just self-interest. Please note that it is illegal to feed monkeys or any wildlife in Africa. However, people continue to break the rules! Vervet monkeys will often approach travelers asking for food in the hope of saving time and energy they would have otherwise put into foraging the bush. They do have a nasty bite, so don’t get too close!
These long-legged, long-tailed, medium-sized omnivorous monkeys move in troops of up to 50 members organized in hierarchies of families, and spend most of their day in trees, moving around by hopping and running on the branches. A highly adaptable species, vervet monkeys live in acacia woodland, savannahs and high plains of up to 13,000 ft (4,000 m). They have many predators and therefore avoid venturing too far from the trees they nest in. They steal food and raid crops, which is why vervet monkeys are considered pests.
Some of the best places to observe vervet monkey behavior are Kruger National Park, Marakele National Park, Amalinda Nature Reserve and Ntendeka Wilderness. They like to spend several hours a day grooming, a social bonding practice that also highlights their social status. Adult males are easily distinguished among the group by the way they swagger with ostentation.
Photo by Lisa de Vreede
Sometimes, on a safari, the African wildlife comes to you! Galagos, literally meaning little night monkey in Afrikaans, are better known as bush babies. Africa’s smallest primates will not hesitate to visit your lodgings at night searching for sugar to satisfy their sweet tooth. They also like to indulge in alcohol and will finish that glass of wine left on the table.
These cuddly, toy-like nocturnal primates got their name from their distinct vocal sounds resembling human baby cries. They hide during the day to avoid predators like eagles and large snakes, and after sundown set off in search of food. Not before making sure they look their best first. Bush babies groom each other before each hunt.
Photo by Mark Dumont
Their huge forward-facing eyes do not move in their sockets, so they continuously turn their heads when searching for food. Big fans of tree gum, seeds, and nuts, these pocket-size monkeys are also excellent predators, killing large insects, small birds and venomous snakes. Extremely agile, they execute spectacular leaps between trees, jumping as high as 6.6 ft (2 m). That’s spectacular, considering they’re only 5 in (13 cm). For best results, they moisten their hands and feet with urine for a better grip on branches.
Lesser bush babies are quite common in the savannahs, woodlands and riverine bushes of South Africa. A great place to spot them is Kruger National Park, both on night drives as well as on the campground. Thick-tailed bush babies are native to East Africa and prefer the highland and coastal forests of Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia and the islands of Zanzibar.
The most widespread African primates, baboons are the best-adapted species to terrestrial life. Travelers can see them in just about every game park, outside reservations and even on highways. They do prefer savannahs and semi-arid habitats. Kruger National Park and Cape Point are popular destinations for observing these monkeys’ intriguing behavior.
Baboons are social animals organized in troops of around 50 members, with seven or eight adult males, each with its own harem – as many breeding females as possible. After sunrise, baboons come down from their sleeping places in trees or cliffs and begin their day with a nice grooming session while their offspring play. They often travel five or six miles a day (eight to ten kilometers), moving in close-knit groups to feed. They rest during the hottest part of the day and return to their sleeping places in the afternoon. Their posture reflects their social status: adult males are confident, relaxed and take long rests; subordinates walk with hunched backs and bent limbs.
They are also well-trained fighters and strategists and stick together to protect themselves and even scare off large predators like leopards. They use over 30 distinct vocalizations plus many non-vocal gestures, each with its specific meaning, can display emotion and communicate motivation.
Modesty is not one of their features. Adult male baboons like to expose their genitals to impress or intimidate other males, a practice they’re rather notorious for.
Baboons destroy crops and are considered agricultural pests and treated like. Therefore, their main natural predator remains human beings.
Photo by Sergio Morchon
Curious, hairy, noisy and highly intelligent, chimpanzees spend their days in trees as well as on land in most East African forests.
Unlike other apes and monkeys, chimps are individualistic. They do however form large communities of up to 100 souls sharing one territory. With forward-facing eyes, flat face, small nose and the same number and type of teeth as humans, we have a lot more in common. Chimps observe and learn, take care of orphaned children, show compassion and even laugh. They defend themselves from predators like lions and leopards by throwing large sticks and branches at them. Plus, they build tools to obtain food. They use stones to crack nuts, sticks to dig for insects, and they sharpen their tools, all while displaying exceptional hand dexterity. They teach their young how to use tools and correct their errors. Therefore, it’s safe to say apes have a culture.
Photo by The Green Parent
Just like humans, chimps can show objectionable behavior. Males can become possessive over their females, occasionally raping them. They engage in warfare with their own kin, tease handicapped individuals and manipulate others through deceptive facial expressions and gestures. Primarily vegetarian, they do like the taste of meat every now and then. For this, they hunt monkeys, small antelopes, and wild pigs.
The wild population is estimated at between 150,000 to 250,000 individuals. This endangered species inhabits Africa’s rainforests and wet savannahs. Uganda is the best country in the world to observe chimps in their natural habitat, namely in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kyambura Gorge, Budongo Forest and Kibale National Park, which is home to around 1,500 chimps. Chimps have now become extinct in four African countries: Gambia, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo. The main threats are the destruction of their habitat through deforestation, bushmeat trade and diseases like the Ebola virus in Central Africa, which gravely affected great ape populations.
Though we like to consider ourselves as the more advanced species, the truth of the matter is that we just happened to evolve in different directions. Observed in their natural habitat, primate behavior offers valuable insight into our own origins and instincts. By doing so, there might just be a lesson or two to be learned on how to overcome our destructive habits. We invite you to help to not only conserve but contribute to the increase the population of our closest relatives in the wild!
Do you wish to learn more about our tree-dwelling relatives? BookAllSafaris.com offers you the chance to embark on life-changing primate safaris that are guaranteed to change the way you look at man’s distant cousins.