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Monkey Business: The Best Destinations to Observe Primates in their Natural Habitat

by Octavia Drughi

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Did you know? There are three primate groups that you can encounter and observe  – 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! 

It is believed that there are about 230-270 different types of primates in the world (including humans) – most of which you would find across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. 

If you wish to get up close and personal with these creatures dubbed as man’s closest living relatives, you’ll definitely have a great chance doing so on a wildlife tour in these 3 destinations. 

Read on to find more interesting insights about common species of primates and where you’re likely to encounter them:

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 our 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 The 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 in The Congo, 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!



orangutan in Borneo

Considered as one of the world’s smartest primates, they have the ability to learn sign language and make tools.

Though they can be found in other places within Indonesia, your best bet would be to head to Borneo – whether it’s in the Indonesian or in the Malaysian side

Unfortunately, due to extensive deforestation, these amazing primate species are struggling to survive. Luckily, there are currently many efforts done to combat these threats such as those that are done by rehabilitation centers that will hopefully increase the orangutan’s population in the wild.

Fun fact: Dame Judi Dench recently adopted three orangutans after she visited Borneo for a new wildlife TV show!

Vervet Monkeys




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 sometimes considered as pests.




Some of the best places to observe vervet monkey behavior are Kruger National Park, Amalinda Nature ReserveMarakele National Park, 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.


Bush babies



Photo by Lisa de Vreede


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. Bushbabies 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 (including the islands of Zanzibar), and Somalia.




Emperor tamarin

Did you know that the Amazon is home to many species of monkeys? Well, you better believe it!

There are actually so many that scientists believe that not all have yet to be discovered. Among the common species of monkeys found in the vast rainforest is the howler monkeys and various types of tamarins. 

These cuddly monkeys have a distinctive look but ranges in colors – from the Golden Lion Tamarin that has orange hair to the Emperor Tamarin that has a thick black fur throughout its body and long white hair as its ‘handlebar mustache’.

You are likely to find various species of Tamarins in the rainforests of Costa Rica to the southernmost parts of the Amazon – most often in the Brazilian side.





The most widespread African primates, baboons are the best-adapted species to terrestrial life. Travelers can see them in just about every African 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 its 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.


The Chimpanzee



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.

Unfortunately, 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 in the population of our closest relatives in the wild!


Do you wish to learn more about our tree-dwelling relatives? Embark on life-changing primate safaris that are guaranteed to change the way you look at man’s distant cousins.

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