Africa's suite of primate species are diverse and wondrous, ranging in size from the smallest prosimian in the world to the magnificent great apes of East and Central Africa. In between are a diverse, colourful and fascinating variety of species that range in evolution from the more primitive lemurs to our closest relatives, Africa's gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.
To view Africa's spectacular wildlife is the main reason most visitors travel to Africa. There is no doubt that the continent is blessed with an abundance of large animals and a diverse variety of wildlife. There are so many iconic species of mammals that are endemic to Africa, and the same holds true for primates.
Primates are mammals that typically have large, highly developed brains, forward-facing color vision, flexible hands and feet with opposable thumbs, and fingernails. Like humans, primates have slower developmental rates than other similarly sized mammals and so reach maturity later but have longer lifespans. With the exception of humans, most primates live in tropical or subtropical regions.
GorillasOf all primates, nothing captures the human imagination more than gorillas. These gentle giants display many human-like behaviours and emotions, such as laughter and sadness. Gorillas share over 98% of their genetic code with humans. The largest of the great apes, they are stocky with broad chests and shoulders, large, human-like hands, and small eyes set into hairless faces. The two gorilla species are the eastern and western gorillas who live in equatorial Africa, separated by about 560 miles of Congo Basin forest. Each has a lowland and upland subspecies.
Gorillas live in family groups of usually five to ten, but groups of fifty have been recorded, led by a dominant adult male—or silverback. The bond between the silverback and his females form the basis of gorilla social life. Females give birth to only one baby every four to six years. This low rate of reproduction makes it difficult for gorillas to recover from population declines which is why conservation efforts to protect them are so important.
Gorilla trekkingSitting quietly for an hour watching gorillas in their natural habitat may be life’s greatest privilege. There are just a handful of destinations where you can have this amazing experience.
The best place to see gorillas is in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, the country's section of the Virunga Mountains. Here you can meet Diane Fossey’s iconic mountain gorillas, an eastern gorilla sub-species. As their name implies, mountain gorillas live in forests high in the mountains, at elevations of up to 4,000 metres. They have thicker fur, and more of it, compared to other great apes, which helps them to survive in a habitat where temperatures often drop below freezing. The next best place to see these beautiful creatures is in neighbouring Uganda, mostly deep inside its legendary Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where several habituated families are protected by the aptly named Impenetrable Forest.
For the more adventurous, mountain gorillas can also be found in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where there are a handful of habituated families. For the truly intrepid traveller, one can view habituated western lowland gorillas in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of the Congo or, even further off the beaten track, in Dzanga Sangha National Park in The Central African Republic and in Loango National Park in Gabon.
Eastern lowland gorillas (also known as Grauer's gorilla), the largest of the four gorilla subspecies, are confined to the primary tropical forest of eastern DRC – most notably in the Kahuzi-Biéga and Maiko national parks. The most endangered gorillas with less than 300 individuals surviving in the wild is the western subspecies, the Cross River gorilla, hidden among lowland montane forests and rainforests of Cameroon and Nigeria. We can arrange treks to view habituated Grauer's gorillas but there are unfortunately no habituated Cross River gorilla families.
ChimpanzeesChimpanzees are even more related to humans than gorillas, sharing almost 99% of our genetic blueprint. They are intelligent, curious, noisy and highly social. Chimpanzees live in loose communities which can number anywhere from 10 to more than 100 individuals. They share a home territory that they protect from intruders and will sometimes forage for food in groups. They exhibit complex patterns of behaviour, many of which are learned, and can solve problems, plan for anticipated events, as well as make and use tools. They have even been seen utilising medicinal plants for a variety of ailments.
Anyone who has ever seen old Tarzan movies would imagine that chimpanzees roam freely all over Africa. The sad reality is that these amazing apes are greatly endangered due to habitat loss and the illegal wildlife trade that supplies chimpanzees as pets in the developed world. There are just a few places left where travellers can experience them in their natural habitat.
Chimpanzee TrekkingChimpanzees can be found in several countries in Western and East/Central Africa. Jane Goodall devoted her life to studying these funny, mischievous creatures in Gombe Stream National Park on the banks of Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania, so it is not surprising that this is the best place to see them. Nestled on another forest along the Lake Tanganyikan shoreline, the Mahale Mountains National Park offers incredible up-close encounters with chimpanzees in one of Africa's most special settings.
Uganda also offers some incredible opportunities to trek chimpanzees, mainly in Kibale National Park, but also in Queen Elizabeth National Park's mystical Kyambura Gorge and the Budongo Forest next to Muchinson Falls National Park. Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park harbours a healthy population of around 400 chimpanzees, albeit more challenging to track because of the terrain. In 2021, private chimpanzee habituation experiences will finally be offered in Rwanda's Gishwati Forest National Park, home to around 30 chimpanzees. Gishwati is just a short drive from Volcanoes National Park, making combining gorilla and chimpanzee trekking in Rwanda much easier.
BonobosBonobos, also known as the pygmy chimpanzee, is the least well-known of the great apes. Bonobos are just as closely related to humans and are usually a bit smaller, leaner and darker than chimpanzees. Their society is also different—bonobo groups tend to be more peaceful and are led by females. They also maintain relationships and settle conflicts through sex. Bonobo life, however, is not entirely violence free as if two groups of bonobos come together, they may engage in serious fighting.
Wild bonobos can only be found in forests south of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Gelada monkeysGelada monkeys, sometimes called bleeding-heart monkeys, due to a distinctive patch of red, heart-shaped, hairless skin on their chests, live in the Ethiopian Highlands, including the Simien Mountains, above the Rift Valley. Despite their size, they are not baboons and are the most terrestrial of all primates, apart from humans, existing on a diet predominately of grass. They spend most of their day sitting down, plucking, and munching on grasses and herbs. They have fatty sitting pads on their rear ends, which seem well-adapted to this activity.
MandrillsMandrills, once classified as baboons before getting their own genus, are the largest of all monkeys and probably the most colourful. They live in groups of up to 200 individuals in the rainforests of equatorial Africa, around the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and Gabon. They are easily identifiable by the blue and red skin on their faces and their brightly hued rumps. These distinctive colours become brighter when they are excited. They also have extremely long canine teeth that can be used for self-defence—though baring them is typically a friendly gesture among Mandrills.
Golden MonkeysGolden Monkeys are easy to recognise from their distinctive patch of golden/orange fur on their upper flanks and back. They are endemic to the volcanic Virunga mountains shared by Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC (and a small population exists in DRC's Kahuzi-Biéga), with a large community found in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. They are very social creatures, forming groups of 30 to 80 individuals, dominated by a single adult male. Golden monkey trekking is a popular activity in both Rwanda and Uganda.
LemursBecause of its geographical isolation, Madagascar is home to many creatures not found anywhere else, including the iconic lemur. There are 105 species of lemurs in Madagascar, ranging from the tiny Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, which is only around 10 centimetres long to the indri lemur, a massive seven times longer, although it would have been dwarfed by the now extinct gorilla-sized lemurs which once existed on the island. Lemurs are very social creatures and live in troops. The most well-known is the ring-tailed lemur, made famous by the fun-loving King Julien III in the 'Madagascar' animated movies, unmistakable due to its long, vividly striped, black-and-white tail.
Our favourite lemurs are the sifakas, distinguished from other lemurs by their mode of locomotion. Sifakas maintain a distinctly vertical posture and leap through the trees using the strength of their back legs. Their long, powerful legs can easily propel them distances of over 20 feet from tree to tree. On the ground, sifakas cross treeless areas just as gracefully, by an elegant bipedal sideways hopping.
Bush BabiesBush babies, also known as “galagos”, or nagapies, which means “night monkeys” in Afrikaans, are one of the smallest of all primates. These diminutive, saucer-eyed creatures spend most of their lives in trees. Along with their big eyes, which help them see in low light, bush babies are adapted to nocturnal living with their large, collapsible ears that rotate independently like radar dishes to zero in on prey in the dark. These animals are amazing jumpers, using powerful legs and extremely long tails to spring great distances. This allows them to move quickly through the forest canopy or snatch flying insects out of the air. Bush Babies can be found all over Sub-Saharan Africa.
In case you were wondering, meerkats (also called suricates) are not primates. They are burrowing members of the mongoose family, only found in southwestern Africa in their usually upright “sentinel” posture as they watch for predators.
Africa's primates are diverse, fascinating and provide so much entertainment on any safari. Many of them are vulnerable and endangered, and slowly disappearing in the wild due to deforestation, poaching, the illegal wildlife trade and other human activities.
Related Activities in Primates
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