The sun was shining, the sky blue, not a cloud in sight, yet it was raining….
I was happily sitting atop my vehicle eating my breakfast yoghurt and it was raining? NO, it was monkeys, black and white colobus to be exact. And it was my first wild monkey encounter. An encounter-lesson I learned and never forgot: sit beneath primates and expect to get some “golden rain”… or worse.
In the years since that morning in the yellow acacia forest, at Lake Nakuru in Kenya’s Rift Valley, I have filmed a lot of monkeys, and apes, and had a lot of pee and poo rain down on me. This being World Monkey Day it got me thinking a lot about not one day of monkey encounters, but a lifetime of them. Apes in general make filming so much easier, they sit on the ground, or hang out in trees, staring back often as curious about me as I am about them. Monkeys and other smaller primates, are equally curious, just a whole lot more weary; and they have good reason.
The past century on planet Earth has not been the most gentle to the smaller primates. Poaching, illegal pet trade, medical research, and endless habitat loss through deforestation has place most of both the Old World and New World primates at extreme risk. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “Nearly half of all primate species are now threatened with extinction”. That makes my job of capturing them on film a greater and greater challenge — and of greater importance than at any other time in my life.
Capturing them on film is still the challenge – rain, poo or shine. I recently watched a behind-the-scenes segment of the cameramen filming for BBC’s Our Planet series on Netflix. A sweaty, mud-soaked, exhausted cameraman was asked, “what do you think our shot per set up ratio is?” Dejectedly he said, “ah… 25 to 1.” Oh, how I know his pain, frustration, sense of worthlessness… and ultimately concern.
“With nearly a third of primate species listed as critically endangered and 60% of all primate species classified as threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the window of opportunity for conserving these mammals is quickly closing,” said the study’s co-author, Allison McNamara, a Ph.D. student in anthropology at UT Austin. “To protect these species, we have to understand their biology, ecology, life history, behavior and evolutionary flexibility.”
So thinking about this day, World Monkey Day, I realize I have been one of the most blessed primates on Earth — I’ve gotten to see dozens of these amazing monkeys, lemurs, bushbabies, and apes in the wild, and occasionally lucky enough to film them — a lifetime of amazing World Monkey Days — so let the rain fall, that means there’s always hope.
— Gerry Ellis