Some of my favourite places to view primates in Asia include the orangutans and proboscis monkeys in Borneo, snow monkeys in Japan, gibbons in Cambodia, golden snub-nosed monkeys in China or the langurs in the Indian sub-continent.
Sadly, many of these species have become critically endangered in the wake of large-scale economic development and exploitation of natural resources that seem to have engulfed most parts of Asia. The need to conserve these endearing animals and their natural habitat has never been more dire and I believe tourism combined with science and education has a vital role to play and can offer long-term and sustainable solutions to modern-day conservation issues.
Fortunately, there are a few excellent organisations across the continent devoted to saving and protecting the primates. One such organisation that I would like to share with you is the Association for the Conservation of Primate Diversity (ACPD), which operates under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution Primate Biology Program (PBP), at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka.
The ACPD research project focused on the macaques in Polonnaruwa has been ongoing since 1968 and is the longest continuous study of primates anywhere in the world. A recent Smithsonian Channel documentary called A Life Among Monkeys showcases the 50 years of scientific career of the programme’s head Professor Wolfgang Dittus and his cutting edge discoveries in the field of primate social behaviour.
Popularly known as the Smithsonian Primate Research Centre or simply Monkey Camp, it is located near the ancient capital of Polonnaruwa in the popular and very historic region of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle. The region is renowned for its cultural and architectural heritage, but very few know about the Primate Research Centre and the very important work it has been carrying out.
The research over the past fifty years has been focused on four species of primates: the Toque Macaque, Hanuman Langur, Purple-faced Langur and Slender Loris. Furthermore, the organisation is equally focused on conservation and assists the local authorities in the prevention of poaching and destruction of natural habitat and also to counter human-monkey conflict, which is very common in densely populated Asian countries.
The organisation has also actively contributed to wildlife training and management as well as public education with the latter being one of the key areas of focus. Various documentary films, workshops and visits have been used to disseminate scientific discoveries and to create public awareness in relation to primates and their behavioural patterns. One of the most famous films is Disney’s Monkey Kingdom.
In a challenging global environment where economic aims often undermine conservation of natural resources and habitat, one of the biggest challenges faced by conservation organisations is to effectively convince the decision makers of the need to favour a more balanced and sustainable approach. Tourism plays a vital part in this approach, as it can really support and enhance the economic benefits of nature conservation and wildlife.
The Primate Research Centre has recognised this and actively works to attract foreign visitors to Sri Lanka to appreciate its nature and wildlife by way of various documentary films it has contributed to and also by adopting a conservation-led tourism model.
The centre’s researchers and highly knowledgeable naturalists are always keen to spend time with visitors to educate them about their work. Being located in one of the most popular tourist routes in the country, the centre enjoys excellent access and there are very good accommodation options in the region. I would recommend Water Garden and Vil Uyana, both located about one and a half hour’s drive from Polonnaruwa, offering delightfully charming and luxurious accommodation.
Marco Polo described Sri Lanka as the finest island of its size in the world and this is accurate even today. It boasts more than two thousand years of recorded history, stunning landscapes defined by idyllic beaches and lush forested hills teeming with exotic birds and animals as well as exquisite tea plantations; and wonderfully friendly and welcoming locals.
My favourite experiences include spending time in the bustling and richly cosmopolitan environment of Colombo, visiting the beautiful historic architecture of the Cultural Triangle – formed by Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy; taking in the lush scenery of the highlands with its perfectly manicured tea plantations, walking barefoot on idyllic beaches and wildlife watching in evergreen tropical forests teeming with an impressive variety of birds and animals.
Yala is undoubtedly the most popular national park in the country, but my favourites are Wilpattu and Gal Oya national parks as they are still off-the-beaten-track and Wilpattu especially offers a wonderful and far more exclusive safari experience. Gal Oya National Park on the other hand is home to the largest reservoir in the country and is one of the finest places to see wild Asian elephants in Sri Lanka. If you are lucky, you may even spot them swimming in the reservoir!
Like the Great Migration in Africa, a similarly iconic and awe-inspiring spectacle in Asia is the elephant gathering in Sri Lanka. For centuries, each year, hundreds of elephants gather on the shores of an ancient man-made reservoir in Minneriya National Park in the Cultural Triangle area during the dry season between July and October.
The Sri Lankan coast is also phenomenal for sighting oceanic giants including whales and dolphins. They can be seen along the south coast between November and February and along the east coast between May and September. For bird lovers, UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site of Sinharaja Forest Reserve, the last remaining area of untouched primary tropical rain forest and a biodiversity hot spot, is by far the best region in the country.
Sri Lanka is a truly wonderful destination and there is so much more to it than just the Cultural Triangle and leopards and Asian elephants. The Smithsonian Primate Research Centre highlights this very fact and offers a truly unique and enlightening experience that I believe is a must for anyone interested in wildlife and nature conservation. Please do feel free to contact me for more information.
Macaque images kindly provided courtesy of the Smithsonian Project and &Beyond and copyright to Toby Sinclair.