BBC Earth’s (DStv 184) new documentary series Primates, from the makers of Big Cats and Shark, combines years of intensive research, dazzling visuals that take us inside the primate’s worlds, and an eye for fun. “You watch this programme and this incredible group of animals doing extraordinary things, you laugh along with some of the lighter parts, then at the end there are some clear pointers to the fact that if we want to continue to share our planet with these animals, we have to fundamentally change our lifestyles,” says series narrator Chris Packham.

Series executive producer Mike Gunton adds, “We go deeper into the understanding of the behaviour and ecology of the animals seen through the work of the people who study them, and we also put their stories into a wider context of their conservation. I think audiences will also enjoy seeing the extraordinary (and innovative) lengths scientists and conservationists go to both understand and protect primates. Primates are so intelligent and show such an enormous range of behaviour, and some of it is so clever that it’s jaw-dropping.”

10 things to look forward to

  1. Monkey business: “There are species like the langurs which have adapted to live alongside us and are prospering in our cities. They have come up with ways of exploiting humans. I let them steal a mobile phone, then I tried to get it back from them. They wouldn’t give it to me for peanuts, they wouldn’t give it to me for bananas, but they gave it to me for an egg. So, they have learnt currency and bartering. They know a mobile phone is worth more than a pair of sunglasses. Fascinating. You’ve got social learning there, basically,” reveals Chris
  2. Conservation and hope: Sometimes conservation messages can leave us despondent and battling to understand where we can even begin to help. But alongside it’s warnings, Primates gives us glimpses of hope when it reveals how wildlife rehabilitators are going all-out to help young orangutans to adapt and survive in the wild. “The quite simple idea of rehabilitators hoisting themselves up into trees to help the young orangutans learn how to climb, in their natural territory away from the ground where they’re not as comfortable, was brilliant. It showed the tenacity and determination and energy of those rehabilitators to improve the quality of what they were doing for a group of animals that are in big trouble,” says Chris.
  3. New takes on primates: While some documentaries get hung up on the chest-pounding power and threat of the adult male gorilla, Primates reveals that that is not what really makes them successful. “We discovered this alpha silverback male has this other side to his nature which is very loving and tolerant and fatherly, which the scientists have discovered is very clever because the female admires those skills and so it makes them more successful,” says Mike.
  4. A family portrait: “Primates are our cousins and biologically very close to us but also when you observe them, you can’t help but see parallels in their lives. You can’t watch them without making connections with yourself. The sequence with the Nepalese macaques is one of my favourites because it’s so bonkers. The Nepalese have actually built a swimming pool for them. When you see them in that pool, you don’t have to say much. It just does look like granny taking her granddaughter for a swim, and the grandson dive-bombs them,” Mike reveals.
  5. Brand-new research: Studying primates is a lifelong pursuit, thanks to a combination of long lifespans and complex social behaviours. But the intensive study can lead to startling revelations. “Some of the scientific breakthroughs are extraordinary. I thought the woman who studies gestures of chimpanzees was absolutely fascinating [Dr Cat Hobaiter, who’s spent 13 years studying chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest in Uganda]. There’s a whole secret language there and none of us had a clue,” says Mike.
  6. There’s a making-of section in each episode: One of our all-time favourite things is when documentary makers reveal how the series was made, particularly if they’ve shot primates swinging about in the tree canopy, or in stuck up a tree by a hungry leopard. The challenges aren’t always obvious to us as viewers. “The big challenge with primates is that most of them live at the top of very tall trees, and they’re fantastic at moving through those trees at very high speed,” explains Mike. “If they decide to go from Tree X to Tree Y, they can do that in 10 seconds, but it will take us 20 minutes to pack our gear away and move to the new tree. Then you get there and they decide to go back to the original tree!”
  7. It’s beautiful: “Primates is beautifully shot. They’ve found a collection of camera people who have shot it so that we can immerse ourselves in the animals’ environment with beautiful photography as well as learning all those new and exciting aspects of their ecology,” says Chris. The camera crew used technology like a 360-degree camera, thermal imaging cameras, drones and a canopy pole camera to get us into the heart of the action.”
  8. So much work: Primates is the work of 2 years of filming, in 28 different worldwide expeditions including Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, Sumatra, and Brazil. One film crew spent 2 months on a beach in Equatorial Guinea capturing footage of the elusive drill, while in Sri Lanka, another film crew used the latest technology to capture colour footage of the grey slender Loris gadding about at night, and making itself almost impossible to photograph. Camera operator James Aldred spent 10 hours a day for 15 consecutive days cramped in his hide in all kinds of weather on a mission to film the uakari in Brazil. “Primates tend to be a lot more accepting of human presence in the canopy. The same animals that would steer clear of humans on the ground seem to show few qualms about coming close to a cameraman perched high in the trees. For this reason, a canopy camera perspective can help deliver incredibly intimate and rare insights into their world,” says James.
  9. On location in South Africa: The filming team captured some truly unexpected behaviour from some lesser bushbabies who now not only have adapted to city life, they’re been staging raids on the Pretoria Zoo at night!
  10. New faces & old favourites: Aside from focusing on chimpanzees, orangutans, lemurs and gorillas, Primates also turns the cameras on lesser-seen species like the gibbons, tamarins, spider monkeys, baboons, lion-tailed macaques, uakari and some species you might never have heard of, like the dusky leaf monkeys. James says of filming the gibbons at a secret rehabilitation facility in Malaysia, “There’s no half measures with gibbons. They have two speeds: break-neck and light speed. For this reason, they are notoriously tricky to film in the wild, so having access to rehabilitated animals made things a bit more predictable. On a personal level, it was a real privilege to spend time with such legendary acrobats. Gibbons move like nothing else on Earth.”

Fun fact: During the filming of the series, Primates’ scientific consultant, Dr Russell Mittermeier, became the first person of Earth to see every type of primate in the wild. We’ll see the moment that he hit that milestone in episode 3 of Primates.

All interview material and facts courtesy of The BBC.

Watch Primates S1 Sundays on BBC Earth (DStv 184) at 16:00 or on Catch Up

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