Primates producer Gavin Boyland on how Sony BBC Earth show celebrates animals' 'incredible diversity and adaptability'
Boyland talks about why the primates stare in the face of extinction now, and how eco-tourism can give them a new lease of life.
One of the recurring themes in Sony BBC Earth’s three-part docu-series Primates is the familial bonds and sense of community among the animals. While there are exceptions like the grey slender loris who lead largely solitary lives, most primates live as part of large communities.
“Sociality, living in groups, is one of the defining features of the primates,” says producer Gavin Boyland, also Head of Development at BBC’s Natural History Unit, in an interview with Firstpost. This banding together offers protection, like with the yellow baboons who band together and dare to take on a leopard poised to attack on their family. Living within a community also means they develop, and pass on to future generations, more innovate ways of survival, like the long-tailed macaques who use human hair to floss, and steal human objects, only trading them for food.
Primates also often display familial behaviour that humans mirror. The bearded capuchin watches patiently as his offspring finds the right stone to crack open the hard shell of wild cashews, only moving on once the baby has access to the nut inside. Blue-eyed black lemur mothers struggle to catch a wink of sleep with boisterous infants. The ferocious, aggressive mountain gorilla understands that being an alpha male entails more than displays of brute strength. His offspring climbs on his head, smacks his face, plays drums on his back. Gently and attentively, he plays along. “He would play with them, follow them around, tickle them, throw them around. And they were absolutely devoted to their dad as well. They would literally follow him around the forest. Even if he was trying to sleep, they’d jump on his chest,” recalls Boyland.
Such an existence means that primates naturally develop cultures; and when they’re threatened, it’s not just animals we’re losing, it’s knowledge, language, and a way of life that’s disappearing. “What’s becoming clearer and clearer is that within the groups, there’s also a sense of culture,” says Boyland. For instance, Senegal’s chimpanzees survive dry seasons because of their elders’ memory of hidden water supplies, knowledge that’s passed down from one generation to the next. And as the third episode shows, primatologist at University of St Andrews Dr Cat Hobaiter’s research is bringing to light the use of gestures among primates. In studying Ugandan chimpanzees’ gestures, she’s found that every group uses slightly different gestures to communicate, much like dialects of a language changing every few hours if one drives across a state.
Besides intimately capturing several species' way of life, Primates also offers a delightful viewing experience, showing behaviour not immediately associated with primates, things the crew spent months researching and then looking out for. “When the series started, there were definitely some behaviours or species we wanted to film because before we got to filming, we spent time finding stories, talking to scientists,” says Boyland about the research. On screen, we see Brazil’s female bearded capuchins who flirt by throwing stones at the alpha male. Central Africa’s chimpanzees dip long sticks into ponds to fish out algae, which they then pull off the stick and eat. South India’s lion-tailed macaques, unable to identify which jackfruits are ripe enough to eat, observe giant Malabar squirrels who have a keen sense of smell, and once ripe fruit’s been identified, smack away at the squirrels and eat the fruit themselves. Blue-eyed black lemurs, prone to ticks, have discovered that the formic acid sprayed by carpenter ants who feel under attack, mixed with spit and rubbed onto their fur is an effective tick-repellent.
Watching the series helps humanise primates. Through highlighting the latest research about them, the series focuses on their behaviours, similarities and differences, and individual personalities. “We were quite conscious of making sure that we wanted to celebrate primates. [We’re] really looking at the incredible diversity, but also their ingenuity and adaptability,” says Boyland. Faced with the fact that several primate species are endangered, largely because they’re losing their homes to deforestation, the series effectively makes viewers care about the species and their dwindling numbers. “The passion people feel for primates is now perhaps their best hope for survival,” points out narrator Chris Packham on the show.
While the long-term solution requires humans learning to coexist with other species and living sustainably, in the short-term, ecotourism emerges as the most vital tool for primate conservation. When people are encouraged to go and see primates in wild, it “makes the primates more valuable for the local economy than if the forest was gone and primates weren’t there,” says Boyland. And while the series has been released at a time when people can’t visit national parks, it does offer a stand-in for how exciting primate watching can be. “We hope this series will encourage people to go visit primates in the wild and enjoy spending time with them, because they’re such amazing, charismatic animals.”
Primates airs on Sunday, 20 December, from 11 am – 2 pm on Sony BBC Earth
Watch the trailer below:
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