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All Asian Primates by Sylvain Beauséjour, Anthony Rylands and Russell Mittermeier. 2021. Re:wild, Austin and Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Paperback. 536 pages. 28×22 cm (11x8.6 in), 2.3 kg (5 lb). ISBN 978-1-7372851-1-3. [A publication of Re:wild in collaboration with the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation, the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group and Lynx Edicions.] 55 Euro (c.£46, $62).

Review by Frank Lambert

Asia supports a diverse assemblage of primates, a surprising number of which are poorly known. One very distinctive species, Myanmar Snub-nosed Monkey, was discovered as recently as 2010, for example. These primates include some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring primates found anywhere, such as the Orangutans, Douc langurs, Tonkin Snub-nose, Proboscis Monkey, Lion-tailed Macaque, Maroon Langur and the 17 species of charismatic nocturnal Tarsiers that mostly inhabit islands of the Philippine and Indonesian archipelagos. This book sets out to illustrate all of these primates with a carefully crafted montage of photographs for each, and has certainly achieved that remarkable ambition.

 
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All Asian Primates not only has an odd title but is an unusual book. Indeed, the authors refer to it as an album. It is a heavy, rectangular soft cover volume that resembles a coffee-table book and is not particularly easy to handle. It features images of Asian species of ape, monkey, loris and tarsier taken by more than 200 photographers. Surprisingly, there is no comprehensive Introduction, but rather a Preface followed by one-page sections entitled Primates of the World, Primates Endangered, and IUCN Red List. These sections highlight the incredible diversity of primates, with an incredible 522 species recognised worldwide, of which 131 are found in Asia. More than three-quarters of these Asian species are threatened, which is a theme that runs through the book. Only Madagascar has a higher proportion of threatened primates than Asia. The section entitled Primates Endangered trots out all the familiar threats to primates, with habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation along with hunting judged as being the most pervasive threats. Extreme weather events are also mentioned, but the Climate Crisis and all the consequences for primates arising from this are not emphasised or explored, which seems like a missed opportunity.

The bulk of the book, entitled Classification by Family and Genus, starts with Homo sapiens (‘not described in this book’, perhaps in deference to religious readers) and apes (orangutans and gibbons), and ending some 490 pages later with Sulawesi Mountain Tarsier. This is the reverse of the taxonomic order found in many books (including Lynx Edicions’ own excellent Illustrated Checklist of the Mammals of the World), which usually start with the more primitive species. Starting with Orangutans, arguably the best-known group of primates in Asia, and perhaps the most charismatic, certainly makes sense in a book of this nature.

In total, 131 species of endemic Asian primate are included in the book, plus 26 currently recognized subspecies. One north African species, Barbary Macaque is also included on the basis that this is the only living member of the genus Macaca outside of Asia. The justification for including Hamadryas Baboon, a monotypic species in genus Papio that inhabits the Horn of Africa and occurs both sides of the Red Sea, is less clear. For completeness, the book also includes 19 described subspecies that are no longer considered to be valid taxa, and there are additional photos of nine taxa that exhibit distinctively different pelage colour.

 
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The main part of the book is divided into ten chapters, each covering one Asian primate family, subfamily or genus. These chapters all start with an overview that provides a map clearly showing the distribution of each of the family members, at subspecies level, alongside a very brief introduction to the family and a list of the species and subspecies. The list of species includes a small picture derived from the photo montages that allows a quick comparison of the features, especially the faces. This I found illuminating since having the pictures of faces of closely related alongside each other provides a good insight into some of the differences between them. At the end of each chapter there is a list of references cited in the text from that chapter. Whilst the book is in English, the Foreword and Preface are also in French, and each taxon is given an English and French name in the species accounts. There are no Asian language names in the book, presumably because this would take up a significant amount of space.

Within each chapter, each species or subspecies, (including subspecies that are no longer recognised) are provided with a double page spread, with an impressive full page photo montage on the left page and accompanying text on the right. The photo montage shows a close-up of the face (of an adult male where possible), and, behind it, males, females and young in natural habitat. The montages for six subspecies (nearly all of which are remote island taxa) are painted, but for every species and other subspecies the montage is comprised of photos. The photo montages are cleverly crafted, using similar poses where possible, so that the user can more easily compare related species and subspecies. Unfortunately, however, apart from the name of the photographers, there is usually no information about the photos – so one does not always know whether the picture shows adults, males or females, juveniles etc., or where the photos were taken.

Whilst the book includes photos of some of the rarest and most difficult primates to observe, it is by no means certain that all the photos are of wild animals, since many photographs (all the face shots, for example) have been digitally separated from their original backgrounds. One of the photos of Northwest Bornean Orangutan shows an individual eating a bunch of bananas that has clearly been cut, so this seems unlikely to be a truly wild animal. Apparently the photograph was taken at Semenggoh Nature Reserve, Sarawak, where there is indeed a wildlife rehabilitation centre. There is no guarantee, however, that all the orangutans at such a rehabilitation centre derive from the population in Sarawak, since some (if not all) rehabilitation centres are primarily tourist attractions and are known or suspected of purchasing captive orangutans to ensure their income and continued international sponsorship. East Bornean Grey Gibbon appears to be shinning up a papaya tree, so I would guess that this is also an example of an animal in captivity or semi-captivity. I spotted one obvious error in the photos, with the montage of Pig-tailed Macaque showing Long-tailed Macaques in the background instead of Pig-tailed. There may well be other mistakes that I did not notice, given that some photos are likely to be of animals in captivity.

 
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On the page opposite the photo montage, each named taxon has a map and a description of the geographic range, along with brief but fully referenced notes on nomenclatural history and current taxonomic thinking (this is almost always the largest portion of the text), and a summary of the threats believed to be faced by each species or subspecies. Conservation measures are provided in the briefest of sentences, often mentioning key protected areas where the taxon occurs. On the top right of the page there is a bold statement about conservation status, this being the IUCN Red List categories (such as Critically Endangered, Vulnerable etc.), whilst each taxon has a QR code that users can access for details of the taxon on the IUCN Red List website. Of course, IUCN Red Lists are revised annually, so the conservation status of many taxa is likely to change in coming years.

The final section of the book is a simple pictorial list of the Asian primate species and subspecies against the 22 countries in which they occur. The list of countries is all those in Asia where primates occur, plus Saudi Arabia and Yemen (the parts of Asia where Hamadryas Baboon is found). Morocco and Algeria, home of extant Barbary Macaque populations, are not included. The long list of photo credits is found at the very end of the book, along with a page of Photographers / Photo Bank (which has no explanation and seems unnecessary). There is an index of common names, in both English and French that inexplicably has no page numbers, but page numbers are provided on another page of ‘Latin’ names in alphabetical order. Hence, unless the reader knows the current scientific name of the species or subspecies they are looking for, they will have to simply thumb through the book to find the relevant page.

The last line of the Foreword (by Wes Sechrest, Chief Scientist of Re:wild) states that “this book will inspire more action to protect and recover these incredible species”, whilst in the Preface, Prof. Ramesh Boonratana is “exhilarated by the books prospects of advocating the conservation of Asian primates”. Whilst these are admirable ambitions, I imagine that much of the content of this book will only be glossed over by most readers. After all, the main text of the book is devoted to the sections on taxonomy: these taxonomy sections frequently use scientific terms that most users will probably fail to understand, such as “a shallow medial, sagittal groove”, “junior synonyms” “5 mya” and “mtDNA haplotype”. Unfortunately, the book has no glossary to help. It also says nothing about the behaviour and ecology of these extraordinary primates. Surely ecology and behaviour are much more likely engage the average reader than dull specialist text on taxonomy.

 

Furthermore, if the main intention of this book was to draw attention to the perilous conservation status of so many Asian primates, it would have been more enlightening to have concentrated on providing detailed range maps that highlight the actual extent of remaining suitable habitat. Merely colouring in an entire country such as Vietnam to indicate the range of Pygmy Slow Loris doesn’t really help visualise just how threatened such a species might be.

Overall, I enjoyed going through this book, but it is not at all clear to me who this book is aimed at. My impression is that this book is based on parts of the IUCN Red List and that it will be most useful as a reference for primatologists or other zoologists and those involved in relevant global conservation efforts, rather than members of the general public. That said, the photos are inevitably the main attraction of the book, and probably the main reason that people will buy it.

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