The island has no big apes like the mountain gorilla’s that have made Africa famous, the orangutans of Borneo or close relatives to people – the chimpanzees, but is rich in several endemic races of monkeys.
“Primates have always captured the imagination of people. The question is, can monkeys help sell Sri Lanka? The answer is yes,” Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne CEO of Jetwing eco-holidays told LBO, while on the trail of a Hanuman Langur in the island’s ancient kingdom of Sigiriya.
Sri Lanka shares the grey or 'Hanuman' langur with India – a graceful animal with long limbs, a pale greyish brown coat, a dark face and long eyelashes to protect it from the glare while feeding on treetops.
The langurs are believed to be incarnations of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, who, legend has it, fought to rescue a queen from Sri Lanka’s forests, getting caught in a fire on his heroic dash that burned his face, hands and feet black.
Sigiriya in the dry central province of the island is a good place to watch for langurs, along with other more extroverted endemic monkey, the toque macaques, with its characteristic cap of hair.
Monkeys have also long been associated with cultural sites around the island, making other archaeological reserve Polannaruwa a popular site for primates that occur in troops.
Specialist tour operators’ and the travel press have increasingly begun featuring primate tours, Wijeyeratne says, and Sri Lanka has rich array of primates to showcase.
“Sri Lanka is very rich in primate species per square kilometre and large numbers of primates can be easily observed. Watching diurnals (animals awake during the day) are easy as they are found in large troops and are alpha male dominated,” Wijeyeratne said.
Travellers also do not have to go very far out of the city to observe primates, with the Talangama wetland on the outskirts of Colombo or the Bolgoda Lake a good place to see the western race of the critically endangered purple-faced leaf monkey.
Leaf monkeys are long-tailed, living in trees. The purple-faced leaf monkey has two races in the wet lowlands and a southern race in the Singharaja rainforest, identified by a white patch on its rump and a frosted white tail.
Another highland race is the shy bear monkey, while Sri Lanka also has two species of the saucer-eyed Loris – small nocturnal mammals that can fit inside a pair of cupped hands.
“Sri Lanka has two species of Loris – the Grey Loris found in the dry zone and the smaller, more active Red Loris found in wet lowlands. It is possible that the species of Loris we have in areas such as horton plains and Knuckles are a new species in Sri Lanka,” Wijeyeratne explained.
“Nocturnal primates are harder to watch. You should not use too bright a light, but use a low powered torch with a red filter or red light.”
Jetwing, that operates a chain of local hotels and specialises in eco-holidays, hope to begin promoting primate tours, launching at ‘Destinations’, Britain’s largest consumer fair in February.
The tour Wijeyeratne says will begin in Colombo at Talangama to watch the purple-faced leaf monkey, Sigiriya and Polannaruwa, on to the hill country and to wetland areas like Horton plains.
With primates so interwoven with cultural sites in Sri Lanka, tourists can also throw in a cultural holiday or take in any of the rest of Sri Lanka’s abundant biodiversity.
The island is also famous for it leapord safaris at the Yala national park, elephants in Minneriya, bird watching, butterflies and rainforest tours.
“Sri Lanka is a treasure trove of untapped opportunities for eco-tourism. There is also a growing number of people who are interested in primates and people’s interest will act as a hook to come here,” Wijeyeratne said.