Disney Continues Conservation Legacy with ‘Monkey Kingdom’ Film

Disneynature’s newest film “Monkey Kingdom” — narrated by Tina Fey — is currently in theaters in the U.S. The company is donating a portion of the film’s sales during opening week (April 17-23) to CI; buy tickets and check out showtimes here.

Funds raised will support three projects: one in Indonesia where CI is working with local communities to protect and restore forests that are home to the endangered Javan gibbon and help provide water to 30 million people; one in Sri Lanka where CI is collaborating with local organizations to fund scientific research, tree-planting, community engagement and the creation of new conservation areas; and one in Cambodia where CI is supporting forest rangers and a project centered on a rare population of the northern yellow-cheeked crested gibbon.

I think it’s fair to say that over the past 70 years, no institution has had more of an impact on humanity’s love of nature than Disney.

As a child growing up in the 1950s, I was profoundly influenced by the book “Walt Disney’s Worlds of Nature” and the early television series “True-Life Adventures,” which produced 14 films between 1948 and 1960. Over the following decades, a large number of Disney programs and films included nature as a core theme. Just think of the many animal-related Disney films that have become part of Hollywood history — from “Bambi” to “The Jungle Book” to “The Lion King.”

The company’s commitment to nature has always been an integral element, with Walt Disney himself saying it best:

“Landscapes of great wonder and beauty lie under our feet and all around us. They are discovered in tunnels in the ground, the heart of flowers, the hollows of trees, fresh-water ponds, seaweed jungles between tides, and even drops of water. Life in these hidden worlds is more startling in reality than anything we can imagine. How could this earth of ours, which is only a speck in the heavens, have so much variety of life, so many curious and exciting creatures?”

Having grown up on Disney’s nature books, TV programs and films, you can imagine how delighted I was when, in 1995, I was chosen to be a member of a new board of advisors that the company put together to help design its new Orlando theme park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Joined by a handful of other wildlife experts, including the great Dr. Bill Conway of the Wildlife Conservation Society, we provided input for the new park and helped to develop many programs over the next couple of decades — perhaps the most notable being the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. In one of my more unusual trips, I even participated in an expedition tracing the origins of the yeti legend in China and Nepal as part of the launch of one of the park’s key attractions, Expedition Everest.

Since Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, it has been a rousing success. What is more, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund has contributed more than US$ 27 million to field-based conservation projects in more than half the countries in the world since that time.

In addition, Disney continues to lead the way on integrating environmental stewardship into its business operation. One example is the company’s ambitious goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions, which it is achieving through a variety of actions including reducing global emissions from deforestation. In fact, Disney has made the largest commitment to CI’s forest protection efforts by any corporation to date. So far, the company has invested more than $17 million in our forest conservation REDD+ projects, primarily in the Alto Mayo region of Peru.

Alto Mayo Protected Forest, Peru

Peru’s Alto Mayo Protected Forest, where CI and Disney are working with local farmers to create more sustainable agricultural practices to help conserve and restore the forest. (© Conservation International/photo by Toby Janson-Smith)

As it turns out, this area also has great relevance for primate conservation since it is the home of the Peruvian yellow-tailed woolly monkey, a species that I rediscovered there in 1974. Thought to be extinct for half a century prior to this rediscovery, this magnificent mahogany-colored monkey — the largest mammal endemic to Peru — provided the incentive to protect the Alto Mayo region more than 30 years ago.

Continuing the tradition of getting entertainment seekers excited about the natural world, in 2008, Disney launched Disneynature, a film label that has been using state-of-the-art filming techniques and equipment to shoot some of the most striking visuals ever produced of our wild world. The series began with “Earth” and has included seven films, including ones on African cats, chimpanzees and bears. Now with “Monkey Kingdom,” Disney has outdone itself yet again.

Filmed in Sri Lanka and focused on a troop of toque macaques (Macaca sinica), a species endemic to that island nation, this production is at once delightful, fascinating and informative. It follows the trials and tribulations of a group of macaques, their complex in-troop dominance hierarchies, their interactions with other troops of macaques and their struggle for survival.

Especially noteworthy is the way in which the film captures how these monkeys coexist with neighboring human communities, a theme that has become ever more important in an increasingly urbanized world. The film even includes footage that is noteworthy from a scientific perspective, including a never-before-filmed incident of predation of a macaque by a huge monitor lizard, and several sequences of the monkeys feeding on aquatic vegetation underwater.

toque macaques, Sri Lanka

Toque macaques in Sri Lanka. A troop of these monkeys are the subject of Disneynature’s new film, “Monkey Kingdom.” (COURTESY OF DISNEYNATURE)

As a primatologist who has been working to increase awareness of the need to conserve our closest living relatives for the past five decades, I have been delighted to see Disney focus on two primate themes out of the first seven programs in the Disneynature series: first the chimpanzees of West Africa, and now the toque macaques of Sri Lanka.

My colleagues and I have been furthering primate conservation in many ways over the years — stimulating research, creating new protected areas, training new generations of primate conservationists, producing educational materials and working with local communities living near top priority areas for primate conservation.

In addition, over the past decade I have been developing the concept of primate-watching, a new form of recreation based on the amazingly successful model of bird-watching, which is now a $38 billion industry. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in seeing the world’s tropical forests — the richest terrestrial ecosystems on our planet. As the most visible mammals in these forests, nonhuman primates are highly sought after.

As more people travel to see primates, local communities are creating businesses that cater to visitors and beginning to see the benefit of protecting the animals and their habitats. This is already happening in several key areas around the tropical world, from Brazil and Mexico in the Americas to Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania in Africa to India, Indonesia and Malaysia in Asia. Perhaps the most striking example of all is Madagascar, home to more than 105 lemur species found nowhere else on Earth.

Now, with the appearance of “Monkey Kingdom,” I am sure that we can add Sri Lanka to this list of target countries for primate-watching. The toque macaque isn’t the only primate unique to Sri Lanka. In all, the country is home to 12 species and subspecies of primate, all of them endemic to the island, giving Sri Lanka one of the world’s highest densities of primate species found nowhere else. All of them are threatened, including the purple-faced langur, which is on the latest Top 25 List of World’s Most Endangered Primates. And it is these unique, threatened species that are most sought after by a growing global cadre of primate-watchers.

Thanks to the generosity of Disney, I am delighted to share that for every ticket sold during the opening week of “Monkey Kingdom” in the U.S. (April 17–23), Disneynature will make a contribution through the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund to CI supporting primate and forest conservation efforts in Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Indonesia.

Thanks to Disney for committing to nature for the past seven decades and for helping to make the wonders of the natural world accessible to all. “Monkey Kingdom” is already in theaters; be sure to see it as soon as you can.

Russ Mittermeier is executive vice-chair and former president of Conservation International. He chairs the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Primate Specialist Group. From 1995 to 2012, Russ served as a member of the Disney’s Animal Kingdom Advisory Group. He has studied primates in rainforests and other habitats for the past 45 years, and he has seen more primate species in the wild than anyone else. Check out other blogs about “Monkey Kingdom.”

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