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(Mild, non-catastrophic spoilers ahead.)

It's possibly the most jump-out-of-your-seat moment in the second instalment of the Hunger Games saga: the attack of the fanged, screeching and spectacularly vicious monkeys deep within the jungle arena where Catching Fire’s supercharged 75th-anniversary games play out. Without giving too much away, the murderous primates are just one in a tangle of entrapments devised to make these latest games far deadlier than the last. In fact, Katniss & co barely escape with their throats intact in the confrontation that ensues (or do they?).

Their massive size and extreme bloodlust are cinematic invention, but it’s also clear that Catching Fire's monkey mutants do have their real-world counterparts. According to an interview with the film's visual effects supervisor Janek Sirrs, the design of the creatures was inspired by two closely related species of African monkey: the mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx) and drill monkey (Mandrillus leucophaeus). Sirrs tells fxguide: “While filming in Atlanta, we did discover the city zoo actually had a drill in captivity, and we did film that for reference, albeit from a distance behind some plexiglass." The team also brushed up on its primatological knowhow to ensure the digital creations moved and looked the part.

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The mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx) and the drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus).

And it’s easy to see where inspiration was drawn. For the digital creatures' sheer size and vivid hue, the mandrill (neon face, on the left) is a model monkey, being not only the world’s largest monkey species but also the most colourful – in the words of Darwin, “no other member in the whole class of mammals is coloured in so extraordinary a manner as the adult male mandrills.”

The drills (right) may be slightly smaller and a good dose less gaudy (lilac testicles and other colourful posterior bits aside), but just a flash of canines from the males of either species (each tooth about the size of your thumb) reveals exactly where Catching Fire’s digital monkeys got their fearsome fangs.

And while mandrills are not at all prone to attacking humans and you’re therefore unlikely to find yourself surrounded by a Hunger Games-style mob aiming fangs at your throat, it is true that mandrills love a good horde. Yep, 'horde' is the official term. Primatologists working in the Lope Reserve of Gabon in Central Africa have in the past recorded far-ranging hordes made up of an astounding 1,350 individuals – the largest aggregations of nonhuman primates ever observed! (Drills, too, sometimes converge to form large super-groups, although these rarely number over 100 individuals.)

But while Catching Fire's monkey attack is dominated by fearsome males, real-life congregations are often predominantly female, with males showing up to vie for attention come breeding season – which is when Hunger Games-style violence is most likely to rear its ugly head as rivals compete for access to mates.

Sadly, cinematic incarnations of mandrills and their kin may soon be all we have left. Vanishing rainforests in central west Africa and a dramatic increase in hunting for the illegal bushmeat trade have already caused mandrill populations to decline by 30% just in the past three decades, according to the IUCN. And the two threats work in tandem: widespread logging opens up previously inaccessible areas of habitat to hunters, who find the large and noisy troops easy to track down and wipe out en masse.

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Africa’s growing bushmeat trade has put many primate species at risk. Image credit: Corinne Staley, Flickr

For drills, the situation is even more dire. Considered one of Africa's most endangered primates (and identified by the IUCN as the African primate with the highest priority for conservation action), the species has already suffered drastic declines thanks to overhunting, with as few as 3,000 drills surviving in the wild. 

More recent studies suggest climate change poses another major threat as warming temperatures steadily dry out the drills' remaining rainforest habitat. The increasingly rare primates also happen to be some of the world's least studied, which means scientists have little information to go on when it comes to launching conservation projects to effectively protect the species.

So, when Catching Fire's terrifyingly entertaining monkeys have you perched on the edge of your seat, you may want to spare a thought for the natural world that inspires our movie monsters – it's a source of inspiration that is at serious risk of drying up for good.