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In search of rare, high elevation monkeys in China
Rhett Butler, mongabay.com
October 19, 2006

Saving China's golden monkey from extinction

In search of rare, high elevation monkeys in China
Saving China's golden monkey from extinction
Rhett Butler, mongabay.com
October 18, 2006

High in the cloud-shrouded Yunling mountains of northwestern Yunnan and southeastern Tibet (southwestern China) lives one of the world's most elusive monkeys, the Yunnan golden or snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus bieti). The species dwells in the most extreme environment of any monkey—high-altitude evergreen forests at elevations from 3,000 to 4,500 meters (9,800 to 14,800 feet), where temperatures may fall below freezing for several months in a row. Today there are fewer than 2,000 Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys remaining. Hunting and habitat loss have brought the species, which is limited to a single mountain range, to the brink of extinction. The monkeys are fragmented into 15 small sub-populations, which are at risk because of genetic bottlenecks and inbreeding.

Yunnan Golden Monkey. Photo by Long Yongcheng / TNC

To stave off this fate, the Nature Conservancy (TNC), working with the Chinese government and Conservation International, has launched the Yunnan Golden Monkey Program, an ambitious effort to better understand the monkey's habitat and ecological needs, while addressing some of the threats to its existence, especially habitat loss and poaching. The project is China's largest species-protection program since the conservation of the giant panda, which effectively began in the 1980s. There is hope that protection of this charismatic monkey species can help save the region's other highly biodiverse but fast-disappearing ecosystems.

Dr. Long Yongcheng, a primatologist with TNC, is running the golden-monkey program, and says that "with its beautiful human-like face, huge body size, and unique ecological adaptation, the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey is a charming creature that can be used as an excellent flagship species for guiding conservation effort in northwest Yunnan and its immediately adjacent Tibet, one of the global biodiversity conservation hot spots."

"The monkey is also one of the world's 25 most endangered primate species and was even used as the logo for the Kunming World Horticulture Expo in 1999. However, despite its famous public face, little effort has been made on the ground to benefit the animal in the wild."

TNC is working to ensure that the situation changes. Yongcheng says that such species-oriented conservation actions can help to protect the most valuable remaining chunks of the primary temperate conifer forest in the region. But the effort will not be easy due to the long hunting history of the local population and the challenging terrain of the monkey's natural habitat. Further, because of the species' shy and reclusive nature, researchers don't even know its exact population, though a recent 13-month field survey found about 1,700 monkeys.

Yunnan golden monkey habitat

My failed attempt to the Yunnan Golden Monkey in Tacheng

Golden monkeys are shy and elusive creatures, and to have a chance to see them you first have to have access to the forests in which they reside. After months of planning and securing permits and permission, I was denied this opportunity in an incomprehensibly bizarre exchange when I came to northwestern Yunnan province.

My local Tibetan guide had arranged a meeting at a tea shop with Lui Si Khan, an official for the reserves of Wuxi County in Yunnan. The meeting was to arrange for the local trackers—former hunters—who would accompany me into the forest to search for the monkeys. It appeared to be a done deal. I had an invitation and the permit fee had been agreed upon in advance.

Nevertheless when Lui Si Khan showed up in a white SUV with a posse of questionable-looking men, my hopes dimmed—relative to my other travel experiences, this one seemed a bit unusual and unnecessary. I presented Lui Si Khan with my papers and, through a translator, explained that I had come from the United States to write an article about how China was working to save the Yunnan golden monkey. He then bluntly told me I couldn't see the monkeys, threw my papers and business card back at me, spit on the floor and walked outside to smoke a cigarette. Sitting stunned at the table, I tried to collect my thoughts. What had just happened? I called my contact at the conversation organization who asked to speak with Lui Si Khan. A few minutes and a couple of cigarettes later, Lui Si Khan walked back in. I explained that my local contact was on the phone and wanted to speak with him. Lui Si Khan flatly said, "It is not my service to speak with him." And with that, he stood up, walked outside, followed by some of his posse, and drove away. The lingerers sat against the wall and stared at me until I left the tea shop.

So much for seeing the endangered golden monkeys. Later in the trip, I tried to look for golden monkeys in a non-protected forest area but inclement conditions—visibility was less than 20 feet due to fog—made it a pointless pursuit which was abandoned after a couple hours of walking.

For its part, the Chinese government has taken steps to reduce pressure on the monkey, enacting a hunting ban in Yunnan province and confiscating almost all hunting guns. Still, traps and snares are common and monkeys are sometimes accidentally caught by hunters pursuing other animals. Because monkey hunting is illegal, locals try their best to conceal evidence, so researchers have little knowledge of how many monkey are lost to traps each year. Yongcheng says that outside support and expertise are desperately needed to help local communities establish suitable agriculture and reduce the direct monkey mortality rate resulting from hunting pressure.

"Local people are very supportive of the monkey conservation," Yongcheng said, "but such efforts are not their priority because their everyday survival needs, like putting food on their table, are much more urgent to them."

The government has also moved to stem habitat loss by establishing protective reserves and banning logging and shifting agricultural practices. Since the bans, subsistence fuelwood collection and timber harvesting are probably the greatest threats to monkey habitat, though the species' narrow genetic base and small population, coupled with a naturally low birth rate and an abysmal infant survival rate of less than 50 percent, continue to present risks to its long-term survival. Climate change, which could cause dramatic shifts in the distribution of the monkey's ridge-top "islands" of subalpine primary forest habitat, is also a concern.

Still, Yongcheng is optimistic. He believes that local people can become a key part of the conservation effort, and he hopes to increase public enthusiasm for monkey conservation through educational programs and by helping local hunters earn a living as tour guides and park protectors. It's also important, he believes, to establish a sound science-based conservation plan and build partnerships between governmental and non-governmental stakeholders, including law enforcement and local business. At stake is nothing less than the survival of the world's highest-elevation primate, he says.

The Yunnan Golden Monkey Conservation Program


Saving Orangutans in Borneo. I'm in Tanjung Puting National Park in southern Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. At 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) Tanjung Puting is the largest protected expanse of coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest in Southeast Asia. It's also one of the biggest remaining habitats for the critically endangered orangutan, the population of which has been great diminished in recent years due to habitat destruction and poaching. Orangutans have become the focus of a much wider effort to save Borneo's natural environment. We are headed to Campy Leakey, named for the renowned Kenyan paleontologist Louis Leakey. Here lies the center of the Orangutan Research Conservation Project. Established by Biruté Mary Galdikas, a preeminent primatologist and founder of the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), the project seeks to support the conservation and understanding of the orangutan and its rain forest habitat, while rehabilitating ex-captive individuals. The Orangutan Research Conservation Project is the public face of orangutan conservation in this part of Kalimantan, the Indonesian-controlled region of Borneo.

Rhett Butler, mongabay.com (October 19, 2006).

In search of rare, high elevation monkeys in China.