Dec. 5, 2008 A new population of the extremely rare Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, so-called because of its unusual and distinctive up-turned nose, has recently been discovered in a remote forested area of northern Vietnam. The exciting finding made by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) provides new hope for the monkey's future.
Believed to be extinct until the late 1980s, only around 200 Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys (scientific name: Rhinopithecus avunculus) are left in the world. As a result, the primate is listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species. Unique to Vietnam, the species is now known to be present in just two of Vietnam's northern-most provinces - Tuyen Quang and Ha Giang.
Villagers reported sightings
The new finding came about after FFI set out to discover whether any more populations of the rare monkeys existed. While interviewing communities near the Chinese border last year, it emerged that villagers in the Tung Vai Commune had sighted the strange looking monkeys after seeing rare film footage of them that FFI had supplied to a national television network.
On the strength of these reports, in April 2008 an FFI-led team of biologists managed to observe 15-20 individuals in the nearby forest, including three infants - an encouraging sign, indicating that this is a breeding population. The monkeys were located in a small forest patch in Quan Ba District, Ha Giang Province, near the Chinese border. While observing this group, the biologists noted that the monkeys were very sensitive to the presence of people, giving warning signs to one another and fleeing the area whenever the team approached. It was apparent that the monkeys associated humans with danger - perhaps due to ongoing threats from hunters.
Excitingly, local reports indicate that another - possibly larger - group also exists. During the work, FFI's team managed to take a photo of one member of the new population - capturing a fleeting glimpse of an adult male scampering through the trees. This is the only photographic evidence of Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys in Quan Ba District.
Future hope for the species
This new population provides hope for the future of this species, as the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey is now known to survive in no more than five locations in Vietnam, and at some locations the populations are probably in decline. Habitat loss and hunting for the bush meat and traditional medicine trades have been pushing the species to the brink of extinction. At this new location, cardamom plantations and logging for the Chinese timber market are clearing the few forest refuges left for this unique primate and it looks as though FFI has arrived in the nick of time to drum up the local and international support necessary to protect it.
With urgent funds provided by Twycross Zoo in the UK, the first significant steps have been taken to protect this population and FFI has brought together a range of stakeholders, from provincial officials to village heads, to plan the way forward. Added to the mix is support from the Swiss development charity Caritas, which is working alongside FFI in the same district. They are now planning to provide support to the poor rural communities living next to the monkey's forest, to improve local livelihoods and reduce human pressures on the forest ecosystem, thereby increasing the monkey's chance of survival. Already, cardamom production has stopped expanding in the forest and there has been a government programme to confiscate hunting guns.
'All recent indications suggest that we have a fantastic opportunity to secure this population and significantly increase the chances for the survival of this species', said Paul Insua-Cao, FFI's Vietnam Primate Programme Manager. 'Most significant is all the excitement this has generated locally and the support that is coming from the local Vietnamese government agencies and Caritas Switzerland . With almost half the world's primate species under threat from extinction, we must do everything we can.'
In 2002, FFI and its partners discovered the largest known population of Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys in Khau Ca forest, Ha Giang Province. With an estimated 70 individuals, and the only population not in decline, this group is now considered the most important for the survival of the species. FFI began working to conserve this group immediately upon finding it and continues to support forest patrols and conduct ecological research, while this year supporting the establishment of a protected area at Khau Ca forest.
Conservation biologist Le Khac Quyet, has made a name for himself as one of the few people in the world who can claim to be an expert on this mysterious species and, while working for FFI, is credited with discovering both the new population and the one in Khau Ca in 2002. It is fitting that he should have the last word:
'When I saw the Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys in Tung Vai Commune I was overjoyed. This new discovery further underlines the importance of learning more about the Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys' range and distribution. There is still time to save this unique species, but with just 200 or so left and threats still strong, we need to act now.'
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