THE GOOD FIGHT

Work done by conservationists to protect endangered species is truly worthy of admiration.

By Long Tuyen on October 17,2017 11:17 AM

THE GOOD FIGHT

PHOTOS: LONG TUYEN

Most people are aware of what a primate is, even those who haven’t been involved in conservation activities, as concerned agencies have, over recent decades, promoted programs aimed at protecting endemic species considered an invaluable property of Vietnam.

The magnificent image of the Cat Ba red-shanked douc langur as the primate queen is well known among the public. And now many people, young and old alike, have become aware that other primates, like the delacour’s langur, snub-nosed monkey, and the grey-shanked douc langur are also endangered.

MANY LOCAL PEOPLE USED TO BE HUNTERS BUT HAVE NOW HAD CONSERVATION LESSONS FROM EXPERTS AND HAVE GIVEN UP THEIR HUNTING TO BECOME ACTIVELY INVOLVED IN THE PROTECTION OF THE PRIMATES

Such recognition results from the concerted efforts of many social organisations and government agencies over recent times. Leading the way is Fauna & Flora International (FFI), the world’s leading organisation in protecting primates around the world, including in Vietnam.

Others, though, who live in and around forests, strongly believe it is their backyard and they have the right to cut down trees for firewood, hunt for animals, harvest wild vegetables, pick leaves to sell as medicinal herbs, and dig up the ground for minerals. They think they have the right to depend on nature for their food.

For this reason, animals in the forest, including primates, have been killed for food and their medicinal value, and some such species are on the brink of extinction. People in many places still consider monkeys to be part of their diet and medicinal supplies, with many continuing to buy monkey bone glue to use as medicine.

Similarly, many believe rhino horn can treat cancer and elephant tail hair can drive away ghosts or evil spirits. Beliefs such as these have seriously threatened primates in most jungle areas.

According to an FFI report in 2015, primates in Vietnam are severely threatened, with eleven species in danger of extinction. There are about 200 delacour’s langurs and snub-nosed monkeys, about 130 Eastern black crested gibbons, and only some 60 Cat Ba red-shanked douc langurs.

THE GOOD FIGHT

These are worrying figures, because most of these species are endemic and will completely disappear once they’ve died out in Vietnam. The report also said that Vietnam would be the first country to see its primates become extinct. To the average person this may seem unbelievable, but those involved in conservation activities know the truth. It is clearly human beings, rather than war, climate change or natural disaster, that have been pushing these human relatives to extinction.

To cope with the problem, FFI experts and volunteers have conducted several conservation programs in different areas over the years. FFI officers now pay special attention to five primate species: Cat Ba red-shanked douc langurs, snub-nosed monkeys, Eastern black crested gibbons, grey-shanked douc langurs, and black crested gibbons.

Conservationists take trips to the mountains and the forests to compile a count of different species, determine the threats, and then take feasible measures to protect the primates from being hunted. Such activities require concerted efforts from experienced experts because conservation means getting out there into the species’ habitats for extended periods.

Only when we join them on their field trips do we understand the hardship and difficulties their work presents. Trips can last a week or ten days and perhaps even a month. They go far into the forest, to remote areas, bringing all necessities with them. They go in small groups who head in different directions, trying to find traces of the primates. A day may start at 3 or 4am, when they climb to mountaintops before the sun rises to listen to gibbons singing.

It’s not much different from the work of forest rangers, but requires absolute silence, because gibbons, monkeys and langurs can hear very well and are always alert. When walking through the forest, the sound of gibbons singing or of them swinging from one tree to another can be heard. It’s incredibly difficult, though, to catch a glimpse of them and take good photos.

To take good photos, the experts have to use professional cameras and lenses that may weigh a dozen kilos, carrying them along while waiting and hoping for the right moment to take a shot. When they do, though, it brings indescribable pleasure to the conservationists, and it is these photos that help make the public more aware about the future of these rare species. From such information, it is also possible to make plans to protect them.

Upon locating groups of primates, the first thing to do is to work closely with local authorities and forest management agencies on better patrols and law enforcement. It is necessary to set up conservation groups within local communities, with local people playing the key role in conducting patrols and protection activities because nobody understands the area as well as they do.

Many local people used to be hunters but have now had conservation lessons from experts and have given up their hunting to become actively involved in the protection of the primates as a way to make amends for previous behaviour.

Another no less important matter is to visit each family in villages near the forest to ask for their help and to work with local schools to give lessons to the young students who will become the owners of the country in the future.

It’s also obligatory to create livelihoods for local people or provide them with technical and financial support, making it possible for them to give up their exploitation of the forest. This work is not as bloody as the fights that can happen between rangers and loggers, but it remains a difficult task for the experts. They must live in remote areas for extended periods with scarcely any means of communication and face a host of danger from wild animals and insects. Bee attacks or accidents have caused conservationists to cancel some trips and head to hospital for a month or so.

These people devote their lives to ensuring that primates live in a safe environment and they hope the rare animals will grow in number, making a significant contribution to natural biodiversity.

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