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Reserve ensures survival of rare monkeys
By:China Daily
update:July 24,2023

Yu Jianhua (left), a forest ranger at the Baima Snow Mountain National Nature Reserve in Yunnan province, is joined by Lai Jiandong (middle), head of the wildlife protection station at the reserve, and French travel writer Yannick Benichou as they check the feces of Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys to monitor the animals' health in March. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Long Yongcheng (left), a primatologist, discusses the monkeys with Benichou in Xiangguqing village, Yunnan, in March. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Long and Yu teach Benichou about the monkeys in Xiangguqing. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Yu and his companions patrol the Baima reserve as they look for traces of Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys in March. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Two monkeys sit high in a tree at the reserve. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Parents nurse their infant at the reserve. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Dedicated rangers are helping to ensure that one of China's most endangered species is flourishing. Zhang Wenfang and Li Yingqing report from Kunming.

The number of endangered Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys is rising, thanks to growing public awareness and concrete action, according to experts at a nature reserve.

"On Jan 29, Xiangguqing village welcomed its first Yunnan snub-nosed monkey baby born in the Year of the Rabbit," announced Lai Jiandong, head of the wildlife protection station at the Baima Snow Mountain National Nature Reserve in northwestern Yunnan province, in a WeChat post earlier this year.

The post was accompanied by a video clip showing the mother in the woods, holding her newborn with one hand as she picked up peanuts with the other.

"This marks an auspicious start (to the breeding season)," Lai wrote.

When the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey breeding season ended in late May, Lai was pleased to see that the monkeys in the village had given birth to 12 infants, bringing their total population to about 80.

"It is also a good sign for the reproductive activities of many other monkey troops who live deeper in the mountain's forests," Lai said.

Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys inhabit the mountainous forests of the southwestern province and the neighboring Tibet autonomous region, with most of them being found in the Baima reserve. Xiangguqing, in Yunnan's Dechen Tibetan autonomous prefecture, is the only place where people can observe the monkeys in close proximity.

Over the decades, the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey, one of world's most endangered primates, has been saved from extinction. According to a survey conducted in 2017-18, the population had risen to more than 3,800, while in the 1980s the monkey was rarely seen.

A decadelong journey

In the 1980s, when the Baima reserve was established to protect the precious species, no one knew exactly how many of the monkeys remained or where they were, because they had disappeared from human sight for about 100 years.

The mystery surrounding the primate intrigued Long Yongcheng, then a researcher at the Kunming Institute of Zoology. He first visited the reserve in 1985 on a trip that led to a lifelong bond with the animals.

"Even the reserve's staff members didn't know what the monkeys looked like. They didn't have a single clear photo of the primate. They once even mistook some macaque monkeys for the Yunnan monkey," he recalled.

Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys have a distinctive appearance: black-and-white fur, pink pouting lips, a punky "mohawk" hairstyle and a tail that's roughly as long as the body.

"How can we protect a species without even knowing any basic information about it?" said Long, who was determined to find the monkeys.

From 1985 to 1994, Long and two assistants, who were the first members of staff at the reserve, left their footprints all over the narrow mountain ranges between the Jinsha and Lancang rivers as they searched for the elusive primates.

"Every search was an adventurous journey. We had to venture deep into the primary forests at altitudes of 3,000 to 5,000 meters. Supplies were carried by horses to sustain our weekslong trips to the mountains. Sometimes, fickle weather and rugged terrain put our lives at risk," Long recalled.

They caught fleeting glimpses of the primate in the trees or observed large groups from a distance, but it wasn't until June 1992 that Long managed to take the first clear photo of the monkeys in the wild as they sat on high cliffs about 100 meters away. Later, his team found 20 groups of the monkeys — 1,000 to 1,500 in total — living in the primary forests, often known as "old growth forests", in the border area between Yunnan and Tibet.

Growing awareness

Long's expeditions were also often joined by special guides — hunters from local villages.

"Wherever I went, the first thing I did was find the best local hunters. They were excellent climbers and had detailed knowledge of the area's geography and fauna," Long said.

The local residents used to live off the mountains. They chopped down trees for firewood and building materials, and hunted wild animals, including the snub-nosed monkeys, for their meat and fur.

Large-scale commercial logging led to the shrinking and fragmentation of the monkeys' habitat, while hunting added to the challenges they faced.

"The hunters were not absolute villains. A lack of environmental and wildlife protection awareness meant that most of them were unaware that their way of life was destructive to nature," Long said.

"Once, I told a hunter that Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys only lived in his home area, and he was super surprised."

Over the years, Long made the acquaintance of 30 to 40 hunters, and they are all now employed as forest protectors.

Yu Jianhua, a 70-year-old former hunter in Xiangguqing, has worked at the reserve for 26 years. His hunting career, which began in his teens, ended in 1997 after the local government persuaded him to use his skills and knowledge to protect the endangered monkeys.

"Although I was a hunter, I actually quite like animals and nature. When I learned that the monkeys were an endangered species, I became their protector," he said.

"The deteriorating natural environment had already affected my hunting business. I was worried that one day all the trees would be gone and the monkeys and other animals would no longer exist in the village."

After he turned in his shotgun, Yu started tracking and protecting the monkeys. "At first, they ran away at the sight of me and kept a watchful eye on me from very far away," he said, adding that as time passed, the animals came to recognize his voice and appearance so they stayed where they were when he approached, eating and resting as usual.

Many other hunters followed Yu's example, so the village's guardian team has grown to 25 people.

They hand out food, monitor the monkeys' health and daily activities and offer assistance when needed. Other tasks include preventing poaching and illegal logging, and clearing hidden dangers such as traps.

In 2008, to raise public awareness of the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey, a national park was built around Xiangguqing, which lies within the Baima reserve, and opened to visitors, thus allowing people to observe the monkeys at elevations of 2,400 to 3,100 meters.

The monkeys usually live at the highest altitudes, but some have been guided by Yu and other rangers to settle in areas more accessible to people. However, it would not be possible for the monkeys to move to lower ground without the trust and bonds forged between them and their protectors.

"I see them as my own kids. I miss them when I leave the village, even if it's only for a few days. I'll continue my ranger work until the day I can no longer walk," Yu said.

Since the park opened, he has had an extra duty: managing the tourists and introducing them to the monkeys' world. By the end of last year, the facility had received about 250,000 visits, becoming a significant window to popularizing the treasured species.

Deeper understanding

"I like the shutter sounds made by visitors' cameras and phones because that means their images and videos will be spread online and all over the world, making more people fans of this unique species," said Long, now a 68-year-old retiree and honorary chairman of the Chinese Primatological Society.

"More attention brings better protection. Keeping the monkeys alive is still a matter of urgency. Only while they are a living species can we maintain the opportunity to deepen our understanding of them."

The monkeys, dubbed "elves of the snow mountain" by the locals, live at the highest altitudes at which all primates (with the exception of humans) can survive, according to Long.

"High altitude often means extreme conditions and low temperatures. The monkeys don't have much fat, so how they survive is a good question to explore. It also sheds light on how nature's recycling system works," he said.

"The monkeys mainly eat usnea, a type of lichen that contains a substance called chitin, which is also found in the shells of crabs and shrimps. We humans and many other animals can't digest it, but the monkeys can. Usnea (aka "old man's beard") often grows in the woods, so it's eaten and digested by the monkeys, whose feces is broken down by natural processes. The ecosystem doesn't produce waste. Everything is recyclable. Maybe we can learn from it to improve human society."

Comparing the maps of habitats of humans and other primates in China, Long noticed an overlap between many of the regions favored by primates and by humans.

"The monkeys share many similarities with us humans. To protect them is to protect ourselves. A lot of questions remain about them and their interaction with nature. We should make more efforts to save biodiversity before it's too late," Long said.

According to Lai Jiandong, from the wildlife protection station at the Baima reserve, five nature reserves, including Baima, have been set up over recent decades, providing more effective protection of the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey.

In 2019, a protection network consisting of the local government and NGOs was established, and the number of member organizations has risen from 13 to 28. Over the past three years, ecological corridors totaling more than 400 hectares have been built or restored, with 630,000 trees planted, which has facilitated gene exchanges among different groups of monkeys.

"The conservation of the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey is on the right track and my dream of saving the species has been realized. Now, as a retiree, I just hope that one day this back-and-white monkey will be as popular as the black-and-white giant panda," Long said.

By Zhang Wenfang and Li Yingqing

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