Da Nang, VietnamIn this central Vietnamese city of 1.2 million people, almost every inch of land has been gobbled up by developers. High-rise hotels line the mile-long white sand beach. But one prime piece of real estate remains untouched: the mountainous and forested tip of the city’s peninsula. It is a 6,400-acre nature reserve called Son Tra, or, as it is also known, Monkey Mountain.
The reserve, which is also home to a military base, is the last refuge for the red-shanked douc, a critically endangered langur of which there are only about 2,000 animals in Son Tra. On a recent visit, conservationist Hoang Van Chuong quickly spotted dozens of brightly colored, long-tailed monkeys high in the trees. It’s hard to hide those features, laughs Chuong, director of development for local nonprofit GreenViet.
Preoccupied with some afternoon snacking on leaves, the animals didn’t seem too bothered by our presence. But doucs have good reason to fear people. Long hunted for meat and medicine, they have lost most of their forest habitat, which once spread throughout the region. Driven into small jungle enclaves, they are now found only in a few pockets in Laos and in two isolated populations in Vietnam, the largest of which is held here in Son Tra.
Doucs are one of many species that have suffered significant declines due to habitat fragmentation, which studies have shown to be the greatest cause of biodiversity loss worldwide, and especially in Southeast Asia. Urban development is a major contributor to the problem. The world’s urban population is poised to increase by 2.5 billion in the next 30 years, tripling the global footprint of cities. Experts warn that animals that cannot adapt to urban settings may be pushed into smaller, more remote areas. (Read about a new monkey species hiding in plain sight in Southeast Asia.)
Species that require relatively large, intact areas of wildland, such as red doucs, “disappear, [while] Native and introduced species that thrive in cities can take over, said Rohan Simkin, an ecologist at Yale University, who studies the effects of urban expansion on wildlife.
He and other researchers say that there are probably more urban-avoidance species that cannot adjust to the urban environment than urban adapters, although no large-scale studies have been done to confirm this.
Our peninsula, our monkeys
Douc is an old Vietnamese name meaning monkey. In addition to the red-shanked douc, there are two other douc species in Southeast Asia, which are also critically endangered: the black-shanked and gray-shanked douc. Some deforestation can be traced back to the Vietnam War, when forests were sprayed with the toxic defoliant known as Agent Orange. While Vietnamese governments remained committed to boosting its economy in the post-war years, wildlife protection received little attention.
As recently as a decade ago, few people in Da Nang knew that doucs existed in Son Tra, according to Larry Ulibarri, an anthropologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene, who wrote his species doctoral thesis. When Ulibarri showed photos of the animals to local officials, he was told that the primates were in Africa, not here.
But recognition of the doucs began to grow when GreenViet, formed in 2014, and other conservationists began organizing photo exhibitions, school visits, and other outreach programs.
People realized, this is our peninsula and these are our monkeys and asked, what can we do to protect them? Chuong said. Local hotels started asking for photos of langurs that they could display in their lobbies.
Plans revealed by developers in 2016 to build more beach resorts inside the reserve led to a public outcry. Campaigners collected 10,000 signatures protesting the project, a rare display of public opposition in Vietnam. When national leaders joined the call, the project was scrapped.
The reason why Son Tra is not developed is because of the monkeys [are there]says Ulrike Streicher, a German veterinarian who led early contact efforts.
Although military personnel in Son Tras have been able to stop poachers, poaching is no longer considered a major threat to the reserve.
To adapt or not to adapt
Globally, nearly half of all original forests have disappeared, with the loss felt most acutely in tropical forests that contain at least half of the world’s species. In addition to urban development, agricultural expansion and logging are the main causes of forest loss in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Sometimes that loss happens rapidly, but more often it is incremental, especially in protected areas.
Species that can adapt and even thrive in disturbed landscapes or urban environments tend to have abundant food and an ability to quickly solve problems, such as finding a place to sleep. busy city. There are many small-bodied animals, such as mice and rats, but it also includes deer and medium-sized predators, such as North America’s coyotes. (Read how wild animals adapt to city life in surprising ways.)
But there are probably many other animals that cannot make such adaptations. An example is the endangered Florida panther, which is greatly endangered by urbanization, with only about 200 individuals left in the wild. Big cats need large territories to survive and find other people to mate with.
The red-shanked douc has similar needs. A family of doucs, which usually ranges from four to 15 individuals, probably needs at least 30 hectares of forest habitat, according to Chuong. If habitat is too limited, animals may end up inbreeding, resulting in lines that are less stable and genetically viable.
On the encouraging side, red-shanked doucs have a fairly flexible diet, feeding mainly on buds and young leaves, but will also eat flowers, fruit, seeds, and bark.
In Son Tra, ecotourism began to connect people with their native wildlife. GreenViet, for example, organizes daily monkey-watching tours for the public. Since doucs are not naturally curious animals and usually stay high in the trees, eating their own food, the risk of them getting used to people is considered low.
With their flamboyant appearance, which has earned them the misnomer of costumed monkeys, they are, however, a sight to behold. Many people tell us that seeing the doucs is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, said VH Qu Anh, who leads GreenViet tours. The organization says it has so far reached about 30,000 people through educational outreach programs.
Looks like the work is paying off. The Greenviets census of the population of Son Tra douc in 2017 registered about 1,300 individuals. A new survey, as yet unpublished, suggests the number has risen to more than 2,000.
This shows that it is possible to protect the doucs, said Chuong, if we keep Son Tra pure.
Stefan Lovgren is a frequent contributor to National Geographic and covers the Mekong River as part of the USAID Wonders of the Mekong project. He is the co-author of Chasing Giants: In Search of the World’s Largest Freshwater Fish.
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