By Marianne Brown
Only decades ago the Cat Ba langur was a common sight in the lush vegetation and limestone cliffs of the island off northern Vietnam that gave this golden-headed animal its name.
But a combination of surplus guns following the country’s war with the United States and a rising demand for traditional medicine nearly extinguished the species altogether.
Thanks to the vigorous efforts by a community-based conservation project, the langur has been rescued from the brink of extinction, but with a fragmented population, recuperating the numbers is tough, especially in prime hunting season.
When the Cat Ba Langur Project was created in 2000 by the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations and Muenster Zoo in Germany, there were only 53 animals left.
That year the World Conservation Union listed the species (Trachypithecus poliocephalus) as one of the world’s most endangered primates.
Cat Ba is rich in biodiversity, with several new species — among them the leopard gecko and a new kind of leaf-nosed bat — discovered in recent years, but hunting has drastically depleted most of the larger wild mammals.
It’s a similar story nationwide. In 2011 Vietnam’s last Javan rhino died and as few as 50 wild elephants are believed to remain alive within its borders. This is partly driven by a growing trade in wildlife products, both for meat and traditional medicine, fuelled partly by increasing economic prosperity.
The Cat Ba langur is not hunted primarily for its meat, which has a strong smell.
Instead its bones are used to make monkey balm, believed to be a cure-all and improve male virility. But today, with so little game left on the island, poachers are looking for other things, Passaro says.
“The main threats to the forest these days appears to be unsustainable usage exacerbated by an ever-increasing human population,” he said. Sought-after bounty includes medicinal plants, ornamental trees and honey.
Last year Vietnam received a worst-possible score for failing to protect tigers and rhinos in a wildlife crime scorecard published by Swiss-based conservation group the World Wildlife Fund.
The country is considered a destination market for rhino horn smuggled from South Africa and a transit hub for ivory on its way to China.
On Cat Ba, Nguyen Quang Thanh, head of Cat Hai district forest protection department, said he’s not concerned with demand from China. “Here there is no problem with people selling wildlife to China, because there is not enough wildlife to sell,” he said.
One of the first priorities for the project was to reduce hunting by recruiting former poachers and assigning them as langur guards.
Vu Huu Tinh is one of them. Hanging on the bedposts in his small home in Gia Luan village are some gruesome reminders of his former trade, the skulls of two Indochinese serow. Tinh is now the project’s “most trusted forest protector”, according to Passaro.
But 30 years ago, he was killing langurs.
“They would come as close as those trees,” he says, pointing to some fruit trees around 15m from the front of his house. “They were everywhere.” In those days the animals were not afraid of humans, according to Tinh, so they were easy to shoot and many villagers had guns left over from the war.
Tinh was persuaded to give up poaching in the early stages of the project.
“If we don’t take care of the forest there will be nothing left for our children,” he said.
Now, the project is turning its attention to another problem — recuperating numbers. Up until recently the langurs lived in seven subpopulations — some all female — across Cat Ba National Park, which at around 40,020 acres covers half the island.
In November, after over a year of meticulous planning, Passaro and his team moved two females from an islet to the mainland where they joined a mixed sex group. The animals had been stranded there since locals removed sections of mangrove forest that acted as a bridge to the mainland to make way for shrimp farms.
Staff are hopeful the females will soon start breeding.
Pham Van Thang, 36, lives in a floating village practising aquaculture a short boat ride from the langur sanctuary. Shouting over the noise of the outboard motor, he points across the sea to a distant limestone cliff topped with brilliant green foliage.
“I see their golden heads sometimes from my boat,” he says.
“Fishermen wouldn’t try to take the langurs from the forest because the cliffs are so high, it’s very dangerous,” he said. “Anyway, it would be very hard to sell them because everyone knows them. The langurs are very important to local people.”
The animals may be a big part of the island’s identity, but not everyone feels obliged to protect them.
At a meeting of the Cat Hai district Forest Protection Department, one patrolman said he’d spotted a group of local people with monkey traps going into the area from which the two female langurs had been moved.
District head Thanh said hunting is particularly bad in the run-up to Vietnam’s lunar new year festival, because it is traditional to have special meals and many villagers are poor.
“At Tet we increase the patrols,” he said. “It’s something they do every year because there are fewer food items. Some local people catch the wildlife and eat it at home.”
The picture nationally is a bit different.
Dr Naomi Doak, Greater Mekong programme co-ordinator for the group TRAFFIC, said there tends to be an increase in demand for meat and other wildlife products in both Vietnam and China over the new year celebrations, partly driven by the use of these products as expensive gifts as a display of wealth and status.
“They are often more expensive than the alternatives and this places a belief of higher value on them as well,” she said.
While Vietnam has been criticised for not doing enough to stem the illegal wildlife trade, Cat Ba’s local government seems to be taking responsibility for protecting the langur.
The district has recently taken over funding for the patrols, a move Passaro has hailed as “extremely significant”.
“In general, the Vietnamese government normally places economic development before conservation and the protection of its natural heritage,” he said.
But with numbers still at critical level, there’s no chance yet for the conservation project to slacken its pace. “If someone put their mind to it they could wipe them (the langurs) out in a month,” Passaro said. — DPA