Vietnam's forests are home to endangered monkey species found only here. Tim Plowden dodges armed poachers while trying to learn more about the rare monkeys
A close shave with armed poachers was a wake-up call. I had to keep my wits about me as I followed the trail of some of the world’s most endangered primates.
My local fixer had wandered off briefly to record the dawn chorus of birds in Vietnam’s Cuc Phuong national park. He returned trembling with fear after a confrontation with two armed hunters carrying bags of animals.
This is the reality of conservation work in Vietnam, where 70 per cent of primate species are facing extinction. Monkeys are prized for the pet trade, or hunted for sale as bush meat or for use in traditional medicines.
“Law enforcement is on a very, very low level,” says Tilo Nadler, founder of the Endangered Primate Rescue Center, which is experimenting with releasing them back into the wild and has hosted some dozen PhD researchers so far.
Confiscated animals make headlines, but prosecution receives less attention, and culprits often go free. Despite there being hundreds of confiscated animals each year, only 10 per cent of cases result in a prosecution, says Nadler. This is the reason behind a cataclysmic decline in primate populations across the country, he says.
Three of the world’s most endangered primates are only found here: Delacour’s langur (Trachypithecus delacouri), Cat Ba langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus) and Tonkin snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus avunculus).
The world’s largest remaining wild population of Delacour’s langur (shown above) is in Van Long Nature Reserve, in the north-east. Nadler calls it “one of the few safe havens” and credits its success to the local community, who benefit from tourists visiting the primates. With some 100 of these cliff-dwelling monkeys around, tourists are almost guaranteed to see one.
I board a traditional wooden boat and travel through the freshwater wetland to the limestone karst in search of the langurs. We get lucky and within an hour see a family group of around 10 clinging to the cliffs.
I am surprised by how natural their behaviour is. It’s a delight to see them unfazed by our presence as they feed, play and groom.
It’s a very different experience at the nearby Cuc Phuong national park. Here the impact of poaching is plain to see. The only primates I see or hear are those in captivity at the rescue centre.
Nguyen Van Thai, executive director of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, tells me the poaching is hard to stop as too many people live near the protected forests.
“Every forest in Vietnam still has a hunting problem,” he says. “We have to work more closely with the government to improve law enforcement and ensure hunting doesn’t happen.”
Next, I head to Cat Ba national park, to join rangers monitoring the Cat Ba langur in areas off-limits to tourists.
These langurs are only found on this island off the north-east shore of Vietnam. The site is close to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and has become a popular tourist destination in its own right.
But as wealthy Vietnamese and Chinese tourists started arriving in the mid-1990s, they created a demand for traditional medicine. Combined with logging and development in the area, this led to the Cat Ba langur population plummeting from some 2600 to just 40 in 2003.
“Currently there are 67, plus or minus five,” says Neahga Leonard, project manager of the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project, which has amassed a lot of unique data on these under-researched monkeys.
“We have the only repository of knowledge on them based on 15 years of working on the island,” says Leonard. “Now we need to know more about population dynamics, inbreeding issues, where they are going to move to, where good habitat is. We are keen to ensure research conducted at Cat Ba benefits the conservation of the langurs and doesn’t just satisfy the academic side of things.”
We head out on a motor boat through the scenic archipelago and soon spot a group of five langurs navigating the razor sharp rocks. A female tries to tempt a male to mate, her efforts meet with comic disinterest. Eventually persistence pays off to the relief – and bemusement – of the conservation project staff.
“Our biggest challenge is when we meet illegal loggers or hunters,” says Vu Doat, a local forest guardian recruited by the conservation project. “We don’t have the right to confiscate anything. So we only talk to them and raise awareness.”
We decide to head to our next destination sooner than planned as my local fixer starts feeling nervous. He recently carried out an undercover ivory survey in the souvenir shops in the area, and he thinks he is being recognised. Also, the staff in the restaurant next to our guesthouse are openly hostile: the place is lined with large jars of pickled animals and live geckos are sold openly on the street to tourists.
So we head to Son Tra, a nature reserve on a coastal peninsula near Da Nang, another rare haven for Vietnam’s endangered primates. It is home to more than half of the country’s endangered Red-shanked doucs (Pygathrix nemaeus).
I join Lê Thanh Hoàng as he heads out to collect data in the hills. We spot a small group of doucs straight away. They are the most beautiful animal I have ever seen and luckily their population here is growing. Since the Douc Langur Foundation started working here in 2007, the douc population has doubled to 687 individuals.
The foundation surveys monkey numbers and does research on their unusually rich and seasonal diet, which can help their preservation in captivity.
Despite the success, poaching remains a problem. Lois Lippold, founder of the foundation, tells me that one hunter discovered with 12 dead doucs told staff that he would have killed more, but he ran out of bullets.
When I ask Hoàng about his experiences with poachers, his leg starts to shake, his eyes dart around and he finds it difficult to talk.
Local hunters are the biggest challenge he faces, he finally says. He tries to photograph them and report the incident for local authorities to investigate.
“Illegal trade is pushing Vietnam’s primates closer to extinction,” says Chris Shepherd, regional director of TRAFFIC for South-East Asia. Thanks to organised crime networks and poor law enforcement, wildlife is under greater threat now than ever, he says.
“If actions are not taken immediately, many of these species will be lost forever,” Shepherd says. “Effective enforcement is going to be a key factor to ensuring Vietnam does not lose any of its primate treasures.”
Photo's by Tim Plowden in Vietnam