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Myanmar snub-nosed monkey facing extinction

The recently discovered Myanmar snub-nosed monkey has been bearing the brunt of China’s appetite for timber but a video clip and a new law banning the export of raw logs could give the critically endangered species a shot at survival, writes Vincent MacIsaac

 

It is just 42 seconds long, but the first-ever video footage of a species of monkey recently discovered in northeastern Myanmar is raising a glimmer of hope that the animal can be brought back from the brink of extinction. This will, however, require Chinese logging companies to respect the ban on the export of raw logs from Myanmar that begins on Tuesday, conservationists say.

“Finally, after three years of searching, we have proof that large groups continue to survive despite the ravages of illegal Chinese commercial logging,” says a visibly excited Frank Momberg, Asia director of Fauna and Flora International (FFI).

The video above shows a troop of monkeys leaping through the leafy canopy in the eastern Himalayan Mountains and was taken in February, by hunter-turned-ranger Kaung Haung, 24, from the local Law Waw tribe, who was trekking to check camera traps.

Momberg was a member of the team that discovered the species by chance in 2010, while conducting a survey of Myanmar’s gibbon population in northeastern Kachin state, in an area opposite the Nu River Valley, in China’s Yunnan province. Hunters in Kachin’s N’mai River Valley had reported the existence of a large monkey that sneezed during the rainy season, due to its upturned nose. Momberg was intrigued.

“I suspected immediately that it could be a monkey belonging to the snub-nosed genus,” he recalls, explaining that he had worked on a conservation project for a species of the genus in Vietnam. The nearest known snub-nosed species, however, was in Yunnan, its range separated from Kachin by two barriers: the Mekong and Salween (which the Nu becomes in Myanmar) rivers.

“We could not rule out the existence of a new species,” he says.

Discoveries of such a magnitude are becoming increasingly rare.

“It’s possible to discover an insect, a tree or an orchid, but a mammal that’s half the size of a man, that’s something really hard,” says a community forest management expert in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. “It’s the dream of every zoologist to discover a species, but with tourists snapping photos all around the globe you’ve got to go deep into caves or remote border areas where there is poor infrastructure and a need for special entry permits.”

The FFI team redoubled efforts to interview hunters and villagers for evidence of a new species, finding a carcass and a few skulls.

Unlike the species in Yunnan, the one in Myanmar is almost entirely black, with tufts of white hair in its ears and on its chin, and a tail that is 1.4 times the length of its body. Swiss primatologist Thomas Geissmann analysed the specimens and agreed that the Myanmar field biologists had discovered a new species. Christian Roos, at the German Primate Centre, in Goettingen, confirmed this in 2012, with an analysis of its DNA.

Snub-nosed monkeys are found only in southern China and northern parts of Vietnam and Myanmar, and make up the entirety of the genus Rhinopithecus. The genus is divided into five species: golden; black; grey; Tonkin; and, now, Myanmar snub-nosed monkeys. However, only “small fragments” of the five species are left, Roos tells Post Magazine. “Before, they had much larger ranges.”

Roos and a team of geneticists from around the globe began studying the DNA of the entire genus to retrace its evolution. This research led to fresh insights into primate evolution and speciation, he says, noting in particular that it underscored the significance of hybridisation: the emergence of a new species from two species of the same genus. The research provided evidence that this occurs more frequently than generally believed, he says, estimating that more than 10 per cent of all primate species are the result of hybridisation, although that is not the case with the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey.

He warns, however, that without an increase in conservation efforts “all or least some of the five snub-nosed monkey species” will be extinct in the near future.

The fragment populations that remain are still viable, Momberg insists, pointing to conservation efforts in China and Vietnam that have led to a rebound in the numbers of snub-nosed monkeys there. Where the video comes in handy, he says, is that it demonstrates that the species needs a large range of protected forest to ensure its survival. The footage is also a treasure trove for scientists seeking clues about the species’ behaviour.

“It gives us the first glimpse into their social organisation,” Momberg says.

Previously, they had only corpses, skulls, pelts and a few photographs obtained by camera traps in May 2011. Most of these images were blurry but one was a clear shot, in black and white, of a single monkey on the forest floor at night. This was enough to provoke elation, recalls photographer Jeremy Holden, who helped set the 15 camera traps, which also captured images of other threatened species, including the red panda.

The video, however, shows the monkeys in boisterous action. It may not be up to the standards of the Animal Planet television channel, but it proves that the species, unlike other leaf-eating monkeys, lives in large groups that require expansive feeding ranges. This wide range, over rugged, high-altitude terrain, has made them difficult to locate and film, but it underscores the fact that large areas of forest need to be protected to ensure their survival.

Through interviews with local hunters, the FFI has found that there are three distinct groups of snub-nosed monkeys in the mountains around the N’mai River Valley, with an estimated total number of 260 to 330, in a range of about 276 square kilometres.

The new species could become extinct within 18 years, according to research published in the American Journal of Primatology in 2011. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) agreed, placing it on its Red List of Threatened Species the following year, where it is classified as “critically endangered”.

“That means ‘on the verge of extinction’,” Momberg says.

“Hunting pressure is likely to increase considerably in the next few years as new dam construction and logging roads invade the distribution area of this newly discovered snub-nosed monkey,” the IUCN warned, referring to China Power Investment’s controversial hydropower projects in Kachin state, including the massive Myitsone dam project on the Irrawaddy River. Construction on Myitsone began in 2008, a few kilometres downstream from its source: the confluence of two rivers that begin in the Himalayas. One of these is the N’mai, which, according to reports, could see five other dams built along it.

Construction on the Myitsone dam, almost all the electricity from which would have been exported to Yunnan, was suspended following massive protests in Kachin in September 2011 – and, last Sunday, dozens of protesters embarked on a 70-day, 2,400-kilometre march from Yangon along the Irrawaddy to call for the cancellation of the project. Although flooding from that dam would not affect the monkey’s habitat, its construction has already prompted the building of roads from Yunnan into the area, opening the way for commercial loggers.

“Habitat degradation, due to the creation of roads and other infrastructure is rapidly becoming a major threat,” the IUCN said in 2012, explaining why the species was nearing extinction. “Logging roads have now been built into all the areas occupied by this species. With the increased access, the influx of Chinese workers to the area as part of the logging and dambuilding operations is accelerating and it is expected that when the dams reach the full construction stage, there will be at least 10,000 workers employed in this area.”

Loggers are already driving up demand for “bush meat”, FFI says.

Photographs show roasted macaque monkeys with the tops of their skulls sliced open; the brains are considered a delicacy.

The roads have also provided local hunters with access to the traditional Chinese medicine market. They once hunted only for food but demand for exotic wildlife in China is turning hunting into a commercial activity.

“A bag of monkey bones goes for US$30 in Yunnan and the price is likely to rise as demand increases and the numbers decline,” Momberg says. “Only a combination of local enforcement, strengthening of border controls and alternative livelihood incentives can address this problem.”

The logging techniques used by the Chinese companies, which, the IUCN says, include blasting through cliffs to make roads, are taking an especially heavy toll on habitats. Logging is also taking place at high altitudes and on slopes, making landslides increasingly common due to the loss of tree cover, the union says.

Previously, the main threat to the monkeys had been traps set by hunters, especially when they shifted from their summer range, 2,500 to 3,000 metres above the valley, to their winter habitat, a few hundred metres above the villages. Most monkeys caught accidentally are snared in traps set for bears or deer, Momberg says.

Illegal logging by Chinese companies in Kachin has not gone unnoticed by Myanmar’s government, or media. Local reports frequently mention that diplomats from the Chinese embassy in Myanmar are summonsed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and confronted with photographic and documentary evidence of illegal logging in Kachin and other border states. The Myanmar Times, for example, reported on February 25 that even the President’s Office was miffed by the profusion of evidence, quoting a senior minister as saying bilateral talks were being held to stop illegal logging in Kachin.

The resource-rich state, however, remains a conflict zone, where more than 100,000 civilians have been displaced since June 2011, despite the government’s much-lauded national peace process, which has seen it sign ceasefires with all major non-state armies except the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which is no longer fighting for independence but autonomy within Myanmar.

The government has, however, signed a ceasefire with the breakaway faction of the KIA that controls the northeastern tip of the state: the National Democratic Kachin Army (NDKA). FFI says the NDKA is supportive of its conservation aims.

Non-state armies, as well as Myanmar’s own troops, are, however, routinely accused of involvement in illegal logging, either directly or by collecting “taxes” from laden trucks destined for China. The trade in timber has surged following the outbreak of conflict in the state, reports say.

“Massive volumes of large logs were witnessed [in 2013] crossing overland into Yunnan through an official Chinese customs checkpoint at the Chinese border town of Nangdao,” the non-profit Forest Trends reported late last year, saying Myanmese troops and non-state armed groups were collecting taxes on the timber as it passed through their respective territories.

Another factor cited for the surge in the “conflict timber” trade is the looming ban on the export of raw logs from Myanmar. The move is part of a Myanmese strategy to gain access to the European Union’s market for finished wooden products (by curbing illegal logging) as well as an attempt to slow the pace of deforestation in the country, which has seen its forests shrink, according to government figures, from 58 per cent to 47 per cent of land area over the past two decades.

Local timber traders say, however, that the export ban could actually fuel cross-border smuggling by raising the price of raw logs in the region.

Raw timber exports from Myanmar totalled 1.24 million tonnes in the year to March 2013, bringing in more than US$1 billion in revenue, according to official figures.

“We’ll have to see whether the Chinese government respects the ban.

Chinese demand is causing the extinction of the species. Only the Chinese government can save it,” says Momberg.

Myanmar’s government has little control over the habitat of its snub-nosed monkey, or the nearby border with China. The area lacks border checkpoints, enforcement agencies and the rule of law, the IUCN notes.

Still, in the two years since the species was added to the Red List, several developments – besides the imminent ban on log exports and the suspension of construction of the Myitsone dam – could give the species a shot at survival. Local villagers, for example, have signed no-hunting pacts.

“In such a remote place, local people are the only possible custodians for species’ survival,” Momberg says.

FFI and its partners in the forestry department have launched a conservation- awareness campaign centred on the species, highlighting that the two hill tribes in the area – the Law Waw and the Li Su – have the ability to be the “guardians” of the species. The community-based forestry programme puts them at the centre of the conversation effort and provides grants for alternative income-generating activities, such as livestock raising and rice and walnut growing, that reduce pressure on the forests.

Illegal logging has also galvanised village residents, FFI says.

“They see the scarred mountain slopes and landslides destroying not only forests but also their upland rice fields, and they are not even benefiting from the logging because all the loggers come from China,” says Ngwe Lwin, a field biologist from the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association in Myanmar.

 

THE MYANMAR SNUB-NOSED monkey has also been spotted on the Chinese side of the border, in the Nu River valley. Forest rangers in the Gaoligong Mountains nature preserve photographed a group of 60 to 80 animals in March 2012. Scientists at the Kunming Institute of Zoology later found that their DNA matched that of the newly discovered species on the Myanmese side of the border.

Hot spots of biodiversity have been identified on both sides of the border since the first decade of the last century, when English botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward began cataloguing the fauna of northern Kachin state in a series of often lyrical, though scientifically rigorous, books. His final expedition to Myanmar’s northern mountains, in 1956, marked the beginning of a long decline of scientific cataloguing of the region’s fauna.

This is changing. Myanmar’s dramatic reforms are sparking a rebound in conservation efforts, with experts and donors from around the globe joining in.

“Myanmar’s biodiversity is incredibly vital on a global scale. It has a range that is unparalleled in the region,” says Helga Rainer, director of the conservation programme at Arcus Foundation. “Conservationists are increasingly describing new species to the wider scientific community,” she says, during a visit to Myanmar. The New York-based foundation, a leading donor to great ape conservation globally, funded the gibbon research that inadvertently led to the discovery of the new species of snub-nosed monkey. It also funds projects in China.

The challenge for conservationists is to engage local communities and governments in appropriate protection strategies, Rainer says. Myanmar, in particular, will increasingly look to tap its resources to develop its economy. If appropriate planning and consultations are not conducted this could damage “the important biodiversity it hosts for future generations”, she says.

She also notes that China’s demand for resources is having regional effects and that “careful consideration of the sustainable extraction and exploitation of these resources” is necessary to prevent the loss of key forested landscapes.

China has been a positive partner in cross-border initiatives, she says, pointing to a habitat-protection project on its border with Vietnam for the second-rarest ape in the world, the Cao Vit gibbon. China’s commitment, she says, is “resulting in increasing numbers of this fragile population”.

Whether the country is as willing to help save the Myanmar snubnosed monkey, by preventing its merchants in Yunnan from stealing highly valuable timber from Kachin, remains to be seen.

 

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