Just about 60 Cat Ba Langurs survive! This conservation center’s helping

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists the Cat Ba langur as one of the most critically endangered primate species in the world due to its small population size and restricted range.  Poaching has been the primary threat to the species resulting in the population decline from an estimated 2,500-2,800 individuals in the 1960s.

Alarmed at the rate of the population decline, the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP) and Münster Zoo immediately took steps to implement a conservation programme in the Cat Ba island in Hai Phong Province of Vietnam.

The “Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project”, started in November 2000, has worked relentlessly in monitoring of the langur population, implementing protection measures, promoting public awareness, amongst others. These efforts have culminated in bringing hunting to a halt, and for the first time in decades the world’s only remaining population of the Cat Ba langurs has increased to at least 65 individuals at present.

In a two part chat, OPR team member Efe De Hoyos interact with Neahga Leonard, Project Director, Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project at the Cat Ba National Park to know more about the conservation efforts and his experience in ensuring Sustainability of this wonderful species.

OPR: Not many have heard about the Cat Ba Langur. Give us a background into how you got involved with this project and the experience this far?

Neahga: Like a lot of things, how I got involved in this specific project was rather prosaic.  I was looking to continue my work in conservation and was searching for jobs after a position in Indonesia fell through. This position came up in my search and it looked interesting, so I followed up on it.

I already had experience living and working in Asia, which helped immensely.  I’d lived in China for several years in the ’90s teaching at university and had a brief conservation position in Indonesia about a year prior to applying for this position.  Additionally, I’d spent a year in South America traveling and working in various conservation projects, to say nothing of my work in the US and Canada.

The experience has been good over all, but challenging.  There have been a lot of changes in the local political bodies and it’s been a high rate of turn-over regarding the people responsible for overseeing local policy issues. At present there is a great deal of preference given to development rather than conservation and making that relationship be one that is mutually beneficial rather than confrontational is difficult at times.

We are a very small team and are trying to do a lot with a small budget.  There is an immense amount of work that needs to be done in the area, ranging from education, to conservation of many different species, to promoting responsible, sustainable development, to langur conservation and research, to research on other species where no work has been done at all, to updating and modernizing all the internal records, and so on.  Keeps us on our toes.

Pictured: Neahga to the left, Efe on the right

OPR: What’s been the biggest threat to the species?

Neahga:  The biggest threat to the langurs in the past was tourism driven poaching which led to hunting for traditional medicine.  The next biggest threat was habitat destruction in the form of logging, agriculture, and wildfires accidentally set by honey gatherers and others in the forest.  The third biggest past thread was sport / boredom hunting by locals and by military servicemen.

“Tourism driven poaching, habitat destruction and sport hunting

have been the biggest threats to the Cat Ba Langur”

The first two threats remain, and we are now faced with others.  We are concerned that the population is both fragmented and extremely small as this leads to a situation where inbreeding depression can set in.  Additionally, a population of high genetic similarity is often more at risk to diseases.  This would be a low risk if it weren’t for the combination of a very large number of tourists to the island and the resident native population of rhesus macaques.  We don’t have any information on the human-macaque interactions (other than at Monkey Island, where non-native macaques were dumped in an attempt to create a tourist draw), but certain diseases can transfer between humans and non-human primates.  If that happens on Cat Ba the native rhesus macaques could carry diseases to the langurs as they interact and that could spell doom for the species.

This is a big concern because people in Southeast Asia sometimes keep young macaques as pets, then release them when they get too large and dangerous to keep around anymore.  Every few years people are caught trying to release pet monkeys on Cat Ba, and this makes us very nervous.

The increase in tourism on Cat Ba is a threat as well as that brings with it an increasingly strong push for development and tourist activities in areas that are currently important for the langur and in areas that are important for their future.  Additionally, an increase in tourists means a very large increase in noise pollution, which has repeatedly been demonstrated to have extremely negative effects on wildlife of all sorts and on primates especially.  Getting people in Vietnam to understand that noise is a form of pollution is difficult, to say the least.

OPR: While it may not seem much to an outside, the uptick in the langur population from a low of 40 in 2003 has been significant. How is the project working to evade the threats?

Neahga: Population growth is exponential and if you start from a small population it takes a long time to see big changes.  Additionally, like the present population, the 2003 population of roughly 40 animals was both fragmented and included a large member of non-reproducing individuals.  Of those 40 individuals, only something like 14-20, at most, of them would have been reproductively active and those were in even smaller separate groups due to the fragmentation of the populations.

We have worked hard to make sure that all areas the langurs inhabit are properly protected.  In 2006 the park was expanded, in large part due to our efforts, to include langur areas and those areas were placed under the highest level of protection available under Vietnamese law.

Education of locals has been critical in getting local hunting of the langurs to stop and to build a sense of pride in the fact that this is something unique to Cat Ba and is something that people should protect.

We work closely with Cat Ba National Park and provide direct support for ranger stations for patrol and enforcement activities, we provide training and capacity building opportunities for the rangers as well, so that they are as knowledgeable and skilled as we can get them to be.

When it comes to the development side of things, we keep as close track on future plans as we can and try to provide feedback and advice to the government on how to best meet the needs of both conservation and development. That’s probably the most difficult and least straight-forward part of the work, but it is one of the most important parts of it.

Obviously, we also conduct a lot of fieldwork dealing with the langurs directly to monitor the population, identify important changes, learn more about their living requirements, and so on.

 Pictured above is the Cat Ba Island (Source: Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project – Facebook)

OPR: Working on the island itself might be not easy given the challenges the terrain poses. How have you’ll managed to tackle that challenge and tell us something about the team involved?

Neahga:  Fieldwork is a challenge here.  The remaining langur population lives primarily in coastal areas on the very steepest of the cliffs.  As a result much of our langur based work is conducted by boat.  Terrestrial work tends to be focused on other issues, such as the poaching of other animals and plants.  The terrain is so rugged that many areas are simple inaccessible and even in those areas that are accessible your vision is limited to only a few meters due to vegetation and the landscape itself.  On land it is often the case that even if we can get into langur areas the specific microhabitats the langurs prefer, the cliffs, are simply inaccessible to us.

The team is myself, and 4 Vietnamese staff.  Luan and Tuyen handle much of the langur fieldwork and Luan also oversees the BVR, our antipoaching teams.  Lan take care of much of the office work and participates in patrols with the anti-poaching teams and rangers to ensure that the work is kept up to a minimum standard.  Han deals with much of the political and development issues.  In addition she oversees the education program we run in the schools on the island.

Those are the immediate, full-time staff, but we partially employ another 29 people in the local communities on the island as part of our anti-poaching teams, teachers, etc.

Image of the Cat Ba Langur included within the introduction to the post is credited to Neahga Leonard.

Wouldn’t you love visiting this beautiful island and catch a glimpse of the Cat Ba Langur? In the second part to this conversation, Neahga shares some of the more ground level challenges faced in undertaking such Sustainability centric initiatives.

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