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Nature Conservancy Magazine: Winter 2009

Monkey King


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Monkey Distribution Map

Yunnan Golden Monkey Distribution, 2009

“The monkey is a very good tool to get people’s attention. Our goal is to use the monkey to get people to support conservation.”

Zhang Shuang, director of the Conservancy’s China program

By Mara Hvistendahl 

Reading Long Yongcheng’s account of his work on the endangered Yunnan golden monkey is a little like diving into a romance novel. For starters, the book is called The Most Adorable Faces in the World: Twenty Years With the Pink-Lipped Men. The writing is florid (“Their face is quite simply the most beautiful of all animals...thanks to their glamorous pink lips”); and it’s dramatic (“I could do nothing but hold her tightly. Her temperature was dropping, and her breathing weakening”). Hardly the kind of thing you’d expect from a researcher with the august Chinese Academy of Sciences and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the species. 

Indeed, the 2007 book is much more than a record of Long’s research. It is a retelling of his “everlasting aspiration that the Yunnan golden monkey … survive for eternity and become known and loved by all,” writes Zhang Yaping, head of the academy’s Kunming Institute of Zoology and Long’s former boss, in the foreword. It is the story of a farm laborer turned zoologist turned self-taught monkey expert who has devoted two decades of his life to protecting the elusive animal, at turns camping for months in the woods, petitioning government officials, teaching local people about the species and even comforting a hunted, dying monkey in his arms. It is also the story of how one man’s obsession grew into one of China’s foremost conservation efforts and the cornerstone of The Nature Conservancy’s Yunnan forests project.

“The greatest strength Long has is his commitment,” says Rose Niu, the former director of the Conservancy’s China program, who hired the crusader in 2002. “His wife used to complain he treasures the monkeys more than his son.”

Long’s colleagues find that devotion endearing, so much so that they have bestowed on him a nickname, based on a character in a Ming dynasty classic: Monkey King.

Flat Face, Pink Lips, Upturned Nose

Trekking with the 54-year-old Monkey King through Yunnan’s Laojun Mountain region isn’t for the faint of heart. Plowing through an overgrown field, tightrope-walking a log balanced precariously over a rushing river, scampering up steep slopes, Long presses on in search of the monkey. This region inspired James Hilton’s 1933 classic Lost Horizon, the novel that introduced the idea of Shangri-la, and today parts of the region are still paradise. Long ventures that the thicket of spruce, fir and oak trees towering overhead is 300 years old. Then suddenly the zoologist yells. “Look at that!” He veers off the trail and points at a tree. Protruding from the trunk about a foot from the ground, barely noticeable in the dappled light, is a thin circle of rusty wire, an animal trap. 

“This is a monkey land mine!” Long exclaims.

Specifically, a Yunnan golden monkey land mine. The monkey is native to northwestern Yunnan Province. Within that region, it lives only at the highest altitudes — typically above 12,000 feet — at the treeline amid healthy, sparsely inhabited forest along the Tibetan border. The animal is distinguished by its flat face, pink lips and unusual upturned nose. When the French zoologist Milne Edwards first identified it in 1897, he named it Rhinopithecus bieti, after the Latin words for “nose” and “monkey.” (It’s also called the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey.)

Today the monkey is endangered, with no more than 2,000 animals in the wild. Though listed as a Nationally Protected Animal since the 1970s, it is still threatened, primarily by hunting. And as Yunnan develops into a popular destination for tourists, miners and loggers, the animal is being squeezed — its habitat is shrinking dramatically, isolating groups of the monkeys in far-flung pockets.

At lunch before embarking on this day’s trek, Long turned a table at a roadside restaurant into a diagram to illustrate that problem. The table became the golden monkey’s natural habitat. The large bowl of vegetable soup was a reserve, an area on the northern edge of the habitat with restrictions on human activity — and lots of monkeys, 70 percent of the total population. The teapot and plate of fatty pork became smaller isolated populations of monkeys on unprotected land.

Gesturing to a large swath of empty table, Long said, “The officials say there is no hunting here. So where has the monkey gone?”

The truth is that local hunters target the monkey for its bones, which are prized in traditional Chinese medicine, and for its meat. Sometimes, the monkey is also killed accidentally.

Back on the Laojun Mountain trail, the trap Long has just spotted is actually designed to snare civets, but it’s deadly to monkeys as well. When Long calls out “land mine,” Zhang Zhiming, his longtime friend and guide, slows his pace and lowers the basket strapped to his back until it rests on one hip. He pulls out a GPS receiver and logs the trap’s location before yanking the wire noose from the tree. A slight, soft-spoken local man, Zhang handles Long’s energy better than anyone. It’s that enthusiasm that first drew him to Long’s monkey research 20 years ago. And after all that time following Long through the forest, Zhang has grown accustomed to the zoologist’s outbursts.

The Accidental Zoologist

Long Yongcheng was born in 1955 in rural Hunan province, the birthplace of Mao Zedong. As a boy, he witnessed the Cultural Revolution firsthand when his father, a county judge, was sent to jail for a casual comment about the rule of law. Because the government shut down local schools across China in 1966, Long spent his teenage years farming sweet potatoes, wheat and rice. Occasionally, he also trapped wild animals for meat — though never any monkeys, he’s quick to note.

His refuge was studying. He spent his evenings reading by torchlight, devouring every book he could find. But when the universities opened again, his father’s status disqualified Long from attending. By the time Long was allowed to take the university entrance examination, he was 23. When he placed first in the county, people were astounded. He had never even attended high school. “They said, ‘Who is this guy?’” he recalls.

But Long’s self-education hadn’t prepared him for the wider world. Asked to select a major on the entrance test, he checked zoology, confusing it with the word for physics, which is similar in Chinese. He didn’t even know what zoology was, but that one crucial mistake bound him to it. When he graduated in 1982, he was assigned to the Kunming Institute of Zoology to work on caterpillar fungus, a rare medicinal mushroom found in northern Yunnan and Tibet.

As fate would have it, the fungus shared a habitat with the golden monkey. When Long first saw photos of the animal after arriving in Kunming, he was captivated by its humanlike face, and he soon developed a singular, unbreakable obsession.

At the time, hardly anything was known about the elusive monkey, which for a period was even thought to be extinct. The institute’s primate section focused mainly on other species. Primatologists had only a few old specimens to study, and researchers had made some random sightings in the woods, but matters as simple as where the animal lived, what kind of habitat it preferred and how many existed in the wild remained largely a mystery. Determined to learn all he could about the monkey, Long asked everyone he met in northern Yunnan to look out for it.

A few years later, in 1987, after transferring to the Primates Research Office, Long received a disturbing letter from a Tibetan friend working for the local government in northern Yunnan. The friend had purchased 12 monkey skeletons in a local shop.

“The bones were still fresh with worms and a rotten smell,” Long writes in his monkey memoir, “and [my friend] wanted me to collect these skeletons as soon as possible.”

By that point, Long’s big accident — zoology — had become a passion. He dropped his work in Kunming and rushed to the scene of the crime. Within a few days, he uncovered another three skeletons for sale. “The protection work was erratic and inconsistent,” he writes in his book, “if it was being implemented at all.” Seized by the impulse to shield his muse from danger, Long redoubled his efforts. “I had to find the monkey.”

Into the Forest

Back in the Laojun Mountain region, a few hours into their journey, Long and Zhang Zhiming finally take a break. Plopping down on a log as Zhang distributes boiled eggs from his basket, Long recalls their first trip together 20 years before, in 1989. The duo followed the same rugged route, but at the time there was no trail to speak of, so the men had to hack through underbrush and ford streams. Instead of eggs, they packed dry white rice, and most nights they slept under a lean-to Zhang fashioned out of fallen branches. But they stayed for five months. Back then, Zhang recalls, “there were lots of animals in the forest and not so many people.” Many of the people who were there were hunters, like Zhang.

It was Long’s first trip to Laojun Mountain. He had been tracking the golden monkey for two years, mostly working off educated guesses. He knew it ate a lichen that grows only on fir trees, so to identify areas that might support a population of monkeys, he had pored over vegetation maps looking for fir forest. He had observed monkeys along the northern and southern edges of the species’ territory. But he hadn’t yet determined the center of its range. With this trip to the Laojun Mountain region, he hoped to create a rough sketch of the animal’s territory and distribution.

Getting to the area from Kunming took four days by bus, followed by a day of walking and hitchhiking. Along the way, Long met local forestry officials who didn’t know golden monkeys lived in the area, even though the men were tasked with protecting them. How was he going to find the animal, he wondered? As he ran through his options, he thought back to his childhood and the years he spent roaming the forest in search of meat — and had a characteristic eureka moment. “I knew,” he recalls, “that only very good hunters could find the monkey.” He realized his only hope for protecting the monkey was to turn its enemies into friends.

On the final stretch of that five-day journey to the Laojun Mountain area, Long caught a ride with a driver who spoke of a renowned local hunter.

“Take me to him,” Long said.

Later, standing in Zhang’s mud-walled home, Long made his appeal: Explaining his work, he volunteered his own experience as a hunter and offered Zhang eight yuan a day to show him monkeys in the wild. Zhang weighed the zoologist’s presentation, eyeing his worn jeans and canvas jacket, and decided to trust him.

Zhang is technical and deliberate, the sort of man who can rig up a shelter, or a chair, or just about anything at a moment’s notice. Long is more absent-minded. And he’s gregarious where Zhang is quiet. But the two men hit it off, and Zhang became Long’s first key recruit.

Long and Zhang set off in search of monkeys, trecking tirelessly for weeks — sometimes logging 20 miles in a stretch. But a month passed without a single monkey sighting. Finally, they ascended a ridge one afternoon and stumbled upon dozens of monkeys migrating from one valley to the next. There were mothers and babies and strong males — all no more than 100 feet away.

Long felt triumphant. Over the remaining months of the trip, the men estimated the Laojun Mountain monkey population at more than 100 animals. Now Long could fill in the blanks in his research, sketching a rough map of the monkey’s range. And Zhang, who had once taken joy in seeing monkeys because they meant fresh meat, now appreciated them for a different reason.

Over the coming years, Long mapped the distribution of 18 groups of monkeys spread out over northwest Yunnan Province and southeast Tibet. It was a Herculean task, but when he finished in the mid-1990s, the accomplishment brought him little joy. The monkey’s modern territory covered just 15,000 square kilometers, a fraction of its historic range. What’s more, the zoologist’s research had shown that populations should grow steadily by 10 percent a year — yet when he returned to Laojun Mountain in 2001, the population had not increased. Long suspected animals were being poached.

By then, Zhang had been named the area’s protector by the local forest bureau, but he couldn’t watch over the entire forest alone, and he had little power to bring poachers to justice. “The government said hunting was illegal,” Long says. “But who was doing the enforcement? Nobody.”

Healthy Monkeys Mean Healthy Forests

Poaching, logging and fuel-wood collecting prompted the Conservancy, upon invitation of the provincial government, to begin working in the forests of northern Yunnan Province in 1998. Though logging had been officially outlawed in the region in the 1990s, researchers still routinely encountered fallen logs and severed trunks. Today, subsistence fuel-wood collection remains a big problem, contributing to the loss of 300,000 acres of forest each year in Yunnan.

When the Conservancy’s Rose Niu first hired Long as a consultant, she hoped he would take his monkey research in a new direction. By drawing on his intimate knowledge of the forest, his scientific credentials and his local connections, Niu realized, Long might help the organization chart forest health — an important step toward creating a conservation plan for the region. A golden monkey can cover hundreds of square kilometers of primary forest in its lifetime, so the monkey’s presence indicates healthy forest.

In 2003, the Conservancy launched a comprehensive protection program devoted to the Yunnan golden monkey with Long at the helm. The project, which is also supported by , has been embraced by the Chinese government and has become the largest species-focused conservation project within China since the protection efforts focusing on the giant panda in the 1970s and 1980s. Long says the efforts are beginning to pay off, and the monkey’s population is on the rise.

The Conservancy’s goals are twofold: save a critical species and generate enthusiasm for forest conservation in northern Yunnan. “The monkey is a very good tool to get people’s attention,” explains Zhang Shuang, current director of the Conservancy’s China program. Much like the giant panda before it, Zhang says, the golden monkey has the potential to convince Chinese of the importance of environmental protection.

“The images are really powerful,” he says. “Our goal is to use the monkey to get people to support conservation.”

The program involves everything from support for forest rangers to scientific research that includes the use of radio collars to track groups of monkeys. But Long’s energy and single-minded determination are the crucial ingredients to the project’s success. His approach to consensus building is indiscriminate engagement; he subjects anyone who will listen to an impassioned soliloquy.

“I just make more and more friends,” he says with a shrug. “That’s my practice.”

He’s in typical form one afternoon during a lunch stop at a northern Yunnan hotel. As the food is being served, three well-dressed men from eastern China wander in. Long strikes up a conversation and learns they are in the area scouting out possible mining sites. Perfect. Unfazed that their plans could destroy the very forest he works to protect, Long invites them to share the meal. Before they’ve taken their first bites, he launches into a monologue about the monkey, paging through a copy of his book and punctuating his plea with photos.

The benefit of that conversation isn’t yet clear, but other relationships have yielded important advances. In 2003, Long helped a group of Israeli all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts map a low-impact route through the mountains — then talked them into donating 25 GPS receivers in return. The devices are now used by the forest patrols, former hunters like Zhang who are paid to protect rather than pillage the forest. The patrols are also a testament to Long’s diplomatic skill. He persuaded the Laojun Mountain local government to fund part of the forest rangers’ salaries by inviting a group of officials to trek up the mountain.

Today, Zhang Zhiming oversees 10 rangers. The data the men gather on forest activities and monkey populations has allowed Long to create a detailed map showing the animals’ habitat. The map, in turn, has helped the Conservancy plan refuges for the monkeys and plot out a corridor connecting the animals’ habitat in the Baima Snow Mountain Nature Reserve — the vegetable soup bowl in Long’s lunchtime lesson — with that in the Laojun Mountain area. The idea is to reforest a razed 35-square-mile column of land, allowing isolated groups of the monkeys to move freely across their former habitat. Long’s overall success depends on the corridor, which will expand the monkeys’ gene pool. As long as they remain in separate pockets, they’re vulnerable to disease — even as their numbers increase.

Contagious Enthusiasm

The six populations in the Baima Snow Mountain Nature Reserve number around 1,500 total monkeys. In 1997, local forestry officials began scattering food on the outskirts of Xiangguqing village, aiming to lure about 120 of the animals down the mountain. The idea was to encourage locals to cherish the animals and boost tourism by making the monkeys more visible. But the officials didn’t seek input from conservation experts. If they had, they almost certainly would have encountered opposition. 

When Long came on board years later, the damage had already been done. So he chose to view the monkeys’ habituation as an opportunity. Working with the Conservancy, he brought scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in to help monitor the monkeys’ mating and eating habits. He also trained hunters to serve as rangers, and organized workshops for local forestry officials so they could learn about the species they were charged with protecting.

As a result, the monkeys in the Baima reserve have thrived. Visitors to Xiangguqing can see the animals clustered in a valley nearby. Baby monkeys cling to their mothers’ stomachs; other monkeys wrestle or dangle from trees.

Standing on the edge of the valley during a recent visit, Long addresses the local rangers, who are huddled before him in a semicircle. He encourages the men, as they watch over the primates, to learn to identify each individual animal. Near where they stand, an old monkey surveys the scene warily. Another munches on lichen.

“There are 20 of you and 14 families of monkeys,” Long tells the rangers. “You can each make one monkey family a part of your own family. Keep track of them, and you’ll be able to say — ” Suddenly he swerves around and shouts, for what may be the 10th or 20th time this trip, “Look at that!”

A young monkey is swinging from a branch, his white smudges of fur a happy blur. Long has been observing golden monkeys for more than two decades, yet still he moves in for a closer look. The rangers push in behind him, their eyes fixed on the rambunctious toddler. The zoologist’s enthusiasm is contagious. And that’s his hope.

“I learned a big lesson out of this experience,” he writes in The Most Adorable Faces in the World. “While the power of the pen...is truly a mighty thing, one person acting alone is not enough. In order to do all we can for the monkeys, we must raise awareness through as many outlets as we can with the hope of touching as many people as possible.”

“The passionate are welcome in this march.”

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