Enlarge this image of a Yunnan golden monkey.
By Misty Herrin
With its clownish pink lips and black pompadour, the whimsical looking Yunnan golden monkey seems born of a child’s imagination.
But the monkey is facing perils that are all too real. With no more than 2,000 remaining in its native China, the monkey is one of the world’s most endangered primates. Habitat loss and illegal hunting have pushed the monkey to the brink of disaster.
Thanks to The Nature Conservancy, the China Academy of Sciences and local Chinese partners, the monkey is getting more protection and local people are helping.
Leading the way is an intrepid Chinese ecologist — Conservancy biologist Long Yongcheng — who is tracking the elusive creatures and piecing together clues to how to save them.
The Skeletons That Changed Everything
Long remembers exactly when his campaign to save the Yunnan golden monkey began.
In October 1987, Long heard from a colleague who had purchased 12 monkey skeletons in a shop in northern Yunnan.
“The monkey was an officially protected species, but many in the scientific community used to think it was extinct until the 1960s,” Long says. “No one knew what it looked like! There were no photos of them in existence.”
Villagers in the Laojun Mountains knew that there were a few monkeys still left in the forests — because hunters found them.
But for Long and his colleagues at the China Academy of Sciences, the monkeys were a mystery. A scientist from the academy had collected eight hides in 1962. That’s all they had to go on.
Shortly after hearing about his colleague's find, Long rushed to Yunnan and found an additional three for sale. Sure enough, they had been Yunnan golden monkeys.
“Each of the skeletons was being sold for the equivalent of at least 50 kilos of rice,” he says. “Some people believe the bones have medicinal power.”
“That’s when I knew that the monkey had no actual protection.”
Long bought the skeletons, quit his research as an entomologist, and convinced the institute to track down the Yunnan golden monkey.
A Scientist Charts the Path to Action
Equipped with just a telescope and notebook — no tent, no camping supplies — Long trekked into the thick alpine forests alone, leaving only to seek food from local herders and farmers.
It took him four weeks to catch his first glimpse of live monkeys.
“I got so excited! I was amazed,” Long says. “They’re so noble, beautiful and elegant creatures. It’s impossible to capture in photographs what it’s really like to see them in the forest.”
Long counted more than 100 individuals in that group. For ten years, he continued to foray into the forests for months at a time, ultimately producing a comprehensive map showing the location of all Yunnan golden monkeys in existence.
Of the 18 groups scattered through the mountains, most were living in the Baima Snow Mountain Nature Reserve in the Yunnan Province. Others were in nearby reserves and pockets of land that were unconnected and had no protection at all.
But the map failed to motivate anyone else.
“When I finished my study in 1996, I tried to get support for the monkey, but no one would listen to me,” Long says. “I was just one person. There was nothing I could do.”
Finally, in 2001 Long found the partner he needed. That’s when the Conservancy launched our Yunnan program and recruited Long, by then one of China’s most renowned biologists, to head up the process of assessing the region’s biodiversity, threats and opportunities.
Because the golden monkey only lives in large patches of healthy forest, the Conservancy turned to Long’s map for clues to saving the region’s biodiversity. This research is helping us focus our efforts and resources in the right places and choose the right strategies.
A Population Triples Thanks to Long
Long estimates that about 100 monkeys are trapped and killed each year — poached for food or their striking black and white fur.
The key to saving the monkeys and their forest homes, according to Long, is to raise awareness about the monkey and help hunters switch to other livelihoods. Under his leadership, the Conservancy and partners, including the China Academy of Sciences and local management agencies, are conducting community outreach and school programs.
“We are providing funding and training to help hunters, often the poorest members of the communities, switch to other livelihoods,” Long says.
Some are paid to patrol forests to protect the monkeys instead. The results are exciting: The group of 200 monkeys that Long encountered in his first forest expedition in 1987 has now grown to over 600, and the Baima reserve is now home to around 1500 total monkeys.
Some hunters are switching to farming. In one Conservancy-funded pilot project, a former hunter is now growing morel mushrooms, making far more money than before.
“The situation for the monkey is hopeful now,” Long says. “Eight years ago, I never thought the Yunnan golden monkey would someday lead to such a large-scale conservation effort.”
Misty Herrin is Associate Director of Strategic Communications for The Nature Conservancy.