Conservation news

Enforcement, development and education define efforts to save Vietnam’s rare primates

A small village nestled in the Ha Giang province in Vietnam near the border with China. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay.

A small village nestled in the Ha Giang province in Vietnam near the border with China. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay.

  • An expert warns that a “wave of extinctions” among these populations could be imminent.
  • According to official and independent assessments, forest conservation enforcement is not enough to meet government-issued standards.
  • Educating local communities about forest conservation and its impact on protecting rare primates is widely seen as a key measure for preservation and species recovery.

CAO BANG CITY, Vietnam – Vietnam is home to some of the world’s most endangered primates, many of which live in the country’s mountainous, heavily forested far-northern provinces. Among the 25 most critically endangered monkeys, apes and lemurs in the world, three species are endemic to northern Vietnam. The country tied with Indonesia for the second-most species after Madagascar’s five, according to the most recent biannual report put out in 2015 by global primate experts.

The at-risk species in Vietnam include the Delacour’s langur (Trachypithecus delacouri), Cat Ba langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus) and the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus avunculus). The first of those species made headlines last August when Fauna & Flora International (FFI) Vietnam announced the discovery of the world’s second-largest population of Delacour’s langurs in a forest in the country’s far north, numbering around 40 individuals.

These regions hug the border with China and are among the most remote, undeveloped parts of the country. That presents major challenges for species conservation, including for the rare primates that live there. There is also the impact of humans to contend with.

Local communities in these areas tend to use the forest for resources, including firewood to cook or for livestock grazing. Hoang Van Lam, country program manager at FFI Vietnam, explains that this impacts the primates living nearby.

“[The local communities] may not hunt the primates directly, but whatever they do underneath the canopy disturbs the lives of the primates,” Lam said. “This is the main challenge to [the primates].”

They have few alternatives, though.

“The people who live in association with the forests which support these primate populations are generally exceedingly poor and often ethnic minorities, so they’re socially and economically marginalized,” Benjamin Rawson, conservation and program development director at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Vietnam, told Mongabay.

According to the Vietnam General Statistics Office, the poverty rate in both Hà Giang and Cao Bằng – two border provinces that are home to rare primates – was at nearly 25 percent at the end of 2015. This compares to the average rate for the country as a whole of seven percent. In 2015 the Vietnamese government defined the rural poverty level as households with an average monthly income of less than $20.

The rugged terrain of Cao Bằng Province provides a habitat for rare primates, but also creates challenges for conservation. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay

Compounding the problem is the critical status of the primates in the region. Rawson cautions that they are far from secure.

“It’s certainly not over for any of these species, but some of them are in real dire need of additional investment,” he told Mongabay. “The Cat Ba langurs are under 70 animals, the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey is probably under 200 and the Delacour’s langur is around 200, so we really are on the cusp of potentially a wave of extinctions, certainly in our lifetime.”

Conservation efforts

Conservation and reforestation efforts may be mitigating human impact, though.

According to Hoang Phuong Vy, director of the Cao Bằng Province Forest Protection Department (FPD), the province’s forests have expanded in recent years. He said as of 2015, forest cover in the area stood at 53 percent and they are continuing efforts to increase that number.

“We began a reforestation project in 2011 that will last until 2021, and we will report on the outcomes of the first phase of this effort this year,” Vy said through a translator at his office in Cao Bằng City.

Yet poverty remains a major concern, presenting opportunities for conservation and livelihood development efforts to work together to improve the outlook for both primates and people.

“One of the jobs of conservation NGOs that work [in the region] is to come up with solutions to help harmonize those two things,” WWF’s Rawson said.

For example, conservation organizations are providing more fuel-efficient stoves to local communities, thus reducing the amount of firewood that residents need to collect from the forest. Rawson also believes that eco-tourism programs can be built around the primates to the benefit of nearby communities.

Meanwhile, Lam believes raising awareness among local communities remains a key factor in preserving the country’s rare primates. Organizations like WWF and FFI have been conducting awareness campaigns for years, but there is still work to be done.

Jagged mountains, home to rare primate species like the Delacour’s langur, loom over the town of Meo Vac in Ha Giang Province. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay

“Sometimes [members of local communities] don’t know the importance of the conservation of these primates,” Lam tells Mongabay based on his research in the area. “They think, ‘oh, that monkey isn’t necessary to be conserved’.”

In order to change such perceptions, FFI Vietnam works with primary and high schools to educate young people on the need to conserve these species. “We try to bring images of the primates to the communities to make sure they recognize the significance of them so they don’t hunt or cause any further harm to their habitat,” Lam said.

Enforcement shortcomings

A major aspect of successful primate conservation is law enforcement, which is difficult to carry out in remote, rugged provinces.

“Enforcement response isn’t as effective as we’d like to see,” Rawson said. “To some extent there is a lack of capacity, lack of manpower and, in some cases, lack of political will in government agencies to do enforcement work in the forests.”

Vy, from the provincial FPD, cites this manpower shortage as the critical issue when it comes to strengthening enforcement.

“There aren’t enough resources. There is supposed to be one forest ranger per 1,000 hectares of regular forest and one ranger per 500 hectares of protected forest, but there aren’t enough people,” he said. The number of required rangers is a matter of an established national government policy. Vy describes one cause for the shortfall in his province as a lack of funds. He said the provincial budget for the work as “too small,” but couldn’t provide specific numbers. According to FFI, they have noted shortages of rangers at a number of national parks and nature reserves.

Another problem is a lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies. According to Vy, the FPD has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the border police, stationed along the nearby border with China, but it has no such agreement with the customs department. He said that this creates a problematic gap in enforcement.

“Right now, if we see a suspicious package that we think might contain illegal wildlife, we can’t open it if there is a customs seal on it,” Vy said. He hopes to find a way to sign an MOU with customs to close this loophole soon.

One approach used to make up for the government’s lack of enforcement capacity is to engage locals in protecting the forests near their communities. This allows village residents to conserve natural resources around them while also generating income in impoverished areas.

“There’s a general model in Vietnam of teams of local community members who are engaged in doing forest patrol work,” Rawson said. “These teams are effective in many ways because they know the forest very well.”

Such a method helps local forestry officials to work around their personnel shortages.

That only solves part of the problem, though. Vy explains that his department is good at fining people when they violate regulations, but less so at carrying out effective conservation through prevention. For example, the FPD has drawn up plans to distribute pictures of the endangered primates that live in Cao Bằng, but lacks the manpower to fully carry out the initiative.

Lam, from FFI, believes law enforcement improvement should be the government’s top priority for future conservation efforts. Combined with existing and planned livelihood development and awareness campaigns, he believes it would create a multi-faceted approach to protecting Vietnam’s rarest primates.

Saving Vietnam’s most vulnerable primates

There have been success stories, according to Rawson. For example the population decline of a second population of Delacour’s langurs elsewhere in the north was reversed, but he argues that such advances will be temporary if more is not done.

“The past 10 or 20 years have been a firefight to secure something, and in some cases that’s been successful,” he said. “But we need to open a new chapter in primate conservation, and while maintaining focus on those populations to ensure we don’t lose them, we need to be thinking more broadly.”

Rawson said that the “silo effect” of individual NGOs working on individual species creates a narrow view of conservation. “We need an umbrella organization to be looking at this more broadly. We’re not going to survive with just these single populations.”

He believes that figuring out how to spur behavioral changes is the next step after raising awareness. “From a global and national perspective, how [raising awareness] drives behavior change is more difficult because there aren’t a lot of options in these communities,” he said.

Banner image: A small village nestled in Ha Giang province in Northern Vietnam near the border with China. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay

Michael Tatarski is a freelance journalist based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. You can find him on Twitter at @miketatarski.