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There may be hope for the extremely rare ‘sneezing monkey,’ report finds

  • In a new report, researchers have confirmed the presence of five subpopulations of the extremely rare Myanmar snub-nosed monkey: three in Myanmar and two in China.
  • Logging, proposed hydropower projects, road construction and hunting continue to threaten the species.
  • However, the creation of two new protected areas to safeguard the monkeys’ habitat, one each in Myanmar and China, as well as improved cross-border collaboration between the two countries is helping reduce the risk of extinction for the species, researchers say.

Eight years ago, researchers described a new species of monkey based on a single dead specimen — an individual that had been hunted from a remote, mountainous forest in Myanmar’s northeastern state of Kachin and was about to be eaten. Locally known as mey nwoah, or “monkey with an upturned face,” the primate apparently “sneezed” when rain hit its upturned nose, according to the hunters. The researchers named it the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus strykeri), fondly called “snubby.”

Eventually, scientists tracked down and photographed a handful of “snubby” populations in the forested hills straddling the borders of Myanmar and China. These populations are currently under threat from habitat loss, hunting and the wildlife trade, according to a new report that set out assess the species’ conservation status. But ongoing conservation efforts could improve their fate, the report says. The report was published by the U.K.-based conservation group Fauna & Flora International (FFI), Dali University in China, and the German Primate Center.

A female Myanmar snub-nosed monkey. Image by Dong Shaohua.

Five known subpopulations

In all, researchers have confirmed the presence of five subpopulations of this extremely rare species, based either on direct sightings or camera trap photographs. Three of these subpopulations are in Myanmar, while two are in China.

The researchers have also estimated that none of the five subpopulations have more than 100 individuals each. But how these populations have fared since their discovery, the researchers are unsure.

This is because the forests that the monkeys inhabit have rugged terrain and dense vegetation, making surveys extremely difficult, said Wen Xiao from the Institute of Eastern-Himalaya Biodiversity Research at Dali University. Xiao was part of the team that discovered one of China’s two confirmed populations.

The monkeys also have a long history of being hunted, which makes them flee immediately when encountered, said Frank Momberg, director of the Myanmar program at FFI. “Therefore it is difficult to update population numbers accurately. More time is needed for habituation to conduct accurate population monitoring,” he said.

Interviews with the local communities suggest there could potentially be other subpopulations, but their presence is yet to be visually confirmed.

“I will be happy if I can find more sub-populations,” Xiao said. “But I think putting more effort on collecting scientific information about this species and conservation management will do more to help its survival.”

Habitat of the Luoma group of snub-nosed monkeys in China. Image by Yin Yang.

Threats remain

Road construction and logging for timber remain serious threats to the forests that the snub-nosed monkeys inhabit.

“Primary forests have been logged and degraded up to some of the highest mountain peaks,” the authors write. “Noise of explosives used in road construction could affect the behavior of the snub-nosed monkeys, including their reproduction and group dynamics.”

Logging roads and local timber extraction also increase the chances for opportunistic hunting, they add.

The monkeys’ habitat is also under immediate threat from the controversial Chinese-backed Myitsone mega-dam project, consisting of seven dam cascades, planned across the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. The watershed of two of the dams overlaps with the monkeys’ distribution range, according to the report.

The dams are a problem, the researchers say, because their construction will be accompanied by the building of access roads for the dams, which will allow year-round access to the mountain forests that the monkeys call home.

The Myitsone project was suspended in 2011 by the administration of then-President Thein Sein. But that moratorium has now expired, and China Power Investment is still trying to revive the project, Momberg said.

“Since the hydropower project has not been cancelled the significant threats remain,” he said. “FFI’s community-based conservation interventions and a deterioration of the previously built road infrastructure due to the heavy monsoon rains has kept the population at least stable for now. However, if the dam project would be revived, easy access for hunters, wildlife traders and illegal loggers would be re-established.”

There is hope, however.

Habitat of the snub-nosed monkeys near Pianma, in Lushui county, Yunnan province, China. Image by Yin Yang.

Increased protection

A transboundary agreement signed between China and Myanmar in 2015 is showing positive effects, the report says, with a reduction in the illegal cross-border wildlife trade and illegal logging.

Efforts are also underway to create new protected areas in both countries.

In Myanmar, for instance, the Imawbum National Park is being created to safeguard the mountain habitat of the snub-nosed monkey. The park, according to the report, is the first protected area in Myanmar to be created “through a comprehensive consultation process of indigenous people.”

“The government plans to gazette the Imawbum National Park this year since the free and prior informed consultation process of all surrounding local communities has been completed and all local communities and relevant local, regional and national government agencies have given their consent,” Momberg said. “The park will be managed collaboratively with local communities.”

Community awareness programs to discourage hunting of the monkey are also bringing some results, the researchers say.

“While local communities still hunt common species, we have seen no evidence of local people target the snub-nosed monkey,” Momberg said.

Yin Yang, a primatologist and doctoral student at Australian National University who studies the snub-nosed monkeys, said FFI’s efforts had helped reduce the scale of hunting in the species’ habitat surrounding the Maw River area of Myanmar.

“However, hunting is still a major threat in Myanmar, especially beyond the Maw River area,” Yang told Mongabay in an email. “Last year, the Nujiang Forest Police confiscated a truck full of smoked monkey skeletons smuggled from Myanmar. These included one whole skeleton of black snubby and 16 whole skeletons of Shortridge’s langurs (Trachypithecus shortridgei), 23 whole skeletons of Assam macaques (Macaca assamensis) and 4 whole skeletons of stump-tailed macaque (Macaca arctoides). In 2016, a Myanmar hunter also sold a dead body of the black snubby to China. Therefore, hunting is still a considerable threat in Myanmar.”

An infant Myanmar snub-nosed monkey. Image by Dong Shaohua.

In China, the situation is “better than before,” Xiao said. Both confirmed populations of the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey in China occur on the forested slopes of the Gaoligong mountain range, close to the Myanmar border.

Most of their habitat there falls within Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve. And populations that occur outside the reserve will be included in the proposed Nujiang Grand Canyon National Park, according to the report.

“I don’t think there is a decreasing population trend in China,” Xiao said.

Despite these protections, hunting and habitat degradation, primarily resulting from illegal logging, continues to threaten the monkeys, Yang said. For instance, camera traps set up by Yang’s team in one of the monkeys’ habitats photographed hunters with guns. “The [Gaoligongshan] National Nature Reserve is too large and every inch of the reserve cannot be monitored and managed because of limited staff and funds,” Yang said. “If these threats can be removed, I think the two populations may increase and become source populations.”

Yang added that hunting was deeply rooted in the local people’s history, and hunting wildlife was often a source of supplemental protein and income for many poor local minorities. “So it is very difficult to completely eliminate hunting at the moment,” he said.

The report acknowledges that supporting livelihood options that alleviate poverty and reduce dependency on hunting and shifting cultivation are essential for long-term protection of the species.

Overall, though, the researchers feel hopeful.

“The legal establishment and effective management of Imawbum National Park, as well as improved transboundary collaboration between Myanmar and China can contribute significantly to reduce the risk of extinction for the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey and other globally threatened species,” Momberg said.

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