- Myanmar is home to 20 species of primates, making it the seventh most primate-rich country in Asia. However, a new study shows that all species are suffering population declines, with 90% of them threatened with extinction.
- The conflict-torn country’s researchers and conservationists are working in challenging conditions and are in dire need of more support from the international community, the study says.
- Despite the bleak outlook, experts say the wealth of in-country expertise, young primatologists and local communities engaged in conservation action for primates in Myanmar is cause for hope.
- The study authors encourage conservation funders to not view Myanmar as a “no-go” zone due to the political situation, and propose recommendations to strengthen the field of primatology within the country.
Gibbons are celebrated in some of the most significant folk tales in Myanmar. The telling and retelling of stories portraying the lithe and charismatic primates as forest spirits emblematic of pristine environments has spared them from being poached from the wild in some parts of the country. While some tale-related cultural taboos against their killing cite gibbons’ resemblance to humans as reason for leaving them be, others assert that harming them will bring on crop failure or family misfortune.
Without more action to support both the animals themselves and the researchers and conservationists working in challenging conditions to protect them, the outlook is bleak, the study says.
As the meeting point of the South Asia, China, and Southeast Asia landmasses, Myanmar is a biological melting pot. Some 20 species of primate have been recorded within the country’s borders, making it the seventh most primate-rich country in Asia. However, 90% of the gibbons, slow lorises, langurs, macaques and snub-nosed monkeys that live there are listed as threatened with extinction (vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered) on the IUCN Red List.
Deforestation, habitat degradation, and hunting for subsistence and to supply the illegal wildlife trade are the main threats, according to the study published in Global Ecology and Conservation. Evidence of escalating habitat loss abounds in Myanmar amid the lack of governance, accountability and regulation following the February 2021 military coup that precipitated an increase in natural resource extraction in many areas, particularly in heavily forested border regions that represent some of the country’s highest-quality refuges for wildlife.
Based on a literature review and interviews with top primate experts in Myanmar, the study found that populations of three species cling on in small, isolated fragments of remaining habitat. For instance, the Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa), a species first described by scientists only in 2020, is thought to remain across four precariously isolated patches of forest in Myanmar’s central plains, numbering fewer than 260 individuals. The other two species, Shortridge’s langur (Trachypithecus shortridgei) and the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus strykeri), fare little better.
Meanwhile, there’s simply not enough research information on the whereabouts and extent of some 15 other species to be able to properly target conservation actions to address their threats, the study says.
Safeguarding Myanmar’s primate populations is crucial, not only to abate extinction risk, but also for wider ecosystem health, according to study co-author Susan Cheyne, vice chair of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group Section on Small Apes. As “gardeners of the forest,” primates disperse seeds and pollinate flowers, contributing to natural forest recovery and regeneration. And given large-bodied primates are typically among the first animals lost from dying ecosystems, they are vital indicators of the health of our biosphere.
Primates also hold cultural value as our closest living relatives. “There’s an emotional connection,” Cheyne told Mongabay. “They’re very similar to us in terms of their behavior and ecology, but it’s not just an evolutionary closeness. From a cultural perspective, we’ve always had interactions with them going back thousands of years, we have so many tales about them.”
Cheyne said finding ways to plug knowledge gaps is vitally important to reverse population declines. Progress to this end has been made recently, she said, despite the challenges in Myanmar that have essentially curtailed travel of foreign scientists into the country.
“There is clearly a lot of expertise about primatology within Myanmar,” Cheyne told Mongabay. “A lot of research has still been possible.” However, due to a lack of national funding for conservation from the Myanmar government and the reticence of many international donors to fund projects in the country because of the political situation, “this expertise that exists is largely unsupported.”
The dearth of funding not only hampers the efforts of local experts working on primates in Myanmar, it also clips the wings of the next generation of primatologists who can’t get the training and support they need to develop their careers, Cheyne added. “If we just abandon Myanmar because it’s too difficult a place to work, then I think we’re doing a great disservice to the conservationists who are working there.”
The study found that of 76 academic studies on Myanmar’s primate species, just 17% involved in-country researchers. Funding for research and conservation is a major obstacle given the lack of national funding that prompts the necessity of securing an affiliation with an international NGO or conservation group to proceed with projects. And even when projects go ahead, progress can be stymied by the language barrier, a lack of internet access, and a lack of access to academic literature, the study says.
Despite the stark outlook for primates and the field of wildlife conservation as a whole in Myanmar, Cheyne highlights a few reasons for hope. While data is certainly lacking for most species, emerging knowledge about some, especially gibbons, suggests they are more widespread than previously thought and have strongholds in protected areas.
In addition, the presence of many local groups in Myanmar who are keenly engaged in the management of their forest lands for conservation is another spark of light. “If you’ve got local people to work with, then there’s a solid base from which to build,” she said. The Karen Wildlife Conservation Initiative and Wildlife Asia, for instance, are working with local communities and WWF Myanmar to insulate power lines close to forests in southern Myanmar to protect white-handed gibbons (Hylobates lar) against the risk of electrocution.
The research team has proposed several recommendations to improve the situation for Myanmar’s primates and the researchers and conservationists working to safeguard them. Among them are leveraging international collaborations to build the expertise of primatologists in Myanmar so that students in turn can be better supported; fostering fair and equal collaborations through clear codes of conduct; learning from projects in neighboring countries and sharing information on what works and what doesn’t with the international community; and elevating research carried out by Myanmar-based researchers by making publications open access and readily available.
“For researchers within Myanmar, the message is ‘reach out,’” Cheyne said. “Reach out for help through groups like the IUCN Primate Specialist Group [that] can help and facilitate sharing of information and knowledge.”
In terms of the species in need of most conservation attention, the authors propose resources be directed at Phayre’s langurs (Trachypithecus phayrei) and its subspecies endemic to Shan state (T. p. shanicus); dusky langurs (Trachypithecus obscurus); Indochinese gray langurs (Trachypithecus crepusculus); Shortridge’s langurs; Skywalker hoolock gibbons (Hoolock tianxing); and white-handed gibbons.
The bottom line is that conservation action is happening in Myanmar, and what’s more, it needs to happen, Cheyne said. Wildlife waits for no one. “It’s important for funders to not assume that Myanmar is a no-go zone,” she said. “That [assumption] is not helping the dedicated conservationists who need help, who need support, and who, when they get it, will do an excellent job.”
Carolyn Cowan is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on 𝕏 @CarolynCowan11.
Banner image: An adult female Skywalker hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing), a species described only in 2017. Image by Fan Pengfei.
Thompson, C., Ngwe Lwin, Pyae Phyo Aung, Tin Htun Aung, Thura Soe Min Htike, Aye Mi San,… Evans, S. T. (2023) The status of primates and primatology in Myanmar. Global Ecology and Conservation. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2023.e02662
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