Monkey Habitat in Vietnam

Posted at 2:32 pm March 30, 2010 by Corrin LaCombe

A Tonkin snub-nosed monkey family. Photo by Le Khac Quyet.

I was recently invited by Dr. Chia Tan, head of the San Diego Zoo’s Asia Conservation Program, to conduct a rapid assessment of the needs, livelihoods, and land use practices of local people living near Khau Ca, Vietnam, a protected area containing the largest remaining population of the critically endangered Tonkin snub-nosed monkey Rhinopithecus avunculus. What I learned while there is that the only thing more jagged and complex than the virtually impenetrable limestone karst forests of the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey’s home range is the social matrix of the nearby communities.

A view of the protected area from La Noa Village.

Khau Ca is a 2,540-acre (1,000 hectare) protected area in Ha Giang Province in northern Vietnam. The San Diego Zoo and the Ha Giang Forest Protection Department (FPD) recently developed a conservation initiative aptly named the 50/50 Plan. This plan has identified 2,470 acres (1,000 hectares) of land within the Khau Ca area for reforestation and restoration: 1,235 acres (500 hectares) for local people and 1,235 acres (500 hectares) for the enlargement and enhancement of the Tonkin Snub-nosed Monkey Species and Habitat Conservation Area.

Corrin conducts a household interview in Phia Deng Village.

After consulting with local monkey experts, Ha Giang FPD members, primatologists, and the San Diego Zoo’s Dr. Bryan Endress and Maren Peterson, we traveled eight hours north of Hanoi to Khau Ca to capture a glimpse of the monkeys’ current habitat and begin our interviews with local people. In the villages, I was greeted with kindness and smiles. The two young graduate students with whom I traveled bridged the language barrier, and the interview process was well on its way before I even realized it. We quickly got into a rhythm: each day we would wake up in the morning, hike for two to three hours straight up a mountain, conduct household interviews all day, and retire to the village leader’s house or a ranger station for dinner and resting.

Cattle grazing in the Tung Ba commune.

The villagers were quite open, sharing with me stories from the past and their concerns about the future. I learned that local people in the surrounding communes are struggling to find space to graze their cattle, concerned about water contamination from new mining concessions, and worried about finding enough timber to build houses for their children. I was introduced to management techniques villagers use to regulate timber extraction from communal gardens and was informed about local traditions and legends that determine forest usage even further. I heard stories of optimism and of fear. The story that stuck out the most, however, is the story of the acacia plantations.

Logging activity in the villages adjacent to the protected area.

Four ethnic groups—Tay, Dao, Hmong, and Kinh—reside in the communes surrounding Khau Ca. To varying degrees, these people all share a tradition whereby specific tracts of land are set aside to be used as communal forestry gardens. Community members self-manage the extraction of resources from these gardens. Bamboo, palm, and basoi trees are most often harvested; followed by roots, tubers, and flowers. These communal gardens supply the lifeblood that supports these communities. Today, however, large portions of these native forestry gardens are being replaced by acacia plantations.

A wild male Tonkin snub-nosed monkey. Photo by Le Khac Quyet.

Acacia trees are far from being native to Vietnam. These trees originated in Australia and were introduced to the area in response to Vietnam’s Five Million Hectares Reforestation Program plan. Acacia trees grow fast, can thrive in poor soil, and, if conditions are right, have high economic potential in industrial, medicinal, and culinary markets. Unfortunately, for villagers in Khau Ca, conditions may not be “right” for high acacia plantation payouts, and the presence of these plantations may be putting increased pressure on the limited resources found within the protected area.

Paper companies and government propaganda have promised a high price tag for acacia timber. To date, however, no paper company or government agency has come to sign a deal in Khau Ca. “What if the paper companies never come?” I ask. Some reply that they will sell the timber to the woodshops in Ha Giang, while others refuse to face that possibility, maintaining that the paper companies WILL come.

Part of the team, left to right: Dr. Chia Tan, Le Khac Quyet, a Ph.D. candidate at Hanoi University, and Corrin.

Economic reality can often be harsh. There is very little infrastructure available to support the transportation of acacia timber. Most villages lack the chainsaws, trucks, chains, and roadways necessary for such transport. If the paper companies do not appear, villagers in Khau Ca might find themselves in the tenuous situation in which half of their communal forests have been replaced by trees that are virtually worthless. If they do not get the anticipated income, how will they supplement the loss of their crucial forestry garden resources…venture into the protected area, perhaps?

This is the ultimate question, and we will continue to investigate this multifaceted situation. An understanding of how all these elements work together is critical if we are going to move forward with the 50/50 reforestation plan. We are in a unique position, well capable of turning our skills and dedication into a conservation initiative that is a win-win for both the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey and the local people of Khau Ca. Political, socioeconomic, and environmental forces weave an intricate web here. We hope to become a vital force in this area, helping to pull the various strands together to create a strong foundation upon which our conservation initiative can grow, sustain, and thrive.

Corrin LaCombe is a Brown Endowed Research Coordinator for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

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5 Responses to “Monkey Habitat in Vietnam”

  1. XiethePiXie in San Diego says:

    Wow, what an amazing experience you have had! All over the globe there are the same conflicts between those who want to save the environment and those whose livelihoods are threatened by that very activity, and it’s so hard to justify saving a piece of environment when doing so diminishes a group’s ability to support itself. And then, of course, there is the danger of introducing non-native flora and fauna to any area — and globalization is making that more and more prevalent, whether we intended it or not! I admire the work you are doing, and hope that the 50/50 plan is successful. And I hope that the people of Khau Ca will be able to find a way or ways to use those acacia trees to help support themselves. More power to you all!

  2. Allen Nyhuis says:

    After all we’ve heard about Vietnam, it’s quite cool that the San Diego Zoo is working with that nation to preserve these native monkeys. Also cool that you can see them at the Zoo.

  3. Chari Mercier says:

    Hi! Looks like there is a lot of research and studies going on outside of SDZ lately about monkeys— The tiki monkeys and the Tonkin monkeys! There’s a lot of monkeying going on out there! Great work from the researchers! Been reading the updates about the 2 seperate research studies going on in Central America and Vietnam, and hopefully something can be done to keep these monkeys from disappearing altogether. I’m also glad that Vietnam has opened up their country tremendously to allow tourists, reasearchers, scientists, and diplomats to come in to visit and be able to contribute to their areas of interest.
    Well, some orangutan news! Atlanta Zoo has a brand new addition to the Bornean Orangutan population! 18 year old Bornean orangutan, Miri, has given birth to her second baby orang on March 30, 2010. She still has her six year old son, Satu, with her, but there has been no problems with the 3 of them together. AZ also has a new adult female Sumatran orangutan, 14 year old Blaze, who came to the zoo on March 29 from the zoo in New Orleans. The keepers are hoping that Blaze and 38 year old male, Alan, will get together later on after Blaze is done with her quarantine. With the 2 new additions to AZ’s large orang population, this makes about 11 orangs at the zoo now. I think that includes both the Bornean and Sumatran orangs. AZ is also celebrating their birthday! The zoo turned 121 years old on March 28th! Happy Bday to Atlanta Zoo!
    What’s the latest news about Frank, the one year old gorilla toddler, and Janey the painter?
    BTW, to those of you that like to get on the NZ orangutan cam to watch their orangs, that cam has been offline for about 3 weeks because the orang house that the cam is in has been undergoing some repairs and remodeling right now. Hope to see that cam back up online real soon!
    That’s it for now. Was just on the apecam, and saw what I think are a couple of Siamangs outsside on their olines.
    Chari Mercier 🙂
    St. Pete, FL

    Moderator’s note: Janey and Frank are both doing well!

  4. Chari Mercier says:

    Hi, you all! I was on the Atlanta Zoo website’s front page a couple of days ago, and there is an update about the new Bornean orangutan baby that was born on March 30. The orang keepers and the vets were monitoring both the baby and the mom, Miri, for signs of good care and nursing for a couple of days. When they saw that there was no real nursing going on by the baby orang and the mom not being able to care for him, the vets felt it was better to remove the baby orang from the mom and start taking care of him in the nursery. The baby is doing good, but the keepers and vets are still guarded about his condition until they know that the baby orang is taking his milk well and gaining weight. Hope to get another update about this little cutie soon from AZ.

    Chari Mercier 🙂

    St. Pete, FL

  5. tiffany says:

    that is so cool:]