By John R. Platt
Two decades ago just 50 black snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus bieti) lived in the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. This January a survey revealed that number had risen to an amazing 700 animals. Now further surveys of the monkeys’ other populations in China bring us even more good news: The total population for this endangered species has risen from fewer than 2,000 in 2006 to more than 3,000 today according to the Xinhua news agency.
Nature Conservancy scientist Long Yongcheng—nicknamed “The Monkey King” for his work researching China’s primates—surveyed the black snub-nosed monkey populations with the help of French scientists. He told Xinhua that he credits years of working with local people—who used to hunt the monkeys for their meat and heavy fur—for the recent population boom. “We are providing funding and training to help hunters, often the poorest members of the communities, switch to other livelihoods,” he said.
The majority of the monkeys—more than 1,800 animals—live in the Baima Snow Mountain Nature Reserve, where the population has grown from just 200 in 1987. Unfortunately, the reserve also has 70,000 human residents, many of whom live in poverty. Many hungry poachers in the region have been known to set snares for musk deer which catch the monkeys instead.
While the population boom is a sign that conservation efforts are working, the monkeys are hardly out of the woods. Three populations of the species have disappeared due to habitat loss since 1994 and the remaining monkeys are isolated from each other in 18 subpopulations, many of which may lack enough animals to be viable in the long term. The species is adapted for high-elevation fir-larch forests at up to 4,700 meters above sea level—the highest elevations ever recorded for non-human primates—leaving them few areas to move as human populations grow.
The manager of the Baima Snow Mountain reserve told Xinua that residents have made “sacrifices” to protect the endangered monkeys and that “more compensation and support” would give them even more incentive to do so in the future.