The Year of the Dog has almost had its day, and the Year of the Pig is waiting in the wings, but one of the world’s rarest primates appears to have other ideas. In a flagrant attempt to subvert the natural order of the lunar calendar, it has stolen the limelight and staked a claim for an unscheduled Year of the Monkey.

State-of-the-art camera equipment provided by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has captured some stunning images of three baby Cat Ba langurs in Vietnam’s Cat Ba National Park. The significance of these three births – which occurred after the main breeding season – cannot be overstated. They represent a 5% increase in the global population of a monkey that is teetering on the brink of extinction.

Confined to a single island within northern Vietnam’s Cat Ba Archipelago – after which it is named – and with an estimated population of around 60 individuals, the Cat Ba or golden-headed langur is indisputably one of the most endangered primates on the planet.

This spectacular leaf-eating monkey has been virtually wiped out by a combination of poaching and destruction and fragmentation of its forest habitat. It is typically hunted not for its meat, which some consider unappetising, but primarily for use in traditional medicine, where its body is boiled down and turned into cao khi (monkey balm), which is spuriously claimed to have soothing properties.

Decades of unremitting hunting and habitat loss had caused the population to crash from several thousand in the 1960s to just 53 individuals by the turn of the century. The Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project – first initiated by Münster Zoo and now managed by Leipzig Zoo – was launched in 2000 in response to this crisis. Since then, poaching has been virtually eliminated and numbers have been slowly increasing, but low reproductive rates and the dangers of inbreeding mean that the monkey’s future remains in the balance.

Cat Ba langurs. Credit: Nguyen Van Truong
Cat Ba langur mothers and babies relaxing on a limestone outcrop. Credit: Nguyen Van Truong

FFI has been at the forefront of primate conservation in Vietnam for many years. Working through government partners and alongside communities, we are safeguarding the long-term future of the many spectacular – but gravely imperilled – ape and monkey species that are unique to the country.

Surveys conducted by FFI in 2013 revealed that the Cat Ba langur was unlikely to survive without urgent intervention. Trapped within increasingly isolated and marginalised pockets of forest, with restricted access to food, and with little prospect of movement between sub-populations, this beleaguered primate was staring down the barrel of irreversible decline.

Although not actively participating in on-the-ground protection, FFI is helping to ensure the survival of the remaining Cat Ba langurs through a suite of conservation measures that revolve mainly around species and habitat monitoring, combined with awareness raising. As part of our support for these vital research and monitoring activities, we are providing equipment and training for rangers from the Forest Protection Department (FPD).

It was one of those FPD rangers, Nguyen Huy Cam, who secured the intimate pictures of the baby langurs in their mothers’ arms during one of his routine boat patrols, vindicating FFI’s earlier decision to provide him with sophisticated camera gear and a crash course in wildlife photography. Cam was delighted with the results: “It’s not easy to take photos like this, as Cat Ba langur mothers often hide their newborns. For people like us who do conservation, it’s amazing that we can capture these moments. Conservation is not easy to do but it is rewarding. And photos of Cat Ba langur babies are something even more special because we believe every new birth offers new hope for a species that is on the brink of extinction.”

Nguyen Huu Dung, Protected Areas Manager for FFI’s Vietnam programme, also stressed the importance of these latest births: “Cat Ba langur is a precious species for Vietnam and for the world. Their presence is one of the reasons why Cat Ba Archipelago-Ha Long Bay was recognised as a World Heritage site. We and future generations must preserve this lovely species.”

Ha Long Bay. Credit: www.pixabay.com
These iconic limestone formations are characteristic of Cat Ba Archipelago and Ha Long Bay. Credit: www.pixabay.com

As well supporting the work of forestry staff, FFI has helped to shed further light on the status and conservation needs of the Cat Ba langur population by providing ongoing support for two PhD students who have conducted essential research on the monkeys.

Josh Kempinski, head of FFI’s Vietnam programme, is in no doubt about the value of the regular monitoring carried out by Cam: “He is probably covering more ‘ground’ in his boat than any other ranger in the national park, and his continued presence is undoubtedly acting as an additional deterrent to would-be poachers.”

Josh was quick to point out the vital long-term role played by Leipzig Zoo and other organisations working together under the auspices of the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project, which has done so much to protect the langur population: “These three births follow hot on the heels of several others late last year, and they offer new hope for all those who have collaborated to safeguard the future of these fabulous primates.”

This is just the latest chapter in a wider success story; FFI’s Vietnamese primate conservation programme has witnessed signs of recovery in the populations of several other critically endangered species. The results of recent surveys are expected to be published in the near future.

Watch some of Vietnam’s threatened primates in action and find out how you can help FFI to protect them.