In search of the grey-shanked douc

I had no idea what to expect on my first survey trip in the forest with Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) Vietnam team. Following a recent field survey in central Vietnam, we were on a quest for a sighting of the elusive and impossibly exotic grey-shanked douc, one of the most endangered species on the planet.

Coming from a corporate marketing background and only recently deciding to put my skills to work in the conservation sector, this was clearly not going to be a usual day at the office! My excitement grew when informed by my scientist colleagues that very few foreign women had ever managed to observe this species in the wild, and this triggered my competitive side – I was determined to be one of the few… absolutely determined.

I had dutifully bought some hideous trekking boots and packed them with camouflage khaki trousers and shirt, filled my backpack with water, wet wipes and my iPhone. I was ready for anything!

Credit: Dr Ben Rawson/FFI

Credit: Dr Ben Rawson/FFI.

On the day of our foray into the forest, we woke up and were on the road early, as the chances of a sighting are higher in the morning when these animals are most active. Doucs are leaf-eating monkeys, and as such they feed extensively after waking up around dawn and then sit around for much of the rest of the day, quietly digesting all the plant matter in their voluminous bellies.

I’m certainly not a morning person, but the prospect of seeing the douc (and a strong cup of Vietnamese coffee) propelled me forward. From the FFI team it was me, FFI’s Country Director, Dr Ben Rawson (one of the world’s leading primatologists) and two of FFI Vietnam’s biologists and primate experts Trinh Dinh Hoang and Nguyen Van Truong, who were responsible for the recent exciting discovery of a new population of grey-shanked doucs, two local police officers and two guides from the nearby village. Clearly I couldn’t be in better company.

When I say I didn’t know what to expect, I think I just honestly hadn’t given it much thought. Working in marketing, I didn’t fully comprehend what it’s like to be ‘in the field’, something that my incredibly dedicated and passionate colleagues do on a regular basis. Let me tell you this: I was not prepared for, nor expecting, what happened next.

Within five minutes, I was sweaty and filthy. Muddy rice-paddy fields, stream crossings, spiny plants, ants, mosquitos – you get the picture. To get to the area we had identified as being home to the doucs, we had to make our way up a steep incline (it’s not call the Central Highlands for nothing), without a path, using branches and rocks (and sometimes our hands and knees!) to propel us forward.

Credit: Dr Ben Rawson/FFI.

Credit: Dr Ben Rawson/FFI.

I’m embarrassed to note that I was by far the weakest link and even had thoughts of turning back. Everyone assured me that “this was the hard part” and that it was “nearly over.” They kindly and patiently waited as I caught my breath and drowned myself in water before moving on. Sure enough, we eventually reached relatively flat ground atop a ridge line and commenced our trek deep into the forest on our quest to see the doucs.

Living in Hanoi, I rarely come into contact with nature and I was awestruck by the seemingly never-ending beauty unfolding in front of me: clean air, trees that are tall and thick, it’s completely serene. You have a feeling that you are the only person in the world and that, if you wanted to, you could get lost forever (if we hadn’t had the guides, I definitely would’ve). The only sounds were the crunching of leaves underneath our boots, animal calls, and my laboured breathing. Note to self: Start working out more! It was at that moment I realised, that as wondrous as it would be to see a douc, that this experience – being so utterly submerged in nature – was enough.

Just before lunch, Hoang stopped in his tracks and held up his hand for us to do the same. His eyes lit up. “Can you hear that?” he asked me almost inaudibly, “That sound: it’s the doucs calling.” My heart started racing in anticipation. “THIS IS IT!” my thoughts were screaming, “I’M GOING TO SEE THE GREY SHANKED DOUC! IT’S REALLY HAPPENING!!”

Slowly, as silently as we could, we made our way toward the calls. The suspense was enthralling. As we eased toward the spot with bated breath and equal parts prudence and purpose, not once did I think about grabbing my iPhone.

Grey-shanked douc. Credit: Nguyen Van Truong/FFI.

Grey-shanked douc. Credit: Nguyen Van Truong/FFI.

It was over almost as soon as it began, with flashes of grey and orange fur, excited calls and wildly swaying branches, a group on the move, elusive and so precious. There was a sacred quality to encountering the douc in its own home – something impossible to capture on social media: the douc’s magnificence made all the more so in its own environment. Suddenly the reality of its precarious situation had become more real and all the more desperate to me.

Might it be possible for others to have this experience and to become crusaders for the douc as a result? Would this prove the vital link in getting the support that might help save the species? FFI is working on this possibility; we at the Vietnam office are exploring the feasibility of supporting people living in this area to run ecotourism journeys through the forest, during which visitors would get to experience the extraordinary beauty of the forests and people of the Central Highlands and, if they are extraordinarily lucky, a glimpse of the grey-shanked douc – one of nature’s greatest gifts.