There are many pieces in a monkey puzzle

A recent trip to Myanmar brought home to me how a number of separate (and apparently unconnected) actions can combine to contribute to a major, and potentially successful, conservation story.

In January 2009 I was lucky enough to join an expedition jointly organised by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and its partners – People Resources and Conservation Foundation (PRCF) and Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA), a Myanmar-based NGO.

The expedition was to Kachin State in the far north of Myanmar, which borders China in the foothills of the Himalayas. The aim: to find and survey the eastern hoolock gibbon.

This took me to an amazing place – rich in wildlife, stunning scenery, people living in a different time – but also an area facing numerous problems and issues. Most intriguing of all though, were stories coming from local hunters of a “black gibbon”, but with a tail (meaning it should be a monkey), which did not fit the description of any species known in the area.

Sensational news

Shortly after returning to the UK, in March 2009, I received an email from Myanmar. It contained the amazing news that hunters had brought our team the body of the black monkey, which had unfortunately been killed in a bear trap but which was thought to be a new species.

Not only was the news amazing, but the photographs attached to it were mind blowing. There was a man and his wife from northern Myanmar, in whose garden I had pitched my tent, holding the body of a relatively large monkey. It was in really good condition and clearly a species that wasn’t recorded in that area. I’m not a primatologist but even I could see that it was new to science.

One of the world’s first pictures of a live Myanmar snub-nosed monkey  (photo credit: FFI, BANCA, PRCF).

We knew this news would be sensational and (given the potential for someone else to claim the glory) that it had to be kept top secret until the species had been fully described and details published.

So, over the next few months, numerous emails circulated to a select group of people, a small team was assembled to publish a scientific paper and a team was sent to northern Myanmar to find more evidence.

This came in the form of a number of skulls (kept as trophies by hunters) and a small shoulder bag made from the fur of another individual monkey. All of these pieces were recorded, measured and used in the paper to prove that a new species had been discovered – the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey.

A picture paints a thousand words

With the species described, and its details published, the next challenge was to photograph it alive in the wild. Suspecting that it behaved in a similar way to the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey, the nearest geographical neighbour, and walked on the ground (confirmed by the original monkey caught in a bear trap) camera trapping was a possible option.

So, once again, I was able to assist the team by arranging for cameras to be bought from the US, shipped to the UK and then hand carried to Myanmar. Those that have read Jeremy Holden’s blog or seen the news stories will know that the survey was successful in capturing the first ever pictures of this species.

The biggest challenge of all…

Now that it had been discovered, described as a new species and photographed, FFI and partners faced the challenge of ensuring the species was protected. We knew it occurred in a very small area, was hunted, its habitat threatened by logging and was therefore likely to go extinct almost as soon as it had been discovered.


Logging poses a major threat to the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey (photo credit: BANCA).

Fortunately my FFI colleagues and our partners have been busy collecting the required information, preparing the necessary documentation and lobbying the Myanmar government.

This all came together at a workshop arranged especially to discuss the conservation of the species. We were able to talk directly to the Minister of Forestry and get verbal agreement that (pending the full legal process being completed) a new National Park, designed especially to protect the monkey, would be established.

We also agreed at the workshop to get the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey proposed as a completely protected species under Myanmar Law, registered as a CITES schedule one species and as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

This was followed a few days later by the announcement that the UK government, under its Darwin Initiative, would provide funding for three years to enable us to study the ecology of the species in depth so that we can design conservation actions that will ensure the survival of the species.

It’s amazing to think that in under two years a new species can be discovered, described in a scientific paper, found to be in imminent threat of extinction, photographed, have agreement reached to protect it and its habitat through national and international legislation and receive significant funding to research and ultimately protect it.

I am proud of my colleagues at FFI and our partners, and am happy to have been a part of the process, even if it was just opening emails, proof reading papers, arranging camera trap logistics, submitting funding applications and being a suit in the room during a meeting with a minister – it was all worthwhile!