The Doucs of Danang
Dr. Ulrike Streicher, Wildlife Veterinarian
Source. IPPL International Primate Protect League
Vietnam, with its 23 primate species and a population of 84 million people, is one of the world’s primate conservation hotspots. Primates are strictly protected in Vietnam, but they still are hunted for use in traditional medicines, traded as pets, or simply used as trophies and decorative objects. Sadly, increasing prosperity in the past year is leading to an increasing demand for “luxury” wildlife products, and awareness within the population regarding conservation issues is extremely low.
One of the most charismatic primate species in the country is the red-shanked douc (Pygathrix nemaeus). The name is derived from a local name for the colorful primate; in Vietnamese, it is called the “monkey of five colors.” The species is found in primary and secondary forest in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 14°33′ N to 19°02′. It is protected in Vietnam under Decree No. 32/2006/ND-CP and is categorized in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as “Endangered.”
One of the largest populations of the species in Vietnam lives on the Son Tra peninsula near Danang city in central Vietnam. In 1992, part of the peninsula was designated as a nature reserve comprising 2,595 hectares (6,410 acres) of strictly protected land and 1,844 hectares (4,560 acres) of “forest rehabilitation area” (consisting of plantation areas and regenerating forest cover). The Son Tra Nature Reserve holds a population of about 150 to 180 doucs.
Despite their proximity to Danang city, doucs have survived in this location due to a large army base, which restricted public access in the past. However, in recent years, tourism has been developing rapidly on the peninsula. Forest areas are being cleared for restaurants, tourist roads, and resorts. One large resort has been constructed at the bottleneck of the peninsula, effectively separating the eastern part of the population from the larger western part. Roads cut through the forest, many of them wide enough to create a barrier for the doucs. An invasive climbing plant follows road construction and has covered nearly a third of the remaining forest. On public holidays, local tourists enter the nature reserve uncontrolled and unaware of any regulations. Trees and plants are destroyed and rubbish is disposed of without control.
Hunting in Son Tra might not be quite as rampant as in other forests in Vietnam, but it appears to be increasing. The new tourist roads facilitate access to the area, and traps are now commonly found in the forest.
Trapping targets wild pigs, muntjacs (small deer), small mammals, birds—and doucs. Although primarily arboreal, doucs do come to ground to drink and visit mineral licks, and on the ground they are vulnerable to snaring. Snare lines up to a length of 200 meters (650 feet) have been found in Son Tra in recent months. Between January and August 2010 alone, four live doucs were confiscated from hunters while a fifth infant was taken from a house in Danang by Forest Protection Rangers. It is unlikely that all hunted animals are discovered, and it is suspected that an even higher number of doucs were killed during the same time period.
If confiscated doucs are not injured and were only recently captured, the authorities return the animals immediately to the forest. However, captured doucs are not always so lucky. The injuries caused by traps can be profound and may lead to a permanent loss of function in a hand or foot. Such animals cannot, of course, be released back to the wild.
Ranger stations are rarely prepared to maintain injured doucs during recovery, so the animals must be sent to a rescue facility. With the Endangered Primate Rescue Center (EPRC) at Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam has a high-quality facility where sensitive doucs can be cared for. Animals transferred to the center are integrated into a carefully-designed captive-breeding program. IPPL has helped support the EPRC since 2002. However, captivity can only be an emergency solution for some animals, and captive breeding programs do not make much sense without appropriate habitat protection and in situ conservation measures.
In Son Tra, conservation and city development compete for the remaining habitat. The Son Tra peninsula, with its beautiful forest and spectacular views, is an obvious tourist attraction. The city administration of Danang does acknowledge the importance of the doucs and of Son Tra as a natural resource,
but it is an unequal competition: conservation groups struggle to contribute a few thousand dollars, whereas tourism investors are prepared to pay several millions for a few hectares of the peninsula.
Most of the rangers in Son Tra have been in their positions for a long time—some for over twenty years—and have been witness to the destruction of Son Tra in the name of tourism development. The U.S.-based Douc Langur Foundation has supported the rangers’ work in Son Tra over many years, but, despite all their efforts, hunting and habitat loss continue, and the douc population decreases year after year. Decisive action is needed to ensure the survival of this population for the future.
In 2009, the Frankfurt Zoological Society started the Son Tra Douc Research and Conservation Project. As part of this project, a detailed long-term study of the doucs’ ecology is being conducted, which is urgently needed for several reasons:
• Danang has an understandable demand for recreational space. Son Tra is the closest natural site, only 25 minutes from the city center, and it will be developed one way or another. The main reason for the city to maintain it as a natural site is its recreational value. Sustainable tourism, which does not jeopardize the existence of the doucs, is therefore the monkeys’ greatest hope for survival on the Son Tra peninsula.
Such tourism can only be developed with a detailed knowledge of the doucs’ ecology. The project cooperates closely with the Department of Science and Technology (DOSTE) of Danang, and findings are immediately relayed to the relevant authorities so they can be taken into consideration in any further decisions.
• Douc populations all over Vietnam are severely depleted. At the same time, red-shanked doucs are being kept at the EPRC in Cuc Phuong National Park very successfully and have bred in captivity up to three generations. Restocking wild populations with captive-bred individuals will become an important measure to ensure the survival of the species in the wild. Detailed information on the doucs’ ecology and habitat requirements are necessary to develop reintroduction programs.
• There is still a lack of young scientists in conservation and primatology in Vietnam. The presence of scientists who can continue to do primatological fieldwork in the future is an important part of the project’s sustainability. The project is training a number of young biologists in field research methods and helping them pursue their degrees at Danang University.
• Doucs are kept in a few zoos around the world, but the zoo population is not self-sustaining. These doucs are dying mainly of prolonged metabolic problems as a result of long-term malnutrition. If doucs are to remain represented in zoos, detailed information on their wild feeding habits is required in order to develop an appropriate captive diet.
The project is a joint effort being carried out by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, Danang University, and DOSTE. The field research is being run by Larry Ulibarri, a Ph.D. student from the University of Colorado at Boulder (and who, along with the author of this article, was present at IPPL’s 2006 Members’ Meeting).
The study is gathering detailed data on the doucs’ ecology, home ranges, and group structure. The work is being financed by the Margot Marsh Foundation, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, the Endangered Primate Conservation Fund in Vietnam, and the Primate Society of Great Britain.
In order to survive for even another decade, the doucs of Son Tra need public conservation awareness on a broad scale. People need to be made aware of the impending loss of their wildlife and forests.
Assuring that information from the field is immediately available to authorities at the decision-making level is an important step. We hope the city will, with the help of this project, recognize the value and needs of the doucs and start to take pride in having such a charismatic primate within the city’s boundaries. Danang city authorities have recently appointed the author of this article to help them develop a conservation awareness program for Son Tra. This is a challenging task. One of the first steps will be to set up an educational exhibit that will highlight the biodiversity of central Vietnam, especially the doucs of Son Tra, and point out the threats these animals face. The exhibit will be held over the Vietnamese New Year (Tet), which will fall in February 2011.
The residents of Danang have a unique opportunity for conservation on their hands; we can only try to convince them not to squander it.