The Yunnan Golden Monkey

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

For years, the Yunnan Golden Monkey (Rhinopithecus bieti) was presumed extinct, no longer roaming a narrow strip of remote forest between the Mekong and Yangtze River gorges. About thirty years ago, however, a couple of pelts found in a market gave people hope that the monkeys were still alive. Today, only thirteen small subpopulations survive.

Xiao Lin and I drove the winding roads in the Yangtze River Valley to Tachen, a forested village nestled in lower elevations of the Hengduan Mountains. I rolled the window down as Tibetan music played on the CD player and the warm valley air swirled through the car, sun blazing overhead. I overdressed for the weather as rhododendrons bloomed along the roadside.

Xiao Lin was one of the original researchers of the monkeys. He and his fellow researchers began by locating where the monkey populations lived. This was not easy as the monkeys live higher than any other monkey species in the world--between 9,500 feet and 14,000 feet. Next, they began studying their behavior and habits. They found that the monkeys need a large home range--"fifteen square miles or more"--, have babies in March and early April, and primarily eat lichens draping the fir and spruce trees of the cold temperate forests. One reason they may need such a large home range is that the lichens take years to recover once an area is foraged.

If someone asked me a year ago to pick the top reasons why I should stay in Shangri-la, I would have answered:
1) to return to Yading in order to complete the circumambulation of Chenrezee.
2) to visit Kawa Karpo and see the Mekong gorge.
3) to help WWF as much as I can.
4) to see the Black-necked Cranes and to hear them call.
5) to meet remote villagers and monks.
6) to see the Yunnan Golden Monkeys.

Finally, here was my chance to see and film the monkeys, one year in the waiting. The night before I could hardly sleep, in anticipation.

We finally hiked to the site by late afternoon and rested in a pasture for a while before climbing a steep forested mountainside. One local nature reserve staff and a villager joined us. There they were: a few monkeys feeding in front of us. We crept through the forest, trying not to make much noise, despite the crisp dry leaf litter covering the ground. I didn't want to disturb them, as they needed to feed: it was their dinner time.

Soon thereafter, a couple more villagers came and began yelling and hollering, driving the monkeys. At first, I thought they were driving the monkeys to try to help Xiao Lin and me. But then I realized: they are driving the monkeys away from us, down the mountain so that tourists can easily see them. Every day, the monkeys were driven down the mountain and yelled at until they fell asleep in the valley, away from their forest cover and food sources.

I told them this was no good, but they continued to drive the monkeys, unconcerned.

Essentially, the villagers realized that the monkeys were on their land and that they could profit from the monkeys through tourism. Trouble is, the monkeys require large home ranges and a reliable source of food. Living in one small valley would likely not suffice and reports of dead babies in mothers arms led me to believe that this population would slowly die and disappear if this continued every day, year after year, just so people could see them without hiking up the mountain.

I felt like destroying the footage--the less people that know about this animal the better. But here I am writing about them, with photos and videos and all...

There is a solution, and I have engaged WWF to work on a solution to this. In general, the solution is easy: work with the villagers to develop an ecotourism plan that takes into account the long-term survival of the monkeys and provides villagers with needed cash and lets tourists see the amazing monkeys...if they are lucky and can find them where they naturally want to be.

At the time the villagers were driving the monkeys, I wasn't thinking about solutions, I was mad and I don't really want to describe the thoughts pouring through my head. Billions of humans, but only about 1,000 Yunnan Golden Monkeys remaining and these people are driving them to death!

The next day the three monkey herders didn't drive the monkeys, so Xiao Lin and I had hours to sit and film and photograph the monkeys. Slowly, I assimilated myself into the middle of the group of monkeys. Once the monkeys were above my head, sending branches and leaves tumbling over me. Another time, a couple of large (around 40 pounds) male monkeys came within ten feet of me, swinging from branch to branch while I hid in the shade of a fir tree.

The slope was steep and, while filming, not sliding down was difficult. The steep slopes, however, allowed me to film the monkeys at eye level: they were often feeding in the canopy, so the tops of the trees below me were straight ahead. In the canopy, monkeys called to one another, groomed each other, and fed on lichens and new spring leaves. Silvery-white newborns clung to their mothers and sometimes tried to feed alone, their mothers weaning them.

Still, I was deeply bothered by the situation at Tachen. I realize now that I was not mad at them, but at their ignorance and lack of compassion for these rare animals. Naturally, they'd want additional cash for their village, and I couldn't blame them for that.

The solution is easily within everyone's grasp.
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carolyn on

Hey Lloyd! Really neat-looking monkeys and the babies are SO cute!

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