A Monkey Sanctuary Hangs on in Vietnam

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Bangkok Post, Da Nang, Vietnam

The red-shanked douc has been classified as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
(Photo by GreenViet Biodiversity Conservation Center)

On a lush hill overlooking Da Nang Bay, central Vietnam, red-shanked doucs freely wander in one of their few remaining sanctuaries on Earth. At the Son Tra Nature Reserve, a mountainous peninsula known to American soldiers during the Vietnam War as "Monkey Mountain", sights like a douc couple hanging from a treetop can still be seen.

The monkeys are recognisable by their red legs and long, white-grey tails that dangle from the tree branches. Their arms are covered with white hairs that look like long gloves. Their golden faces, circled by white fluff, can be seen peeping out from the canopy. Their pitch-black eyes observe visitors curiously who gaze back at them.

Beyond the sanctuary, cruise and cargo ships glide through the sea against a backdrop of the high-rise hotels and resorts springing up all over Da Nang City, host to over four million tourists per year.

Red-shanked douc is classified as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They were once thought to be extinct after the Vietnam War as US military forces sprayed herbicide and defoliant chemicals to clear out forest cover and crops used by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops.

But the doucs defied expectations and survived -- that is, only to face another set of threats including poaching, habitat loss and unregulated mass tourism.

The animals can currently be found scattered across central Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. GreenViet, a NGO working on the conservation of biodiversity, estimates that around 1,330 individuals and over 230 families of red-shanked doucs live in Son Tra Mountain, making up nearly half of the entire population of the species.

The roads winding up the mountain offer direct access for poachers seeking to hunt the doucs that can be sold at between $US200 to $300 per head in the black market. The monkeys are either used for traditional medicine or sold in the global pet trade.The biggest threat facing the species now is the rapid development of the tourism sector, forcing the animals to flee their habitats while pushing them to the edge of extinction.

Red-shanked doucs are being driven out of their natural habitats by tourist developments in Da Nang.
(Photo by GreenViet Biodiversity Conservation Center)

TESTING DEVELOPMENT

Once used as an air base by the US and South Vietnamese forces, Da Nang has since turned into a key tourist destination in Vietnam's tourism industry, contributing to 7.5% of the GDP last year.

Despite raising revenues and reducing poverty, the rise of tourism has led to negative effects on the environment, including increasing waste, air pollution and deforestation in several tourist bases across the nation.In Da Nang, the development of hotels and resorts have expanded at an especially rapid pace, with many of them overlapping with the habitats of red-shanked doucs.

Early last year, Ha Van Sieu, vice chairman of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, told local media that the government had a master plan to develop Son Tra Mountain as a "national tourism site" over the course of the next 12 years. These plans included a luxury eco-tourism complex that could accommodate 1,600 hotel units and 300,000 tourists. The project is expected to generate over 4.3 trillion Vietnamese dong (6.2 billion baht) of revenue by the year 2030.

Officials from Da Nang municipality, which falls under direct administration of the central government, said they have a plan to conserve the biodiversity of Son Tra Nature Reserve and develop tourism in a "sustainable manner" going forward.Still, critics wonder if biodiversity stands a chance against the onset of mass tourism.

"The development plan apparently didn't take the existence of red-shanked douc into proper consideration, and if it were to be implemented, the survival of this endangered primate would be at critical risk," says Hieu Nguyen, communication officer at GreenViet. "So conservation was apparently not a priority in Son Tra Nature Reserve in the eyes of the government."

Over the past four decades, Son Tra Nature Reserve has shrank from 4,000 to 2,500 hectares. Another 1,056 hectares will be taken away for new tourism facilities if the master plan is implemented.

Last year, GreenViet collected 13,000 signatures nationwide to persuade the government to suspend the plan.Two national conferences were held by scientists, biologists and conservationists to propose alternative development strategies in Son Tra to the government.

"The red-shanked douc langurs in Son Tra have a number of intangible values that go beyond being just being wildlife," says Hieu Nguyen. "It was the beauty and the visibility of them that drew people's attention to Son Tra in the first place. Da Nang City has a competitive advantage in the tourism market because of one unique selling point: its blend of nature and modernity. If the redshanked douc were to vanish due to massive development projects overlapping with their habitat, Da Nang City will be just another coastal getaway for tourists."

Testing waters: The beach of Da Nang City is filled with tourists in the early morning. (Photo by Paritta Wangkiat)


CONSERVATION DESTINATION

Over the past two weeks, Da Nang hosted the sixth Global Environment Facility (GEF), bringing together representatives from international institutes, the private sector and civil society organisations to address global environmental issues and solutions.Biodiversity and sustainable tourism were among the key topics presented at the event. A backdrop image at the event was installed at the event hall, reminding visitors of the animals' existence located only 15 kilometres away from the venue. The picture is accompanied by a message reading "Talk less, act more."

The douc was selected by the Da Nang Municipal Party Committee as the city's mascot at last year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) event. The move was welcomed by conservationists as the plight of biodiversity in Da Nang had long gone unrecognised.

"Biodiversity in Vietnam is meaningful to people," said Tran Hong Ha, Vietnam's minister of natural resources and the environment, during the GEF meeting. "Preserving our ecosystems will create the foundation for sustainable development."

Vietnam has proposed several biodiversity protection laws, said the minister. However, the implementation of the law has proven challenging. Local media has reported that some hotels and resorts have failed to build developments aligned with conservation and land management laws.

Another challenge to conservation efforts is the locals' lack of awareness of red-shanked doucs' existence. Despite living in Son Tra for years, many local authorities and government officials working on environmental policies have not visited Son Tra until only recently, making them out of touch with the local issues.

Besides conducting research on the red-shanked douc's behaviour, GreenViet has brought around 3,000 locals to Son Tra to see the monkeys over recent years. The purpose of these trips to connect them to the animals so they can see the value of biodiversity efforts.

Tuan Pham, general manager for Vietnam and China PEAK DMC, a business-to-business global adventure management service company, said during a GEF side event that over-development in the tourism industry was a growing problem that needs to be reeled in sooner than later. He described the way the government treats nature as something to be exploited instead of nurtured, while tourism fails to consider dangerous side effects.

He urged the government to consider nature-friendly tourism that can co-exist with nature and biodiversity. Community-based tourism must be further highlighted to protect local resources, he added.

As families of doucs navigate the land wedged between development and nature, they continue to cling precariously to their survival. If conservation efforts towards the species are not taken seriously, they may not survive again like they did after the Vietnam War.