Conservationists and Communities Unite to Save an endangered Primate

The Francois Langur in Vietnam

By: Gregory McCann

Way up in northern Vietnam, tucked away in the karst jungle between Hanoi and China in Tuyen Quang province, sits a conservation landscape surrounded by a mosaic of agriculture, forestry, and village settlements, a microcosm of much of the region’s protected areas today.

But what sets it apart are the Francois langur monkeys, listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as endangered, as well as the novel and the highly effective way this area is managed. The site is centered around three communes and is called The Khuon Ha - Thuong Lam - Sinh Long Conservation Landscape. However, that name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and it will eventually be referred to as the Francois Langur Community Based Conservation Area.  In addition to the striking and endangered langurs, this gorgeous pocket of biodiversity holds lakes, forests, and the kind of limestone karsts that Grahame Greene once described as giant pieces of pumice stuck in the earth. 

The Francois langur, a wonderfully peculiar species of primate that looks like some kind of helmeted mini-warrior from Planet of the Apes, is the focus of conservation here. A decade ago the monkeys were listed as vulnerable in Vietnam, and the NGO People Resources and Conservation Foundation (PRCF) sought funding to begin a program for their preservation. But in perhaps the most bitter common irony in the conservation world, the requests were denied on the grounds that an IUCN listing of “vulnerable” didn’t merit conservation action, despite a rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground. Finally, when the Francois langurs were downgraded to “Endangered,” donors agreed to back a conservation program.

It is worth asking—is that how it has to be? Do we have to wait until a species is on the edge of extinction to begin protecting it? Is this a fatal flaw in donor outlook that could doom Southeast Asia’s iconic and also lesser-known species and landscapes? A quick look at Indochina from above, using Google Earth, shows something like a green archipelago of protected areas amidst a rapidly drying and urbanizing landscape—a scenario that does not bode well for the region’s significant natural heritage. That green archipelago is also highly threatened by unprecedented regional forest fires, logging, illegal hunting, and development schemes.

However, Jack Tordoff, a conservationist who was instrumental in setting up the conservation program, expressed optimism: “The long-term objective for the landscape is to establish Vietnam’s first community-managed protected area, with sustainable financing from voluntary carbon credits, biodiversity offsets and/or contributions from the provincial payments for ecosystem services scheme.”

Given the strong relationships that PRCF has developed over the years with the provincial authorities in Tuyen Quang, Tordoff said, “as well as the Department of Nature Conservation within the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development at the national level, I am optimistic that these efforts will be successful, and that PRCF’s work will serve as an example that other organizations working to conserve Vietnam’s natural heritage can learn from.”

Local communities appear to agree. Instead of being handed directives in a top-down approach from distant international NGO offices, local people are given the conservation reins here. Activities include conservation planning and awareness, habitat mapping, self-initiated SMART patrols, village co-management committees and self-help groups, and village self-reliance groups, to name but a few.

At the same time, Tordoff said, “PRCF has responded to the development needs and aspirations of local people, helping them to achieve their long-term goals through community forestry, savings groups, and other schemes, linked to conservation objectives. The result is that villagers are proud of the fact that they live alongside the Francois langurs, and the average resident can enthusiastically inform an outsider about their ecological significance and importance as an endangered species.”

In the words of Fernando Potess, PRCF founder and President and Director, a main pillar of their conservation work is “to raise and strengthen the capacity of local stakeholder communities to manage and protect their natural environment; villager involvement is at the core of all PRCF biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihood projects.  We basically facilitate the community transition into co-managers of high conservation value forests and habitats, partnering with villages and providing to them needed resources, guidance, training, and mentorship to further conservation initiatives that become  increasingly led by the communities themselves.”

Such is the case at the pilot community-based Francois Langur Conservation Area in Tuyen Quang province, and at other similar programs with endangered species and high conservation value areas in Kalimantan and Sumatra, Potess said.

It is an example that quickly needs replicating in a region now experiencing increased poaching in the face of a perceived lack of wildlife law enforcement thanks to Covid-19. Sea turtle eggs are being gathered up in the thousands and openly sold in markets in Malaysia, pangolin poaching is out of control in India, a rare giant freshwater stingray was recently hauled out of Sarawak waters and killed, and three magnificent giant ibises were slaughtered in Cambodia, for starters. 24,000 kilometers of roads are to be paved through Asia’s tiger habitats by 2050.

Huge infrastructure projects, such as yet another Mekong dam in Laos, are very difficult to stop. But in situations where the local buy-in is a possibility, where communities can see tangible benefits to environmental conservation—such as what has been accomplished in the Francois Langur Community Based Conservation Area—there is a real possibility for long-term preservation of the region’s nature. Focusing on specific, charismatic species can be an effective way of protecting a larger area, including forests, watersheds, and local communities that count on gathering non-timber forest products.

Similar successes have been noted in Nepal’s efforts to boost its tiger numbers, in a Cambodian plan hatched to save the kingdom’s wild elephants, and in a Chinese effort to save the rarest primate of all—the Hainan gibbon, which now numbers 30 individuals (up from just 13 a few years back).  

And now more than ever, with viruses making the jump from wild animals to humans and triggering economic and human carnage across the world, local people who live on the periphery of what remains of the region’s mountains and forests need to be convinced that wild animals belong in their jungle homes, not crammed into cages and stacked on top of one another in unhygienic wet markets. We know where that leads.

Gregory McCann is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel, the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor, and a PRCF collaborator.