Facets of Primate Conservation
“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” —Baba Dioum, 1968
BY Karyl Carmignani
Photography by Ken Bohn
Throughout the world, nonhuman primate species are threatened with extinction, largely due to the actions (and inaction) of humans. These threats include habitat loss and degradation, injury or death from hunters and poachers, and disturbance from human activities. For monkey species inhabiting China—the most populated country on Earth—survival of wild spaces and the primates that inhabit them is at a tipping point. The most endangered snub-nosed monkey species in China is the Guizhou snub-nosed monkey Rhinopithecus brelichi, a striking-looking creature weighing between 22 and 35 pounds that is partial to life in the trees.
This leaf-eating monkey numbers about 750 individuals, all found in Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve, located in Guizhou province in southwestern China. Fortunately, this species has a creative, collaborative, and tireless ally in Chia Tan, Ph.D., senior scientist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. The work of Chia and her colleagues at the reserve has illuminated the behaviors of this shy and elusive snub-nosed monkey while also broadening appreciation for the species among local people living near the reserve. “It’s their responsibility to pass on the love for wildlife and take care of the local species,” said Chia. “And we are working to inspire that love for wildlife!”
Fruition for Seed Money
It began with an anonymous donor who heard about Chia’s primate work in China and wanted to support conservation education and outreach. The seed money helped get the Little Green Guards (LGG) program off the ground in 2011. This community-based program teaches children about wildlife through books, school lessons, presentations, and field trips into the forest. Most importantly, it fosters love and empathy for animals. “It’s a long-term way to help preserve biodiversity,” explained Chia. “And it shows the kids we’re not just ‘boring scientists.’” There are no daycare centers in rural areas, so older kids often take their younger siblings with them to school. As a result, Little Green Guards can be as young as three years old, though the program is mostly geared toward primary schoolchildren. “Little Green Guards are children living in conservation priority areas that have an underdeveloped economy and education system,” said Chia. “The goal of the program is to build a strong and lasting love for animals in children, ultimately empowering them to become conservation stewards of the area’s natural heritage.”
As her international conservation efforts continue to expand across Asia and Africa, Chia understands that she must invest in local people who can engage in scientific research, conservation, education, and advocacy. “All successful conservation programs must garner public support to bring about positive actions toward species and habitat protection,” she said. Chia saw the need to “grow a green army and train them well,” so that they have the capacity to tackle the conservation challenges in their home countries.
To do so, she created the Training in Primatology Series (TIPS), a professional development program to foster future conservation leaders from primate habitat countries, giving them the experience and credentials needed to pursue their research, academic, and career goals. While Chia hopes her army of protégés will specialize in primatology, she has also expanded the training to a broader, more practical conservation biology curriculum, so the students become “jacks-of-all-trades” for conservation. Since TIPS began in 2009, the annual workshops held throughout Asia have expanded in duration (up to 15 days long), number of attendees (84 to date), and number of countries participating (13). In 2015, the tuition-free workshop will be held in China and will focus on field research and scientific communication techniques. “With the practical knowledge and skills we provide them, our trainees will be more likely to succeed in their professional endeavors,” said Chia. That will help the monkeys and other wildlife survive in the long term.
To help guide her education and outreach efforts, Chia gave an animal survey to schoolchildren a few years ago. The survey revealed that the rural kids in China did not have a sophisticated knowledge of animals and “didn’t know giant pandas came from their country.” They could name animals they saw in their daily life, like “little birds, cats, goats, and pigs,” but they were simply not aware of species beyond that. So Chia started collecting gently used children’s books with “lots of pictures and little text” to send back to the schools her Little Green Guards attend. “Books help!” she said, “And introducing children to animals in the forests of their backyard is the first step to encouraging them to care about them.” She also found a way to reuse pictures from old donated ZOONOOZ magazines, teaching the children how to make beautiful collages and create stories about the animals. “Traditionally, Chinese people are not focused on the ‘love for the animal,’ but instead on its purpose as food or medicine or whatever,” said Chia. The Little Green Guards are changing that mindset. “This is a prerequisite to conservation.”
Surprises in the Forest
Few technologies have helped reveal the secrets of wildlife more than strategically placed camera traps. The camera’s passive infrared sensor is triggered when something goes by, and a highly detailed image of the creature is taken, with the date, time, moon phase, and temperature noted. Long after even the most committed researcher is tucked into his or her sleeping bag, the camera traps continue to monitor the forest. Through direct observation (and arduous hikes up and down mountains), Chia and her colleagues were able to find the “arboreal highways” that the Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys use and place camera traps accordingly. What they discovered rocked the primatological world!
In addition to stunning “family portraits” of groups of monkeys foraging and bonding, the camera trap images revealed that the primates were active at night. Barring some prosimians and the owl monkey, primates tend to be active during the day and nestle in for the night at sunset. Monkeys captured on camera traps “monkeying around” in the middle of the night challenged established knowledge about primate activity patterns. Are we classifying them as diurnal because we are? Not any more! Another surprise was tracking the monkeys as they moved to higher elevations from early morning to afternoon, then moved back down the mountain to sleep. Chia and her colleagues think this daily activity pattern may reflect use of resources and safer sleeping sites. “Lower elevations have evergreen, broadleaf trees—ideal cover while sleeping,” she said. “Higher elevations have deciduous trees, which provide most of the monkeys’ nutrition.” So far, no one has validated or refuted their hypothesis.
Sharing the camera trap images with the local children has opened their eyes to the wild and wonderful creatures that share their neighborhood. A children’s book about Fanjingshan called Xingda’s Wildlife Explorations, written by Chia and her collaborators, contains an array of camera trap photos and is a big hit with the youngsters—they are excited to see what lives in the forest. Chia and her colleagues recently took the Little Green Guards Conservation Club on a field trip into the reserve for lessons in biology and camera trap training. “Because personal experience can create deep impressions, it is important to include many field trip opportunities for Little Green Guards to fall in love with animals and nature,” said Chia. The children were shown how to properly install the batteries and the memory card, program the settings, and mount a camera trap on a tree. Once in place, “the kids practiced taking ‘selfies’ by triggering the sensor in front of the camera and saying ‘Qiezi!’ the Chinese version of ‘Cheese!’” Chia said with a chuckle. This experience can leave an indelible memory as the children grow up and take responsibility for caring for their local wildlife.
While the life of primates in Fanjingshan is riveting, other wildlife also deserves attention. As part of the US-Chinese researcher exchange program, Dave Rimlinger, San Diego Zoo’s curator of birds, joined Chia in China and put his avian expertise to work. Placing the camera traps lower on the trees captured some of the most elusive Chinese pheasants around. Dave was in his element! Locals shared their vast knowledge of the birds’ habits and behaviors. “It was great having another colleague from the Zoo traveling to China, showing such great interest in Chinese wildlife,” said Chia. Not only is Dave used to roughing it in the field, but “he is so knowledgeable about pheasants and other birds.” The work helped extend the species list of birds they found. “All this started with me studying monkeys, but to really conserve them and have a positive impact, we need to work with local people to care for all these animals,” said Chia. “I appreciate all the help from my colleagues to broaden the impact of our conservation and research work.” The repercussions of these collaborative efforts will surely echo in the forest for generations to come!