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Protection of Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys in Mount Laojun forges ahead amid clashes with local villagers’ livelihoods

By Du Wei Updated Dec.1

He Xuegao, a 40-year-old ranger who safeguards the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey in Yulong County, Yunnan Province, has never forgotten the first time he saw the endangered primates. One day in June 2019, when he was patrolling Mount Laojun, home to a troop of monkeys, he spotted two sturdy monkeys through his telescope. Others were resting in the bush. But they fled in uproar, probably after sensing He and his team.  

The Yunnan snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus bieti) is also called the black-and-white snub-nosed monkey. It was first described by French zoologist Alphonse Milne-Edwards in 1897, who studied seven monkey species in Yunnan and Tibet. In the early 1960s, Peng Hongshou, a zoologist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), confirmed the species was not extinct after buying eight pelts in Deqin County, Yunnan Province. The Yunnan snub-nosed monkey is one of the most endangered animals on the China Species Red List and is endemic to the area. It lives at the highest elevations for a nonhuman primate, in evergreen forest 3,000 meters above sea level. They are confined to the Yunling mountain range (which includes Mount Laojun) in northwestern Yunnan and southeastern Tibet, a narrow strip only 40 kilometers wide between the Jinsha (upper Yangtze) and Lancang (upper Mekong) rivers.  

In the last three decades, progress has been made in protecting the rare species. Their discrete population groups have risen from 13 to 23 while the number of animals expanded from 1,500 to 4,000, after government-led conservation policies and efforts from NGOs. But more is needed. The Yunnan snub-nosed monkey is divided into three genetic groups, but the troop living in Mount Laojun only numbers around 300. However, Mount Laojun is the only region without a reserve to protect them. While all the counties where the species lives are struggling with poverty, protecting the monkeys often involves conflicts with the interests of villagers, as seen on Mount Laojun.  

Growing Protective Force 
He Xuegao, a member of the Lisu ethnic group, lives in Liju Village in Yulong County, 100 kilometers to the southwest of Lijiang, a major tourism destination in Yunnan. Besides the discovered troop of monkeys on Mount Laojun, there was another group living higher up the peak in the 1990s. But in the past 10 years, there has been no sign of them apart from feces. 

Born to a poor family, He had to drop out of school at around 9 years old, unable to pay for his textbooks. He started herding cows and sheep on Mount Laojun with his parents at 12. In the 1990s, he discovered his neighbor, Zhang Zhiming, was a volunteer ranger that helped researchers find monkeys, and He always wanted to do the same. So in 2019, when Yulong County forestry bureau and Liju Village teamed up with SEE Conservation, an NGO founded in 2004 by Chinese entrepreneurs to protect ecology, He signed up for the new ranger program. 

From 1987, Long Yongcheng, an expert with international NGO The Nature Conservancy (TNC) who was then a research fellow with Kunming Institute of Zoology, spent eight years investigating the geographical distribution and population of Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys, concluding there were only 100-150 on Mount Laojun.  

Liju villager Zhang said that 50 years ago there was not much hunting, so monkeys lived at lower elevations and were often spotted. By the 1980s, more villagers hunted to increase their incomes. Among the over 300 families in Liju, at least 10 hunted in the mountains once every month or two, catching and killing up to 10 monkeys. Monkey bones, used in traditional Chinese medicine, sold for over 30 yuan (US$4.7) at the time, an equivalent to at least 30,000 yuan (US$4,661) today. Back then, it could buy 100 kilograms of rice, and was three times the price of a sheep. Even though the Yunnan snubnosed monkey was listed as a national first-class protected animal as early as the 1970s, it was not until 1989 when the wildlife protection law came into effect that more attention was paid to protection and conservation.  

In 1991, the county forest bureau employed Zhang as a wildlife ranger, mainly to protect the monkeys. Every month he would patrol 10 days in the mountains, and then spent the rest of his time educating villagers about wildlife protection. He rarely confronted hunters if he chanced upon them because they had guns. He posted signs along the routes the hunters would pass. Sometimes hunters set traps for him, placing sharpened bamboo sticks and animal traps on the paths he took. In 2009, Zhang and his team removed over 380 wire mesh nets and 1,000 traps. In 2011, he still could see hunters and their dogs chasing monkeys, but now, compared to 20 years ago, hunting has dwindled.  

After 2000, patrols were stepped up and more rangers were recruited. At the team’s peak there were 12 people, although sometimes there were not enough funds to employ so many, as the wages were paid by TNC, which relies on donations from government, companies and individuals. Local authorities told NewsChina they have already applied for more funding for the patrols.  

Now, with enhanced patrols and growing awareness of wildlife protection, hunting is no longer the main threat to the monkeys, He Xuegao told NewsChina.  

Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys, Baima Snow Mountain Reserve

Squeezed Habitat 
Well-protected forest vegetation means a stable home not only for Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys but also other animals, as protecting the monkeys as an umbrella species will help preserve the entire ecosystem. Now that hunting has all but ceased, the main danger comes from cutting down trees. Zhang Zhiming recalled that in the 1980s, many places relied on tree felling for revenue. The primitive forest along Mount Laojun fell victim too. “Hunting is for money, so is tree felling,” Zhang said. Many villagers who were previously hunters started cutting down trees. “We had 25 out of 30 families clearcutting State-owned forest. Cutting down and selling trees earned them 10 yuan (US$1.6) a day, which bought around 40 kilograms of rice.” The firs and spruces that snub-nosed monkeys inhabit fetched about 200 yuan (US$31) per cubic meter, which rose to 1,000 yuan (US$155) in the late 1990s. Much of the primary forest is gone, resulting in a diminished habitat for the monkeys.  

After heavy floods in 1998, China issued a ban on commercial logging of natural forest in the upper watershed of the Yangtze River and in the upper and middle watershed of the Yellow River. In Yunnan, cutting trees for firewood, a necessity in winter and the rainy season, became the primary way of using forest resources.  

He Guohu, a township official in charge of forest management, said villagers are asked to use fallen trees first and they can apply for permission to cut down a limited number of trees from village-owned forest.  

In Liju, every family goes to approved areas in the mountains to cut trees around Chinese New Year. They are also permitted to scavenge for dead wood in State-owned forest. Still, some villagers secretly fell trees in the mountains.  

He Guohu said that Shitou Township, which covers Liju, employs more than 100 people from local villages to protect the collectively owned forest near villages. Meanwhile, the forestry department watches over the State-owned forest.  

After commercial logging was prohibited, local government income dropped by 60-90 percent. The growing population also put pressure on the local environment and resources. The expansion of residential areas and villagers’ reliance on wood further fragmented the habitat of Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys.  

Liju villagers mostly live around the mountains and have limited arable land fit to cultivate crops like potatoes, corn and white kidney beans, among which only white kidney beans (cannellini) can be sold. So they earn much less than villages at lower altitudes where people can grow cash crops like tobacco.  

To increase their incomes, Liju locals set about clearing forests on Mount Laojun around 2015, when it became popular to plant maca, or Peruvian ginseng. The cultivated area began to encroach on the monkey’s prime habitat, an area of about 60 square kilometers.  

A 2019 study on the monkeys of Mount Laojun led by Cui Liangwei, a professor at Southwest Forestry University, showed that the monkeys did not use the habitat patches near cultivated land. No trace of the monkeys was found until at least 180 meters away, and it was not until two kilometers from cultivated land that traces of their activity reached a maximum.  

Food Fighting 
Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys eat lichens, but they are not their only food. Around 2005, Zhao Qikun, a primatologist with the Kunming Institute of Zoology, found they like to grub up bamboo shoots from the ground. Yang Yuming, a professor with Yunnan Academy of Forestry and Grassland, who helped Zhao with the investigation, told NewsChina that bamboo shoots are very nutritious. In spring when trees are in bud and in summer when bamboo shoots pop out, the monkeys go to lower altitudes for food. This clashes with grazing livestock, one of the main ways people make a living, Zhang Zhiming said.  

In the 1980s, Long Yongcheng went to Mount Longma in Yuxi, Yunnan Province to find snub-nosed monkeys. He found the mountaintop was completely bare after locals burned the forest for more grazing land. Between the late 1950s and 2000, the area of suitable habitat for the monkeys decreased by 31 percent, about 1,887 square kilometers, while grazing land increased by 204 percent, or 1,291 square kilometers.  

Professor Cui Liangwei told NewsChina that as the human population grows, expanding the area of cultivated land is the only way to increase production, while the villagers also acquire more livestock to get more income. The monkeys’ habitat is continuing to be squeezed as farmland expands upward to the mountains and grazing land encroaches on the forest from the top downward.  

After 2000, when opening up grazing land by destroying forests was prohibited, locals grazed their herds in the forests. But He Xuegao found the livestock would compete with snub-nosed monkeys for bamboo shoots. The livestock ate and trampled on the forest floor vegetation, destroying the entire ecosystem. Sometimes cattle herders set off fireworks to scare black bears away, which frightened the monkeys too.  

According to Zhang Zhiming, in the last two years, as the country encourages animal husbandry to increase farmers’ incomes, more and more villagers raised cattle and yaks. Yaks reach high altitudes in winter to the habitat of snub-nosed monkeys. They wear bells, which disturbs the monkeys.  

Cui Liangwei noted that more research is needed into the influence of grazing on monkeys, and it is possible that livestock dung might contain parasites, which can cause cross-infection of diseases.  

Snub-nosed monkeys also compete with villagers for bamboo shoots. Wei Xingzhi, a volunteer with Yulong county’s wildlife protection association, told NewsChina that in 2020, due to the pandemic villagers had to stay put instead of leaving the village for paid jobs as usual. Many started collecting bamboo shoots. “Five years ago, a kilo of bamboo shoots sold for about 260 yuan (US$40). Now it’s dropped to 100 yuan (US$16) a kilo,” said Chu Xuexian, who lives in Liju.  

The villagers also collect matsutake mushrooms, another food for snub-nosed monkeys. Chu said her sister-in-law and mother go to the mountains looking for matsutake every day. Between July and September, the season for matsutake, every villager who collects regularly earns about 3,000 yuan (US$466) a month, accounting for 40 percent of their family’s annual income.  

Collection of matsutake on Mount Laojun is still not regulated. Cui Liangwei and He Jieshan, directors of Yulong County’s wildlife protection office, believe villagers ought to be able to collect matsutake for a living as it will have little effect on the monkeys. But Xiao Jin, secretary-general for SEE Conservation’s program in Southwest China, is concerned about how quickly the mushroom collection has become commercialized. “In the past, getting into the mountains was difficult, so only hunters collected matsutake. But now people can drive motorized bikes into the mountains and they even bring dogs with them,” Xiao said.  

He Xuegao and his fellow forest rangers

Seeking Substitutes 
Chu Xuexian first left her village in 2017 to find paid work elsewhere. About 400 villagers in Liju do the same, while two-thirds stay to farm. He Jieshan said that after 2000, the county forestry bureau suggested Liju villagers plant fruit-bearing forest like walnuts and plums. “But walnuts didn’t bring us as much money as we expected as the selected variety was not the best,” He Jieshan said. Planting plums did not provide a stable income either due to fluctuating prices.  

“That’s the major problem with developing agricultural products,” He Jieshan said. Villagers rush to plant a certain product when the price is high, but at harvest time, the price drops. Then farmers try other products, and the vicious cycle continues.  

He Ronghua, Party-secretary of Liju Village committee, believes the chief difficulty of improving villagers’ lives lies in the limited area of cultivable land. “If we encourage planting a medicinal herb, planting one or two mu (one mu = 666.7 square meters) per family will not generate the desired scale effect and produce only limited revenue,” he said.  

NGOs are trying to help Liju. Around 2013, an NGO sponsored by SEE started two programs, one focused on planting Gastrodia elata (tianma), a medicinal herb in the orchid family, and the other on beekeeping, but neither was successful. SEE introduced Western-style beehives, while Liju, at a higher altitude with low temperatures, requires smaller and warmer beehives.  

“The problem with many NGOs is they hold meetings and post tweets expressing their expectations and goals, and they think that’s enough. Most of the time the plans go nowhere,” Xiao Jin said.  

In 2015, TNC helped Liju establish a cooperative to help villagers sell agricultural products such as plum juice, white kidney beans, honey and woolen felt handicrafts. TNC also helped them find a shop in the old town of Lijiang to sell their handicrafts. At first, the villagers in the cooperative were enthusiastic and united, making as much as 200,000 yuan (US$31,040) a year. But later, they found some people “only wanted the money without putting any effort in.” Some also questioned the fairness in distributing the income among them. Besides unstable sales channels, the cooperative started to decline, according to Liao Haohong, who is in charge of TNC’s program in Yunnan.  

Liao added it is difficult for more specialty agricultural products to find a big market. He admitted that NGOs are not professional businesses which may handle this type of trade better. “It’s not really possible to entirely substitute the villagers’ traditional means of livelihood in this way. It’s hard even for the government,” Liao said.  

Cui Liangwei believes the government should play the main role in helping villagers develop pragmatic and market-oriented industries. “The government should organize professional teams engaged in exploring long-term and sustainable means for villagers to support themselves. It requires a joint task force from the government, NGOs, enterprises and villagers,” Cui said.  

Around 2001, Long Yongcheng and the local government proposed building a natural reserve around Mount Laojun, but the proposal was rejected. A natural reserve means that many ecological red lines would limit economic development in the area. Besides, it would have required a lot of money from the cash-strapped local government, several interviewed experts and government officials explained.  

Instead, Yunnan established several Western-style national parks, claiming to use 5 percent of the area in exchange for preserving the remaining 95 percent. Laojun Mountain National Park was established in 2008. It was planned to combine the functions of scientific preservation, community development, ecological tourism and nature education. But in fact, since the management body of Laojun Mountain National Park overlaps the county forestry bureau in responsibility but is subordinate, it does not have a substantial effect on protecting the ecosystem. Also, the park’s ecological tourism and nature education programs have not developed well. Since visitor traffic is low, it has not boosted tourism in local areas, including Liju, as they hoped.  

Yang Yuming believes that to really protect Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys, a big national park centered on them should be established to connect three natural reserves for snub-nosed monkeys as well as the habitat on Mount Laojun. “At present, about one-third of the monkeys live outside protected reserves. And if the monkeys migrate outside the boundaries, they’ll be in danger of people,” Yang said.  

“But it will still involve the livelihood of local villagers. It’s important to completely change traditional farming and develop an ecological service industry, exploiting non-consumptive use of forest resources and developing high-end ecological tourism,” he added.  

In building a larger national park, it is necessary to nurture corridors between different monkey troops, Cui Liangwei said. Increased human activity has fragmented the habitats, which could cause geographical isolation. Lack of gene exchange between troops and inbreeding will weaken resistance to disease and eventually lead to extinction. “For better protection in the future, first there should be a suitable living environment. Second, the corridors need to be identified, protected and repaired,” Cui said.  

“The habitat for snub-nosed monkeys should not be an island [isolated from human society]. We should try to structure a space where human beings and nature can coexist in harmony,” Yang Yuming said.