Baby snub-nosed monkey with its parent

Not many will have heard of golden snub-nosed monkeys outside of their native range © Marsel van Oosten

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: the uncertain future of China's primates

This Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning image showcases two beautiful golden snub-nosed monkeys set among the temperate forest in which they live.

They represent the poorly known primate diversity found in China, much of which is silently sliding toward extinction. 

The endangered monkeys, with golden fur framing their blue faces, are little known outside of their native range in the Qinling Mountains of central China.

In addition to its 1.41 billion people, China is also home to a surprising diversity of non-human primates.

Found living across the country's mountains, forests, cities and mangroves, there are 25 species of monkeys and apes native to China, including gibbons, langurs, lorises and macaques.

But many of these species face an uncertain future. Currently 80% of the primate species found within China are thought to be threatened. This means that they are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.

Prof Paul Garber, a primatologist at the University of Illinois, has recently co-authored a paper assessing the conservation status of China's primates.

'Up to 10 of these species have fewer than 500 individuals remaining, while two species of gibbons have fewer than 30 individuals,' says Paul.

'For some of these, the populations have lost much of their genetic diversity and the species are effectively extinct.' 

Two golden snub-nosed monkeys sat on a rock

The Golden Couple by Marsel van Oosten won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2018 Grand Title

The golden snub-nosed monkey is no exception. Even though as many as 22,500 of them are thought to survive in the temperate forests blanketing the mountains on which they live, the populations are highly fragmented.

Threatened by habitat destruction, they have been pushed further and further into the lofty heights of central China. 

Images such as The Golden Couple are helping to highlight the plight of such incredible primates, which are often passed over for more charismatic species.

A hidden diversity

Asia is one of the richest and most diverse places on the planet when it comes to the sheer number of primate species. 

Containing roughly 20% of all known primate species, this amazing diversity of monkeys and apes is largely a result of the huge assortment of habitats found on the continent, coupled with the thousands of islands scattered across the ocean.

Prof Helen Chatterjee, who has studied the speciation of primates in southeast Asia at University College London, says, 'Asia is a very active area and has been for a long time.

'The region has three major plates converging which has led to a lot of tectonic activity for over the last 20 million years. This created a whole range of quite dynamic environments forming lots of suitable habitats that has led to a proliferation of primates.' 

Hills covered in rainforests

The dynamic geological history of China has resulted in a huge variety of habitats helping to drive speciation © Valery Bocman/Shutterstock

This has resulted in species adapted to tropical rainforests, coastal mangroves, temperate forests and even mountains covered by snow for half the year.

As human populations expand, the need for more land and space grows with it, and people are encroaching into all of these environments. The main outcome of this is that many species of monkeys and apes are being pushed closer to the edge of extinction.

But evidence suggests that this phenomenon is not entirely new.

The current wealth and variety of primates is thought to be only a shadow of the diversity that once existed in Asia just a few thousand years ago. 

Historic declines

Several dynasties ago, at the same time the Roman Empire was dominating Europe, communities were often still based around small homesteads and villages. In the productive river basins and mountains of eastern Asia entire cities were flourishing, bustling with millions of people.

Then, as now, these thriving epicentres of human activity had major impacts on the environment.

The first species of primate that is known to have gone extinct as a direct result of human activity is the gibbon Junzi imperialis, the bones of which were only recently discovered in an ancient tomb in China.

Dr Samuel Turvey, from the Institute of Zoology at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), says, 'Our discovery and description of Junzi imperialis suggests that we are underestimating the impact of humans on primate diversity.'

This is likely only a part of the story of extinctions to have swept the region. Fossil remains in the humid tropics are scant, but there are other ways to delve into the past. 

Oragutan hanging from a branch

Today orangutans are confined to Borneo and Sumatra, but they used to live right across southern Asia as recently as the Pleistocene. It is now looking likely they will be pushed out of their remaining habitat by human activity © 

'We know that there were primates throughout much of China in the past,' explains Paul. 'China is unique in a way because there are dynastic records, political records and poems dating back 2,000 years which can still be read by the modern Chinese that actually show the distribution of primates.

'For example, the literature also shows that snub-nosed monkeys were much more widely distributed in the past.'

This can be combined with where primates are currently found to hint at the past situation.

Today five species of snub-nosed monkeys are found scattered in pockets across eastern Asia. Based on the ecology of the surviving species and the environments in which they live, they were most probably once found across much of the land connecting these groups.

It is suggested that they are only currently confined to remote patches of forests because populations that once roamed across the entire region, including now-extinct species, were snuffed out of existence as human activity spread.

Female gibbon holding her infant

There is only a few dozen Hainan gibbons left in a single forest patch in Bawangling National Nature Reserve on Hainan Island © Jessica Bryant/ZSL

A call for conservation

Unfortunately, this decline of native monkeys and apes has not stopped.

In Asia is it understood that 95% of primate populations are either declining or there is insufficient data to accurately assess them. This includes the striking snub-nosed monkeys as well as some of the rarest mammals on the planet. 

It is thought that only 26 Hainan gibbons survive on a small island off the coast of southern China, with only six breeding females remaining. While this population is actually increasing due to the efforts of ZSL, the forest in which they live is still being cut down. 

Habitat destruction is one of the biggest drivers for the decline of primates in China.

The last century has seen unprecedented change in the country. Within the last two decades alone it is thought that at least two species of gibbon and a species of langur have already been extirpated.    

Almost all species now exist in a fragmented landscape, as agriculture, infrastructure and industry has rippled across the country. With human populations continuing to grow this effect is only expected to intensify. 

As populations expand the amount of land needed to feed them also grows, often pushing wildlife out as a result © amenic181/Shutterstock

But this doesn't mean that the trend has to continue. 'Things can be done,' says Paul, 'but they need to be acted on immediately.

'China has an outstanding set of scientists and human capital that can make a difference.'

There needs to be an active programme of restoring China's native forests, suggests Paul. As most species now live in sub-populations, the creation of habitat corridors is vital to join them together and allow genes to flow once more.

This is certainly true for the golden snub-nosed monkeys as they exist in dispersed populations.

'Planting will help when looking at the future, but it is not going to help in the short and medium term,' says Helen. 'You need a local, regional, and international approach. 

'It is all about coordination between all these stakeholders to create conservation action plans. It's about everyone taking ownership of the problem and then working together to prevent further loss.'

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