Science & Health
Posted on Tue, Mar. 04, 2003
A crusade to save a rare species
By Ben Stocking
Mercury News Vietnam Bureau
CAT BA ISLAND, Vietnam - Residents of
this spectacular-but-impoverished island
don't want to be known as the people
who killed off one of the world's rarest
monkeys. They also don't want to
strangle their suddenly booming tourist
They believe the Cat Ba langur and the
Cat Ba tourist can coexist, maybe even
become fast friends. But Rosi Stenke,
the field biologist who is devoting her life
to saving the langurs, believes they are
more likely to end up on the dinner
plates of tourists who think eating wild
game is a status symbol.
If the langurs are wiped out, they will be
only the second monkey species to
disappear from the face of the Earth in
nearly three centuries -- a dubious
distinction for an island trying to market
itself as a vacation paradise.
Cat Ba officials will proudly tell you that
25 new hotels are being erected in town
at once, and incomes are rising with them. But Stenke wishes they would slow the
construction -- or stop it altogether.
She has come all the way from Munich, Germany, to wage a battle of conservation vs.
development that is taking place in various corners of Vietnam, where rare species of
wildlife must compete for habitat in a nation crammed with people.
``Vietnam has some extraordinary biodiversity, but the level of threats is tremendous,''
said Craig Leisher, program adviser for WWF Indochina, the largest environmental
organization in Southeast Asia. ``This is a country with 80 million people living in an area
the size of New Mexico. There are very few areas left for wildlife.''
Several species that have lived in Vietnam for centuries are on the brink of oblivion. The
nation's population of Javan rhinos -- the world's rarest large mammal -- has dwindled to
about six. The Indochinese tiger now numbers fewer than 50 in Vietnam, the Asian
elephant fewer than 100. The Black gibbon, the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey and the Ha
Tinh langur are all perilously close to extinction.
And the Cat Ba langur, which numbered more than 2,500 just 40 years ago, is down to 50
or so, with the population falling by roughly half in just the past three years. The species
could soon disappear. But there are just enough animals left that they could still be saved
-- if Stenke and her allies play their cards right.
Stenke's work is sponsored by the Munich-based Zoological Society for the Conservation
of Species and Populations and the Munster Zoo in northern Germany. Her job requires
that she live like a monk among the monkeys, cut off from anyone who understands her
or her culture. She must confront gun-wielding poachers who have been known to
pummel and stab the rangers with whom she works. And she must persuade Vietnamese
people who have endured war and poverty for generations that economic development
isn't always a good thing.
It is lonely, difficult work.
``I often ask myself what might possibly be wrong with me, to live in complete isolation
on a small island, working seven days a week for a low salary,'' said Stenke, 41, who puts
in 12-hour days and sleeps in her small office at the Cat Ba National Park.
Some of the locals -- and some of her environmentalist peers -- think that Stenke's
no-growth philosophy is unrealistic in a town that craves a higher standard of living.
``She doesn't want any development at all on the island,'' said Pham Xuan Hoe, vice
chairman of the Cat Ba People's Committee. ``We've been trying to persuade her that
we still need to develop tourism.''
Tourists drawn to area
Stenke and the langurs live in one of the most spectacular corners of Vietnam, in a
limestone archipelago with lush jungles and dramatic seaside cliffs that draw thousands
of tourists every year. And the local government wants those tourists to keep coming.
These days, Cat Ba town, a small commercial center nestled alongside a bustling harbor,
feels like one massive construction site, with piles of bricks and cement on virtually every
corner and the clang of hammers echoing off surrounding limestone peaks.
``We are still encouraging more investors to come to the island to build luxury hotels,''
said Hoe of the People's Committee. He notes proudly that one of the hotels will be 17
At night, the sound of hammers is replaced by thumping techno music that pulsates from
two new discos. On a hill above shines a red neon monument to Ho Chi Minh, founder of
Vietnam's ruling Communist Party, which, in its modern incarnation, speaks the same
language of commerce in which Cat Ba has become fluent.
A new road is under construction that will link the town to a small village on the northern
edge of the island. From there, Cat Ba will be connected via ferry to another popular
tourist destination, Ha Long Bay.
For Stenke, the road is too close for comfort. It runs just along the western border of the
park, and it will soon be filled with busloads of tourists -- some of whom, she fears, might
encourage more illegal hunting of langurs.
She fears that some tourists, in their quest for status, might want to eat the monkeys,
even though their meat smells ghastly. ``We buy a BMW. They go to eat exotic meals,''
And many Asian men regard a special balm made from the langurs as a sort of natural
A hunter can earn up to $50 from a single monkey, not a bad take in a place where
annual per capita income is less than $350, significantly less than the national average.
To prevent the langurs from landing in a kettle or being turned into an aphrodisiac,
Stenke has undertaken a public-awareness campaign and recruited teams of unarmed
langur ``bodyguards'' who comb Cat Ba for poachers.
The hunters regard the park rangers as a direct threat to their livelihood. And they
sometimes try to intimidate them with violence. A ranger's tooth was knocked out by
club-wielding hunters, Stenke said, and several have been stabbed.
The violence started shortly after the national park was established in 1986, Stenke said.
By the 1990s, the rangers had become too frightened, and hunters plied their trade with
Stenke came to Cat Ba in December 2000. In the nine months before she arrived,
poachers killed 30 langurs, she said. They have killed just three since.
The remaining langurs live in six isolated areas in small groups of two to six monkeys.
Two of those groups have only females, and one group with a male hasn't reproduced for
six years. Two groups recently had babies. But langur groups traditionally have just one
male. ``If they shoot the males, that's it,'' Stenke says.
With long black tails, white rumps and fur rising in a peak on their heads, the langurs look
as though they are wearing yellow wool ski caps. They live on the sides of Cat Ba's
glorious mountains, eating a vegetarian diet of shrubs and sleeping in caves high up the
Finding them isn't easy, but a determined hunter can do it if he devotes two to four
``The hunters are professionals,'' says Stenke, who wears wire-rimmed glasses and
camouflage pants. ``You wouldn't believe how they can climb.''
Not many hunters are willing to invest the time it takes to track a langur these days, so
more often than not, the animals are captured by chance by people hunting other illegal
prey, Stenke said. ``The langur is there. The gun is also there. Bang!''
Tracking down hunters
Sometimes Stenke discovers hunting camps in the park. ``Whatever we find, we cut it
into pieces and burn it,'' she says, smiling.
Stenke has organized several public meetings to enlighten local officials and villagers,
many of whom didn't know the langur species existed only on Cat Ba and was nearly
extinct. She has persuaded the local government to designate part of the island outside
the national park as protected habitat.
She has even recruited a few former hunters such as Vu Huu Tinh to join her crusade.
Tinh, the vice mayor of Gia Luan village, says he has killed too many langurs to count:
``We'd eat them. They tasted awful, but when you put shrimp sauce on them, they
would taste good.''
He is now the proud chief of Gia Luan's Forest Protection Group and leader of its Langur
America's war in Vietnam contributed greatly to the Cat Ba langur's demise, said Tinh,
who remembers U.S. bombs dropping on Cat Ba, one of which almost killed him. Money
and food were scarce in those days, Tinh said, but guns were abundant. ``The local
people were very hungry. They had to go to the jungle to get something to eat,'' he said.
When a species is as close to extinction as the langur, biologists often turn to captive
breeding programs to try to boost the creature's numbers. Stenke favors trying to set up
captive breeding on Cat Ba. But for a variety of complicated reasons, the national
government opposes this idea, preferring to let langurs live in natural conditions as long
Stenke thinks it is still conceivable that the langurs could survive, without captive
breeding. This would require strict vigilance to prevent poaching and, in her opinion, very
strict limits on development.
She is also trying to take steps to encourage geographically isolated langur subgroups to
find one another, so that those with no males could match up with subgroups that do
Stenke has also created local intelligence networks, with informants telling her who the
hunters are and when they intend to hunt. But it's still hard to distinguish her friends from
her foes. Everyone in town seems to speak the language of conservation these days, but
sometimes they are simply telling Stenke what they think she wants to hear.
For his part, the vice chairman of the Cat Ba People's Committee has developed the
vocabulary of an Audubon Society chairman, touting the need to protect the island's
biodiversity. He acknowledges that Cat Ba officials didn't try hard enough to protect the
langurs before ``Rosi the German'' showed up. No more.
``We really place a high priority on conserving the environment,'' Hoe said. ``We need
to strike the right balance between development and conservation.''
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Contact Ben Stocking at [email protected]
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