AUDIENCE WITH THE PIED SNUB-NOSED MONKEY: FOREST ELF OF YUNNAN AND TIBET

In the 1990s, CERS started support and funding for scientific research on the Pied Snub-nosed Monkey, also known as the Yunnan Golden Monkey. This rare species lives only in the high mountains that rise between the upper Mekong River and the upper Yangtze in northwestern Yunnan and southeastern Tibet. Research work had been extremely difficult, as these monkeys live on steep slopes at high elevations, at times ranging above 4,000 meters above sea level. Today, the monkeys are well-protected and can be regularly seen above the CERS Lisu Cultural Village at Xiangguqing.

The Pied Snub-nosed Monkey is also known as the Yunnan Golden Monkey, not because it is golden, but because it is related to the Sichuan Golden Monkey, which does have bright yellow hair. These two species are among the 5 species of snub-nosed monkeys, which all share the colorful scientific name of Rhinopithecus, meaning ‘nose monkey’ in Greek. All five species occur in China, and all are threatened with extinction.

As late as the 1980’s, little was known about the snub-nosed monkeys. In fact, there was still confusion about how many species there were and where they were distributed. Nothing was known about their ecology and behavior. In 1989, two research projects on golden monkeys started almost simultaneously. A team including Craig Kirkpatrick, Long Yongcheng and two young local rangers, Xiao Li and Zongtai, began a long-term study of the Yunnan species in Baima Snow Mountain Nature Reserve. Soon afterwards, Bill Bleisch joined a team from Fanjingshan Nature Reserve and the Guizhou Normal University to begin a three-year research project on the Grey Snub-nosed Monkey, a rare species found only on the sacred Buddhist mountain Fanjingshan.

These studies discovered that snub-nosed monkeys were unlike any monkey studied up to that point. They live at very high elevations, up to 4,700 meters above sea level in the case of the Yunnan species, in climates too cold for other monkeys. They travel up and down the mountain slopes in enormous bands of up to 300 individuals. Within these bands, however, are many smaller family groups, each with one male and one to four adult females plus their offspring. In addition to these “one-male groups,” bachelor males travel together with the band in “all-male groups.” At times, the bachelor males seem to be tracking the one-male groups, as if impatiently waiting for an opportunity to oust the lucky males and take over their females.

Even at the end of these research projects, studying snub-nosed monkeys was extremely difficult. As Dr. Bleisch recounts, “Each month, we would spend up to a week searching the mountains forests for the monkeys. Once we found them, we would travel with them each day all day for five consecutive days, running up and down the ridges and valleys to keep up with the monkeys, who could easily jump from tree to tree. It was exhausting.”

At one point around 2001, we heard that one particular group of Yunnan monkeys living in the Baima Snow Mountains near some Lisu hill tribe in Xiangguqing were much easier to get close to, and not totally afraid of people. In early 2003, CERS went to the Baima Snow Mountains to track down the story. After some trouble, our team managed to find the group of monkeys, which indeed were easy to approach, roaming freely at lower altitudes of between 2,700 to 3,500 meters.

Today, the situation of the Pied Snub-nosed Monkey is much improved. Recent surveys indicate that more than 2,000 individuals still roam in the natural forests. Zongtai has become the Directors of the Baima Snow Mountain Nature Reserve here, and they give great attention to the conservation of the monkeys. The monkey group at Xiangguqing has now become the star attraction of a national park, and hundreds of visitors come each year to have their own audience with the moneys.