Shaanxi Province, Southwest China: It must have been back in the 1960s when the golden monkeys of China (Rhinopithecus roxellana) first came to my attention. The country was in turmoil from the so-called "Cultural Revolution" and no one was out looking or looking out for monkeys. I was fascinated by these huge, shaggy creatures living not in tropical rain forests like the vast majority of monkeys and apes, but rather in enormous groups of 300 or more in temperate forests located as high as 13,000 feet.
On my first visit to China in 1987, I went to the famed Wolong Reserve but I failed to see them, and a visit to Kunming in Yunnan Province gave me nothing more than a glimpse of the even less known Yunnan snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus bietii), a single captive juvenile that was the only representative of its species in captivity in the world at that time. I might have had an easier time finding a yeti. In 2002, I was finally able to observe wild populations of both species, thanks to CI-China program director Lu Zhi.
Recently, I traveled to Shaanxi Province with members of Disney's Animal Kingdom to film the golden monkey, the region's largest living primate and the country's No. 2 flagship species after the giant panda (Ailuopoda melanoleuca).
We visited a study site that supports the world's only fully habituated troop of golden monkeys. Visitors can get within a few feet of these magnificent animals to film and photograph, and it was a real privilege to see them going through their normal behavioral routines at such close proximity.
I came away feeling there is a strong commitment on the part of authorities to protect the golden monkey over the long term. A large cadre of researchers is devoted to the task, and there is significant international and national support for their conservation. Indeed, on the way into the reserve, we saw dozens of road signs and even huge billboards advertising the presence of these monkeys, and encouraging ecotourism.
Interest in the third and rarest Chinese species, the Guizhou snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus brelichi), seems to be growing as well. But we are very concerned about the future of Vietnam's only Rhinopithecus, the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus avunculus), now down to about 300 animals due to habitat destruction and hunting pressure for food and medicinal purposes.
By employing some of the same methodologies developed by the Chinese to help their golden monkey populations long-term research, ecotourism, a strong commitment to establishing protected areas, and preventing hunting we may be able to succeed in Vietnam as well.