Scientists at the Kunming Institute of Zoology have discovered the world’s fifth species of snub-nosed monkey in China’s Nu River Valley. More widely known as the Myanmar Snub-nosed Monkey since it was first discovered in northeast Burma, this rare species has been dubbed the “Nu River snub-nosed monkey” in Chinese by scientists, who confirmed their relation to the Burmese species through a DNA analysis of their excrement collected near the Nu River in Yunnan province in March 2012. Forest guards in the Gaoligong Mountains nature preserve were also able to take pictures of a group of 60 to 80.
The species was first discovered by the Fauna & Flora International in early 2010 and was given the Latin name Rhinopithecus strykeri on October 27, 2010. Among its defining characteristics are its black fur, white face and chest, and a propensity to sneeze when it rains. It is the world’s fifth subspecies of the snub-nosed monkey. China is now home to four species of snub-nosed monkeys: the Sichuan golden hair monkey (or Golden snub-nosed monkey), the Black (or Yunnan) snub-nosed monkey, the Gray (or Guizhou) snub-nosed monkey, and now the Myanmar (or Nujiang) snub-nosed monkey. The fifth species, the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, is endemic to northwest Vietnam.
Only 300 individuals left
It is estimated that the newly discovered Yunnan population consists of only 50 to 100 members. Overall, scientists estimate that fewer than 300 individuals of the species exists, which more than qualifies them to be red-listed by the IUCN as a critically endangered species. The four previously known species of snub-nosed monkeys are all endangered or critically endangered.
Ironically, the only specimens known to science were secured from hunters, who are the primary threat to the continued existence of the species. It lives in mountainous terrain in stands of cool or mixed temperate rain forests. It reportedly migrates from higher elevations to lower as winter temperatures and snow settle in.
Besides hunters, the habitats of the snub-nosed monkey are threatened by logging, road construction, and other intrusive human activities. While nature reserves protect many of its natural habitats, they have not entirely dissuaded both public and private enterprises from developing in this fragile region. Unapproved site preparation for several dams on the Nu River, for instance, are moving forward despite being located near a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dam building leads to road construction that can open up other developments, while local communities may find themselves relocated either to far away towns or higher elevations. These additional human activities will increase the pressure on protected areas and rare species.
Crisis becomes opportunity for monkeys and people?
According to Dr. Long Yongcheng, chief scientist at the China division of The Nature Conservancy and head of its primates expert team, the entire family of snub-nosed monkeys has been at the brink of extinction.“Biodiversity serves important ecological functions…Any species extinction will affect the ecological balance and imbalance of a system, as well as impact all living organisms, including humans.”[Unofficial translation.]
However, this crisis also represents an opportunity. It highlights the need for cross-border collaborative research and exploration of these wild and remote regions, in order to understand the intrinsic value of these ecosystems that are shared by two countries. In a recent interview, Dr. Long told the reporter that he hopes the discovery of this new species of snub-nosed monkey will encourage China and Burma to strengthen their cooperation over biodiversity conservation along the border. In this largely untouched region of the world, where developers have cast their sights on its natural resources, such cooperation may be the only thing that saves this new species from extinction.