1 May 2015   |   Places

Monkeying Around on Halong Bay

If you’ve cruised the islands of Halong Bay, and stopped at one of the limestone islets, there’s a very good chance you’ve encountered a wild primate. What kind of monkey was that, clambering over the limestone rocks, and harassing passengers for hand-outs?

That monkey is a macaque. Now, I don’t mean to downplay anyone’s enthusiasm for an encounter with this primate, but of all the monkeys in Vietnam, this one is the least interesting. Monkey Island in Cat Ba is populated by macaques introduced for tourism.

Disappointed? Perhaps, and we’re sorry your encounter with the macaques isn’t anything to text home about. But here’s some better news from Jeremy Parker, Programme Officer at Fauna & Flora International, whom I met over a glass of wine in Hanoi recently. 

"Vietnam is one of the most important places on earth for primates, with at least 24 species, many of which occur only in Vietnam. It is also one of the worst places to be a primate, as Vietnam holds 5 of the top 25 most threatened primates species globally.” 

There are seven critically endangered primates in Vietnam: the western black-crested gibbon, the cao vit gibbon, the northern white-cheeked gibbon, the gray-shanked douc, the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, Delacour’s langur, and the Cat Ba langur, also known as the golden-headed langur. It is this langur that has a connection to Halong Bay, for the only population of these langurs in the world is living on Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is the biggest island you’ll see as you voyage through Halong Bay.

There are fewer than 60 of these primates left in the world, and all of them live on the edge of Halong Bay. Unlike the aggressive macaque, the langur is a gentle soul, living on leaves, flowers and fruits in the national park . Can you spot one from the deck of your cruising vessel? Perhaps, but it’s not likely.

“Most of the langurs live in a strictly protected zone of the National Park that’s off limits to visits,” said Rick Passaro, project manager of the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project, which is based on Cat Ba Island. 

“A few groups of these primates can sometimes be seen near Ben Beo harbour if you know when and where to look,” said Jeremy. So there is hope for the casual visitor yet. 

Hunting pressures have have had a devastating impact on this species. As recently as the 1960s there may have been as many as 2,400-2,700 langurs on Cat Ba Island. Only through conservation efforts by the Cat Ba Conservation Project and Fauna & Flora International has the species been saved from complete extinction.  

Conservationists are really interested in the survival of this monkey.

“In esoteric or metaphysical terms, these things have evolved over many years, and they are kind of mystical. These are creatures have been entrusted to the world, and they’re disappearing,” said Jeremy. “If you believe in a better world for tomorrow, these flagship species are extremely important. Primates are us. When you look at a primate, you feel something. If you have children, you’d want them to see them.”

“All animal species are important in the web of life,” said Rick, “and it is our job as scientists to determine just what that role may be.”