A new report reveals that the Himalayan habitat of a rare species of monkey in Myanmar is threatened by deforestation – and to a lesser degree, its susceptibility to sneezing
The Myanmar snub-nosed monkey has been known to spend rainy days crouching with its head between its knees. Scientists believe this behaviour prevents water from entering the monkey’s exposed nostrils, which causes the monkey to sneeze. If snub-nosed monkeys could read, however, scientists would do well to consider another explanation — that the monkeys got their hands on the latest report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and are depressed by its bleak predictions about their habitat.
The EIA report was published just two weeks before another report, this one by the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), which highlights the 211 new species of plants and animals discovered between 2009 and 2014 in the Himalayan mountain range.
The monkey, which scientists have nicknamed ‘Snubby’, is the only mammal featured in the report, titled ‘The Hidden Himalaya: Asia’s Wonder Land’, which was published on Tuesday. Though only a sliver of Myanmar’s northern Kachin State is part of the Himalayan foothills, that sliver is home to the darling of the new discoveries. Its photo has been featured in nearly every major news story about the report’s publication.
Snubby is not the only major animal discovery in Myanmar over the last six years. The country is also home to the ‘Dracula minnow’ – a tiny fish with elongated fangs at the front of each of its jaws – and a well-camouflaged bird with a high-pitched mating song. However, aside from being a large mammal, Snubby also stands out for its conservation status.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has categorised the monkey as ‘critically endangered’. Fauna and Flora International (FFI), an international conservation group operating in Myanmar, estimates that there are fewer than 300 individual Myanmar snub-nosed monkeys left and that the species will be extinct in 18 years unless a major conservation effort is launched.
Elusive yet threatened
The Myanmar snub-nosed monkey is an elusive creature. Scientists first learned of its existence and behaviour from local communities in Kachin State in 2010, and it has only been scientifically observed within the last five years, by FFI and the People Resources and Conservation Foundation (PRCF). Before that, the rugged terrain and absence of roads in its habitat kept strangers away.
Now, however, Snubby’s fate has become entangled in the drama of Myanmar’s economic development, making it the target of several human and environmental threats.
“The region is currently facing a wide range of threats and pressures, with climate change by far the most serious. Population growth, deforestation, overgrazing, poaching, the wildlife trade, mining, pollution and hydropower development have all contributed to the pressures on the fragile ecosystems in the region,” the report says.
Vulnerable in the rain
Local hunters in Kachin State have said the monkeys are easy to spot in the rain because water easily enters their noses, causing them to sneeze and making them easy prey for people craving bushmeat.
The WWF report says the species is “likely to be classified as critically endangered due to its restricted range and significant hunting pressures.”
The species is also threatened by habitat loss, which is caused in large part by illegal logging. The animals’ loss of habitat restricts it to smaller areas, making them even more vulnerable to hunting.
“[The snub-nosed monkey] likely to be classified as critically endangered due to its restricted range and significant hunting pressures.”
World Wildlife Fund
The EIA report sheds some light on how and why Snubby’s habitat is disappearing. According to the report, Myanmar’s Kachin State and China’s Yunnan Province, which border one another, are the site of “one of the single largest bilateral flows of illegal timber in the world.” This is because law enforcement in both countries is yet to prove itself up to the task of ending it, with some alleging that more than negligence is involved.
Hardwoods such as rosewood and teak from Myanmar’s Kachin State and Sagaing Region are in high demand in China, where local businesses deploy Chinese nationals into Myanmar to harvest the comparatively low-cost materials. Though the Myanmar government issued a log export ban in April 2014 in an effort to slow the rate of deforestation, it has largely been ignored and circumvented through the complex power relations at play in Myanmar’s northernmost areas.
According to the EIA, Chinese loggers can buy logging rights to entire mountains from Myanmar. The loggers pay for logging rights with bars of gold and once the logs enter China, they are effectively legalised as soon as the smugglers pay customs tax.
Rapidly shrinking habitat
Logging, as well as deforestation for agri-business, have accounted for an average loss of 185,000 hectares of forest every years since 2009. As forests near the border disappear, loggers push deeper into Myanmar’s interior. As limited forest resources shrink, so does the habitat of Myanmar’s snub-nosed monkey.
However, now that the monkey is under the radar of conservation groups and is gaining international fame, its future may turn around.
According to Frank Momberg, the Myanmar program director for FFI, the organisation has developed a conservation programme to which local people living near Snubby’s habitat play a crucial role, and it seems to be succeeding.
“[We use] a community-based conservation approach where, through awareness work, we have created pride among the local Lisu and Law Waw people to protect the monkey. Local communities established a core conservation zone. Hunting of Snubby has completely stopped,” Momberg said.
Meanwhile, FFI has worked with Myanmar’s Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (MOECAF) to establish the Imaw Bum National Park, which will to protect Snubby, as well as other threatened species such as the red panda.
According to Momberg, all of the park’s stakeholders have agreed to the park’s establishment and on its boundaries and are awaiting the final approval of the Kachin State government and MOECAF.
“MOECAF legal protection [of the] National Park should enable better law enforcement and the establishment of a patrol force to Chinese loggers effectively,” Momberg said.
Once the greatest threat to the endangered animals of Myanmar’s Himalayan sliver, Snubby’s human neighbours are now proving themselves an asset to their survival.
“The Eastern Himalayas is at a crossroads,” said Sami Tornikoski, head of the WWF Living Himalayas Initiative.
“Governments can decide whether to follow the current path towards fragile economies that do not fully account for environmental impacts, or take an alternative path towards greener, more sustainable economic development.”