Fed-elderberries, a monkey replies with a raspberry

Vietnam Heritage, October-November 2011 -- My fascination with monkeys began in India in 2005. Arriving in Jaipur, in Rajasthan, by train after barely a week in India, I glimpsed my first wild monkey at the top of the station steps looking down at me. Later that same day, I almost jumped out of my skin when a huge monkey leapt down from the roof to snatch some of my food. I was to see hundreds of wild monkeys thereafter, mostly rhesus macaques and the black-faced Hanuman monkeys or common langurs, held sacred by Hindus. Large bands roam free in urban areas and often frequent temples, where they are fed by worshippers.

In Vietnam it is quite a different story. The first monkey I came across here was at a Buddhist pagoda in February 2008. I had gone with a coach-load of Vietnamese Buddhists from Saigon to Nui Ba Den Pagoda (Chùa Bà Đen), which sits atop a tall hill, reached by climbing a couple of hundred steps. At the summit, behind one of the pagodas, there was a large monkey in a very small cage littered with plastic bags. As I looked on, a male visitor began to torment it until I stopped him. I was shocked that Buddhists could do this.
Though an animal lover since childhood, I had in recent years learned much more about the animal realm from Tibetan lamas in Nepal. Compassion for all creatures was emphasised. However, I came to realise that not all Buddhists regard animals in the same way.
A year later, I returned to Vietnam after another visit to India. In Hanoi, near a Chinese pagoda and vegetarian restaurant, I found another lone monkey prisoner. Obviously very disturbed, it was hunched over, sucking on its own penis. 
Later that spring in Danang, where I was working as an English teacher, I spotted a young macaque on a short chain outside a big Chinese restaurant. Several employees were gathered around in a circle. In its eagerness to have our affection, it would leap towards a human and choke on the chain, its little face contorting with pain. One man, who appeared to ‘own’ the monkey, asked if I wanted to buy it for VND300,000. ‘What am I going to do with a monkey?’ I said.
The next day I reported it to ENV (Education for Nature Vietnam, based in Hanoi). Through encountering this organization I had discovered it was illegal to capture, trade or keep wild animals that are protected by Vietnamese law. Such animals are liable to be confiscated by FPD (Forest Protection Department). A week or two later, ENV called me with the perplexing news that FPD officers had been to the restaurant but, ‘There is no monkey.  No one knows anything about a monkey.’
That year I was also teaching at Quang Nam University in Tam Ky, 70km south of Danang. Some of my students took me on an outing one Sunday to Phu Ninh Lake (a dam) and nature reserve. On the edge of the parking lot was a large cage holding an adult male stump-tailed macaque (Macaca arctoides). The concrete floor was filthy with rubbish and plastic bags. The animal periodically shook the bars and bounced off the wire walls which separated it from the surrounding trees. The sight distressed me, but a student, Việt, said, ‘Don’t care about that!’
However, Oanh, a nurse and a Buddhist, took my hand and led me back to the cage. Seeing there was no water, she filled a bottle from a water tank next to the cage, outside the captive’s reach, and held it for the macaque through the bars.  It drank gratefully, until the bottle was empty and then drained a second. A phone call to ENV resulted in quite rapid action. Another friend told me it had been there ‘in solitary’ at least five years.
There is an island in Phu Ninh Lake called ‘Monkey Island’, where monkeys roam free.
  On 22 July 2009, I received an email from ENV: ‘It’s a very good news for wildlife species today when the Quang Nam FPD inspected the Phu Ninh Ecological Tourism Resort and confiscated a stump-tailed macaque. The macaque was saved after the FPD received a tip-off from a foreigner volunteer through the ENV Wildlife Crime Hotline. The macaque is being temporarily held at the FPD office pending transfer to rescue centre or release.’
Then on 29 July: ‘A great news for you and other animal-lovers. The macaque in the Phu Ninh Lake Resort was released into the forest of Song Thanh Nature Reserve in Quang Nam province.’ Oanh and I were elated. 
The following week, Oanh took me to see two more captive macaques she had discovered at Tra Tien, a garden café, by the Tam Ky River. They were in adjacent bare-wire cages, with not even a branch nor food or water, although a stream ran right past them.  When we spoke to the young waitress about the lack of water, she smiled sweetly and gave each of them an ice cube to suck on. Recognising an elder tree, I fed them bunches of the black berries, most of which they stuffed into their cheek pouches, to my surprise, like hamsters.
One was a stump-tailed macaque and the other a yellow pig-tailed macaque (Maccaca leonis).  This one made me chuckle when it turned its rump to me and farted, in a clear gesture of disdain – unaware that I was there to save it from incarceration. It took a few weeks before these were released, apparently because the owner was away and nothing could be done without her presence.
Then a colleague mentioned a monkey in a cage at a restaurant opposite Danang’s Tien Sa port, at the foot of Son Tra mountain. I drove over there, to find it in a bare cage next to a noisy gathering of diners.  Some weeks after reporting this to ENV, the macaque was released back to its local habitat.
These were small triumphs. Other monkeys are not so lucky. Two months ago, an ENV officer, Trang, took me on an investigation of an old ‘case’ in Danang. We drove across town to a café, where a young macaque was kept in a small cage and chained to the bars. All the animal could do was jump up and down, which it did frequently. 
We sat at a table opposite the cage, and stayed just long enough to eat a bowl of noodles. Both of us gave the monkey some apple and some attention and I shot photos and video.  Periodically, it would leap to the top of the cage and rattle the bars with all its might, its entire being screaming, ‘GET ME OUT! GET ME OUT!’
Though ENV had reported this case a year ago, the monkey in the cage was still there, in clear violation of the law. The next day a meeting with the FPD, to review that case with the new photos and video, inexplicably yielded no results. Two months later, to our great frustration (and no doubt that of the macaque), there has been no progress on its release.
In early July a meeting took place with ENV and Environmental Police officers (who cooperate with FPD) from central Vietnam. They said they lacked equipment, a truck and even the know-how to move the primates to a rescue centre. Funds were insufficient as well.
To do it correctly, they need a vet to anesthetize and handle the animals and they mentioned that the only qualified wildlife vet, Dr Ulrike Streicher, is rarely available as she works all over the country. So they must wait till they have enough animals to transport to Cuc Phuong, the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre near Hanoi. But Trang of ENV feels they don’t particularly care about monkeys, as they often see them, whereas a loris is of more interest.
The environmental police officers also say they are unable to identify many species, so they would have to take a sample of fur and send it to Hanoi for DNA testing at a cost of VND20 million (US$1,000).
Dr Streicher’s response: ‘They know they can call me. Even if I cannot go, I always help somehow, but they never call me.’ She pointed out that there are five or six vets in Danang and an animal health centre.  Apparently few skills are needed to confiscate a macaque, if one removes the whole cage; they are very easy to take care of.
All five of Vietnam’s macaque species  are hunted, sometimes for pets or display, as I have seen, but mainly to meet demand from abroad for cosmetic and biomedical research. Here and in China, macaques are also used in traditional medicine. Their bones are boiled to a paste to make monkey-balm wine and their meat and brains are eaten in the belief that eating jungle creatures makes one strong.
A hunter can earn 1.5 million VND ($75) per monkey, so it is a lucrative business.  One hunting method is to dig a large pit and entice bands of 30 to 40 monkeys to fall into the trap.  With this scale of capture, all species are being decimated. Vietnam has 24 or 25 native primates (including macaques, doucs, langurs and gibbons) and almost all of them are endangered or critically endangered, according to Dr Streicher. More monkeys are confiscated from the wildlife trade than any other animal.
Until recently, I had only a vague idea that there were wild monkeys living not far from my home on Son Tra peninsula. Though it is known as ‘Monkey Mountain’ to foreigners, not many people reported having seen any. It was only through visiting the exhibition, ‘Save the Son Tra Douc’ in February this year that I became aware of these fabulous primates that inhabit the mountain, as well as macaques. 
The month-long exhibit was created by Dr Streicher, and her partner, Larry Ulibarri, an American primatologist. Streicher, who is German, has been in Vietnam treating monkeys and other confiscated wild animals for the past 14 years; Ulibarri has been studying the Red-Shanked Douc Langur or ‘voọc vá’ in Vietnamese (Pygathrix nemaeus) on Son Tra for over 15 months. This enigmatic species is native to only central and northern Vietnam and Laos. 
During the American War, the douc habitat was heavily bombed and sprayed with defoliants like Agent Orange and US soldiers used them for target practice. Nowadays, due to complacency and corruption, poaching and habitat loss, the population of the Douc Langur continues to decline. Ulibarri estimates that at least one adult douc per month is disappearing from Son Tra. Ten years ago there were an estimated 700 monkeys there, but only 150 to 180 are left today. Like most of the primates of Vietnam, it is on the IUCN Red List of endangered species.
One Sunday morning in April, I set out for the mountain with Vietnamese friends, in the hope of sighting the elusive Douc. At the summit, there was a large monkey statue. I learnt that there used to be many monkeys here and they had been hunted every day. A boy of 10 or so looked down on to the jungle and said, ‘I wish there were some deer. I would hunt them.’
Trang told me soldiers were good hunters and cooks of wild meat. There were often restaurants near the forest, where soldiers made good money selling their quarry.  Sometimes ex-soldiers became ‘free-rangers’ and continued living in the forest with the rangers to put out forest fires and free animals from traps. 
We wandered along a newly cut forest trail but saw no monkeys.  Later, winding our way down a stretch of coast road, Trang spotted a lone Douc high in a tree, 50m from the road.  At last, after three years in Vietnam, I had seen a monkey in the wild!
Known as the ‘costumed ape’ with a maroon bib, white forearms, black hands and feet, and red ‘stockings’, they are extremely shy, so it is very rare to spot one. We stayed very still. Almond eyes in an orange face framed by white whiskers gazed at us intently for a minute, before the Douc wrapped its long white tail around its grey torso, slowly turned its back on us, and blended into the foliage.
Trang quoted a proverb: ‘Giấu đầu lòi đuôi’ (Hide head, see tail), something that is said of thieves who have left a trail. The Douc’s dangling tail often gives it away, making it an easy target for hunters.
Monetary gain aside, what is this compulsion to curb the freedom  of our wild cousins?
If you see a monkey in a cage or on a chain, please call the ENV hotline: 1800-1522 n

1.Long-tailed or Crab-Eating Macaque (Macaca fascicularis), Pig-Tailed Macaque (Maccaca leonis), Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta), Stump-Tailed Macaque (Macaca arctoides), and the Assamese Macaque (Macaca assamensis)

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