Endangered Primates on Cat Ba Island

The time passes quickly and there is far less time to write personal things then I thought there would be, and so, so much to write about.  I’m sure people would love to know about the amazing array of colorful butterflies and other insects, the brilliant sunsets, the stunning plant diversity, or the stark landscape, but what people are probably most interested in is the langurs.

What are langurs?  This is a question I am often asked.  In the most simple terms, they are a family of Old World leaf eating monkeys in the family Cercopithecidae, with long hands, minimal thumbs, and long, flexible tails used for balance in their acrobatic lives.  The Cat Ba Langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus poliocephalus) is a highly endangered species of langur found only on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam, a species often confused with, but very distinct from the closely related White-Headed Langur that is found in Guanxi, China.

The Cat Ba Langur has the dubious distinction of regularly being included as one of the top 25 most endangered primates in the world.  This is not a distinction of honor, it is much like being classified as a survivor of genocide  or a citizen of a repressive dictatorial regime.  By endangered I do not mean that there are only a few hundred left, I mean truly, desperately endangered, as in only a small handful left.

There are less than 60 remaining 70 (as of mid-2015) in the wild and only 5 in captivity.

Approximately 16 percent of the total global population of this species is represented in this photo.

Approximately 16 percent of the total global population of the species is represented in this photo.

It is my privilege to be working with this species, in conjunction with a number of remarkable people representing a diverse array of organizations, to keep these animals from going extinct.  This is no easy task, one during which I learn new things every day and must adjust my preconceptions on a regular basis.

From my previous post you, gentle reader, have an idea of the rugged nature of Cat Ba Island, a land of sheer cliffs, wickedly sharp limestone, and convoluted shoreline.

A fjord within the langur sanctuary on Cat Ba Island

A fjord within the langur sanctuary on Cat Ba Island

My work has a strong political component and winds up being largely logistical and administrative, but I am fortunate enough to head-up a small organization where I do get to take part in field-work on a semi-regular basis.  All of our activities are focused on langur conservation, no matter how separate those activities may feel at any given time.  This is both a relief and a pleasure as the region is spectacularly beautiful and the local folks I work with have the souls of gentle and generous giants.

Langurs, as a group, are not large monkeys; the Cat Ba Langur has a body about the size of a small child, but with long limbs and an expressive tail longer than the monkey’s body.  Their expressions are surprisingly deep and soulful, as though they are pondering something we humans have lost sight of, yet are aware of and amused by the conceit of doing so.

Adult langur resting in a tree

Adult langur resting in a tree

The adults are black with white/yellow heads, gray suspender-like lines on their flanks, and wonderful punk-rock hairdos.  The breeding groups are female dominated and small, the largest one being about 16 individuals.  There tends to be one reproducing male per group that is often a little separate from the larger body, keeping watch, and the like.  Females share child-rearing duties, sometimes carrying young of other females, and all members are often in close physical proximity.

Their calls are a mixture of chirps, hoots, coughs, and an amazing deep growling ratchet that echoes from the cliffs and sounds as though it comes from something the size of an overweight gorilla.  I have not managed to record the sound yet, or I would post a copy of it as it really is astounding.

The young are a brilliant orange/gold color when born, a color that slowly fades as they age and provides pretty much the only visually obvious way of determining age for the individuals.  Their markings are so uniform that is is impossible to tell individuals of the same age apart unless one has an obvious injury, which few, fortunately, do.

Infant Cat Ba Langur showing brilliant gold color.

Infant Cat Ba Langur showing brilliant gold color

As the animals age they slowly lose the gold color, starting at at the mid-point in their limbs.  The young remain playful well into adulthood, probably a survival characteristic as play has been demonstrated to be a necessary part of physical and social development.

Langur Cua Dong infant adult sm wtr 215

Monkeys in general and langurs especially have long been recognized as being stunningly agile, highlighting the importance of the physical benefits of extended play time during periods of physical development.  Those of you familiar with Indian mythology will remember the character Hanuman, one of the heroes of the Ramayana (shameless plug:  William Buck’s Ramayana retelling is fantastic reading).  In this tale Hanuman, the Monkey King, Son of the Wind is a god-like figure adept, wise, and agile, embodied with great physical and moral strength, the ability to fly, and one of the most likable, playful , and morally unambiguous characters of this set of nested tales.  Hanuman is thought to be a Gray Langur (aka. Hanuman Langur – Semnopithecus entellus), an agile species bearing a robust beard most mountain-men would be jealous of.

On the landscape of Cat Ba the importance of physical agility absolutely cannot be understated.  Stanley Kubrick once stated, ” The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent.”  The landscape of Cat Ba is indifferent with a vengeance, in a way that belies the rich tropical vegetation.  Under and frequently poking through that green blanket of life is a landscape of razor-blades that, when the vegetation is stripped away, appears to come from the post-apocalyptic imagination of a science-fiction writer.  This is home to the Cat Ba Langur; the same landscape we humans struggle to navigate while doing field-work the langurs treat with the same casual approach that we treat a trip to the mailbox.

Langur parkour

Langur parkour

What will happen to this species is far from settled and depends heavily on far more than our work.  It depends on the education, support, and involvement of a far larger society.  If any of you feel the drive to support the conservation of a beautiful and heart-rendingly rare species please take up arms.  It doesn’t need to be this particular one, the world is, unfortunately, full of non-human species of all kingdoms that would benefit from your support.  Some are photogenic species such as this langur, others are innocuous plants or insects.  Some are found in exotic locations like this limestone island in northern Vietnam, others may literally be in your backyard.

These primates have suffered a 98 percent population crash as a result of hunting for traditional medicines, habitat destruction, and several other pressures.  There were never very many, we cannot speculate about their peak numbers, but during the 1960s there were between 2500 and 2700 on the island.  When our project started in 2000 there between 40 and 53 left alive in the world (surveys are difficult on the island and early surveys relied heavily on local people’s statements).  Very little is known about this species and we are desperately trying to increase that body of knowledge as we do our conservation work.  Fundamental questions are still unanswered and the challenges of field-work in this environment impose severe limitations on many traditional methods of study.

For those of you who feel compelled to support our project, we welcome you: our project is the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project (please excuse how out of date the website is, our attention has been focused on more pressing concerns) and I can be reached at the following address: neahga.leonard@catbalangur.de

If you are visiting Cat Ba, come say hello.

Juvenile Cat Ba Langur portrait

Juvenile Cat Ba Langur portrait

A New Job, a New Voyage, An Endangered Species

The rain has finally come to California, bringing with it the promise of new growth and greenery.  As it rains outside the window I am inside,  surrounded by loosely organized piles of clothes, books, outdoor gear, and laptop peripherals attempting to fit my life into two 20kg bags.  Before I go I need to take care of all those technological tasks our life is filled with as well, back up my computers, transfer my iPhone and iPad to a different computer (Apple, you really need to make that easier to do), and do the final run-through on what I am taking with me.  Despite all this, my mind is only partially on the task at hand.

Several weeks ago I was offered a position working on primate conservation in northern Vietnam and my mind is on the location, the people I will be working with, and the upcoming tasks.

The Gulf of Tonkin - NASA image

Northern Vietnam, Southern China, and the Gulf of Tonkin – NASA image

This is exciting, not in the least because Vietnam, like much of South East Asia, (and Southern China) lies firmly in one of the great biodiversity hotspots of the world.  Northern Vietnam is on the edge of Sundaland, a name for the vast expanse of what used to be land connecting the Southeast Asian mainland to Borneo and the Indonesian islands, now mainly under water and expressed as the Sunda Shelf.  During the last ice age this is thought to have been a broad grassland spotted with mountain forests and laced with broad rivers.  For nearly 100,000 years plants and animals moved back and forth across this landscape, becoming wide-spread and subsequently isolated as the rising seas flooded the lowlands, leaving the complex arrangement of islands and peninsulas we now see.

This exposure and inundation of land in this part of the world has been taking place for a long time.  This combined with the vigorous tectonic activity of the region has led to a wonderfully complex region topographically, and subsequently (or in conjunction) biologically.

Sundaland showing current and proposed past rivers

Sundaland showing current and proposed past rivers (source)

This submerged region is now thought to be the cradle of the Asian population, the “Out of Sundaland Theory”, although there is a competing “Out of Taiwan Theory” as well.  Where I will be working is only loosely in former Sundaland, a melding point between Sundaland and the complex geography of Southern China and Northern Laos.  In any event hominids, and later humans have been exploring and living in South East Asia for a long time, and that span of time has allowed tremendous cultural and linguistic complexity to develop as well.  This is one of the places that our most successful and long-lived hominid ancestors, Homo erectus, lived.

I will be on the edge of this region, just off the coast of northern Vietnam, on the northern margin of the Red River delta not too far from the Chinese border.  The location is Ha Long Bay, a dramatic karst landscape that is both mature and submerged.  The ingredients for a karst landscape are limestone and time, lots of both.  In some parts of the world the only signifying features of kart landscapes are rich soils (lots of cations) and , if it is wet, periodic sinkholes.  Where water is in abundance caves are common, as groundwater is often mildly acidic which erodes the limestone.  Over time continued erosion wears down the limestone bedrock to such a great degree that all that is left are startlingly steep sided hills, separated by flat valleys.  This is a mature karst landscape.  In Sundaland some of these mature karst regions were flooded when the sea level rose resulting in a dream-like landscape that looks like something Hayao Miyazaki would imagine if he were to direct a pirate movie.

Ha Long Bay mature submerged karst landscape (source)

Places like Ha Long Bay are excellent examples of island biogeography.  Islands are often home to endemic species, the tortoises and finches on the Galapagos Islands are the classic example of this, made famous by Darwin.  Animals and plants that make their way to an island, or are trapped by rising seas or continental drift become isolated and diverge from their ancestors.  This is the essence of island biogeography and the recognition of how finch beaks on the Galapagos changed in response to the limited food sources available on the islands helped Darwin to recognize how evolution takes place.  My personal hero in the tale of evolution, Wallace, worked in the submerged island remnants of Sundaland and experienced the same insights as Darwin.  Ha Long Bay is a small area, but has its own endemic species, many of them we probably know little to nothing about.

One we do know of is the Cat Ba Langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus poliocephalus), a dark haired leaf eating monkey with white heads and brilliant golden furred babies.  They are found only on Cat Ba Island, one of the largest islands in the Ha Long Bay, and are critically endangered.  Critically is an understatement, there are less than a hundred of these primates alive in the world.  And. That. Is. All. There. Are.

Cat Ba Langur on limestone cliffs. [EDIT – the photo I previously had here was of the closely related White-Headed Langur – it was mislabeled as a Cat Ba Langue at the source I found it]

In 25 hours I get on a flight to Hanoi to take part in an effort to both keep these primates from going extinct and to conserve the biodiversity of the island.  There are a lot of moving parts in the project, many partners at all levels, and only a few of us on the ground to keep everything running smoothly.

I’m excited, eager, and somewhat intimated.  I leave tomorrow.

California Condors, Megafauna, and Trophic Cascades

A long time ago I worked as an archaeologist near Santa Barbara.  I spent most of my days in the field excavating Chumash sites, recording evidence of looting, drawing maps, and hunting for unknown sites.  It was a fun job, I learned a lot, and it was my first exposure to California Condors.

The Chumash left behind a repository of exquisite petroglyphs, painted and carved into the soft sandstone that makes up much of the Transverse Range, an east-west oriented set of coastal Southern California mountains.  One of my jobs was to preserve this rock-art.  In the dust that makes up the floor of the caves and shelters the art is painted lives a bacteria that eats the organic pigments in the paint used by the Chumash.  Visitors would unwittingly kick up the dust, spreading the bacteria and speeding up the degradation of the rock art.  At several sites we paved the floor with stones to trap the dust.  One of these sites was Condor Cave in the San Rafael Wilderness; I’m sure you can guess how it came by that name.

Condor art at Condor Cave – from http://www.parks.ca.gov

It wasn’t until several years later I when was backpacking in the Ventana Wilderness with a friend that I saw my first wild California Condor.  We stopped and sat, mesmerized, watching five large birds swoop and soar around us.  Of course my camera was acting up at the time and the only photos I got were pathetic to say the best.  The experience stuck with me, all the more so because I had been studying anthropology and repercussions of the North American megafauna extinctions.  

About a week ago I was driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles along HWY 1.  It was one of those spectacular California days where the coast is shrouded by pockets of thick fog broken by regions of bright sunlight and the Pacific Ocean lives up to its name lying tranquil in its bed.

Sun, fog, and kelp-beds along the coast between Morro Bay and Big Sur

Sun, fog, and kelp-beds along the coast between Morro Bay and Big Sur

This stretch of road is made up entirely of corners and as I rounded one I saw a pocket of people pulled over in a turn-out looking up at something on the hill-side.   I caught a glimpse of a large bird on the slope, pulled over at the next turn-out, grabbed my camera, and jogged back to find a very calm California Condor sunning itself in the late afternoon light.

California Condor soaking up the last of the sunlight

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) soaking up the last of the sunlight

The California Condors are in rough shape.   DDT, hunting by mis-informed ranchers who believe that condors killed calves, egg collecting, habitat loss, and lead-poisoning are all implicated in modern times for the low numbers of  the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus).   Additionally, these long-lived birds have small clutch sizes (few eggs per breeding cycle) and reproduce extremely slowly; so slowly that a 1996 study by the Fish and Wildlife department found that it would take 1800 years at the current population growth rate of 1.0003 to achieve a stable wild population of 150 individuals.  This low population growth rate is part of why there is a captive breeding program.

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) in the Los Padres National Forest

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) in the Los Padres National Forest

In historic times the California Condor ranged from British Columbia to Baja, but during the 19th century its range was rapidly diminished to include only California.  Through captive breeding and release strategies the range has been re-expanded and now includes Arizona, northern Mexico, and a little of Utah, in addition to California.  These birds have what is known as a “relict distribution”, that is, they occupy only a fragment of their former range.

California Condor range map - from: IUCN Redlist http://www.iucnredlist.org/

California Condor range map – from: IUCN Redlist http://www.iucnredlist.org/


While it is certainly true that lead poisoning, DDT, and all the rest have been massively detrimental to present day condors this overlooks a very important aspect of the condor niche.  These are large birds, the largest flying birds in North America, with up to a 9.5 foot (2.9 me) wingspan and weighing up to 23 pounds (10.4 kg).  These birds are meat eaters and they need a lot of meat.  The historic population was highest along the coast, where aquatic megafauna would, and still does wash up on the beach.  Beached whales, elephant seals, sea lions, dolphins, seals, and large fish may be disturbing to see, but they provide a wealth of food for bears, foxes, coyotes, weasels, wolves, eagles, gulls, ravens, and condors.  It is true that there are still large gatherings of sea mammals along the coast, but it is also true that there are far fewer of them than there used to be and this has imparted an additional stress to the condors, among other species.

Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris) on the California Coast

Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris) on the California Coast

For birds further inland other sources of meat were, and are important.  Terrestrial megafauna is what fed and feeds inland condors.  We have nowhere near the diversity nor the biomass of large free-living terrestrial animals than we did even a few hundred years ago, let alone what we had when humans first arrived in North America.  Shortly after the arrival of humans most of the large animals, the megafauna (generally being defined as an animal with a body-mass greater than 100 pounds (45 kg) began going extinct.  The giant beavers disappeared, the mastodons vanished, the giant sloths, camel relatives, giant tortoises, horses, and various species of deer were wiped from the continent, and along with those animals also went other animals that relied upon them; dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, short-faced bears, American lions, American cheetah, tetratorns (think condors on steroids), dung beetles, and condors.

Tule Elk (Cervus canadensis ssp. nannodes) being restored to California grasslands

Tule Elk (Cervus canadensis ssp. nannodes) being restored to California grasslands

There is vociferous disagreement as to why the megafauna went extinct, but many, if not most, scholars believe that humans hunted these animals to extinction.  Humans arrived during an ice age and the rapid change in climate (rapid in an evolutionary sense) may have placed the animal populations in a position where enthusiastic hunting had a greater impact than would be otherwise expected; but whatever the exact details the short story is that humans arrived and within a few thousand years a majority of the megafauna went extinct.  This triggered what is known as a “trophic cascade”.

You can think of an ecosystem as being analogous to a game of Jenga.  All together the blocks form a solid tower, but as you remove blocks (species) the tower (ecosystem) becomes more and more unstable.  Eventually one too many blocks is removed and the whole structure comes tumbling down.  In essence, this is what a catastrophic trophic cascade looks like.  So many animals were removed from the ecosystem that now, eleven thousand years later, we are still seeing some of the effects.  Just as blocks you never touched in the Jenga game come tumbling down, species of plants, insects, and animals that were never hunted went extinct or had their life patterns radically altered.  Some plants lost their ability to disperse their seeds, forests and grasslands were no-longer grazed as heavily and the composition of species changed drastically, watersheds and rivers changed their patterns, soils changed as they were walked upon by different animals with different behaviors, concentrations of bacteria and fungus changed, altering soil and groundwater chemistry.  Trophic cascades are a big deal.  They are ongoing, but operate in the background, running smoothly and unnoticed until something breaks the chain of events and the whole tower of blocks comes tumbling down.

The current narrow range of Condors is due, in part to the cascading effects of the megafuna extinctions and more recent changes brought by colonizing Europeans.  We know from the fossil record that prior to the megafauna extinctions several species of condors lived in North America over a range that includes the historic range of the California Condor and stretched across the southern states and up the east coast to New York.

Prehistoric US fossil sites for North American condors, courtesy of the San Diego Zoo library

Seeing the California Condors in the wild is like catching a brief glimpse into the distant past, a time when North America had wildlife diversity to rival that of Africa.  The fate of the condors is far from certain.  They are from a time and place that no-longer exists and it remains to be seen if they can adapt to the world as we have made it, even with our assistance.  I hope the condors do succeed, the world is a richer place and better place for their presence.

Preening in the late afternoon sun

Preening in the late afternoon sun

Meteor Impacts and Ourselves

I am fascinated and enthralled by things that fall from space and the marks they leave behind.  It’s not just my love of space, it’s is something far more profound, it is in part what those things signify.

Go to a museum, one that has meteorites.  Often there will be at least one display of a metallic body that you can touch.  Lay your hands on it, press your palms against it, feel the soft curves, the slightly nubby surface, the coolness of the blackened metal.  You are touching the core of an extinct planet.  That should give you pause and send a small shiver up your spine.

On Earth there less than 200 known, confirmed, impact structures.  Just looking at the map it is clear that the distribution is skewed to areas where there are many people (North America & Europe), exposed bedrock (Canada & Scandinavia), or regions where weathering is slow (Australia & North Africa).

Confirmed impact structures on Earth from: www.meteorimpactonearth.com

Every other rocky body in the solar system is liberally coated in the scars left by impacts.  The Earth bears the history of its impacts in a different way.  Weathering, plate tectonics, and the oceans have served to hide the marks of the numerous past impacts.  Except…

The global ocean, that covers 70% of the surface of the planet to a depth of 7 miles in some places, this, the single largest surface feature of the planet, is impact derived.  It is believed that ALL the water on the planet arrived by cometary impacts soon after the planet formed.  The Moon is another large impact structure, a relict left over from  the collision of the proto-Earth and another roughly Mars sized body.

The frequency of large impacts has, thankfully, fallen over time, but they still happen.  Some of you, I hope all of you, may remember the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, the comet that crashed into Jupiter in 1994 after being torn apart by Jupiter’s immense gravitational field.  The fireballs in Jupiter’s atmosphere were larger than the entire Earth, and there were multiple fireballs.

Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact on Jupiter

The energy released by each of the Shoemaker-Levy impacts was on a par with the Chicxulub impact in the northern Yucatan 65 million years ago that is implicated in the demist of all terrestrial animals larger than a piece of carry-on luggage.

On Earth impacts are still frequent, but most are small and do not survive passage through the atmosphere.  Think shooting stars, grains of sand and dust traveling at orbital speeds, around 20km/second.  Several months ago, on the last day of February, I was treated to a something more dramatic than one of these little grains of dust.  A little after 10pm on the 28th I was driving under a clear sky and the snow covered landscape lit-up with a bright blue flash.  I later found out that the flash of light had been seen from New Jersey to Quebec.  This was just one of the many fireballs that flash in the sky each year, probably something small only a few meters in diameter, an explosion not more than a few kilotons.

In a few places the scars left on the ground from large impacts are still visible.  One of my favorite ones is in NE Canada.  Canada is an excellent place for finding impact structures as much of the Canadian Shield is ancient, exposed bedrock.

Manicoaguan impact crater turned into a reservoir

The Manicoaguan impact is about 215 million years old and approximately 60 miles across.  It has been dammed and the island in the middle is now one of the largest fresh-water islands in the world.  Big impacts like this are rare, but they leave dramatic remains behind.

Small impacts are surprisingly common, the frequency rapidly trailing off the larger the impact.  This is good news, but the picture is very incomplete as we have only been able to watch carefully for a short period of time.

Impact frequency Table from geology.com

We are struggling to understand how the universe fits together and have tremendous difficulty comprehending the scales and energy involved.  We are too used to thinking on our small scales, our bodies, our houses, maybe our planet, for a few our solar system or galaxy.  Our solar system is huge, our galaxy immense, yet in the lager context of our body of knowledge and what we can see even the Milky Way galaxy is barely a microscopic speck.

Look at the ocean, lay back and watch the trails left by falling meteors, look at the background of stars, go to a museum and touch the heart of a planet, if you live near an impact crater go visit.

We often say, “We are all connected,” and this is true, and that web of connection is far greater, wider, and deeper than most of us realize.