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Myth no longer: Myanmar ‘Snubby’ caught live on camera

Photo: BANCA/FFI/PRCF 2011

Thanks to high-tech camera traps set up in remote northeastern Myanmar, we now have the world’s first photos of the Myanmar Snub-nosed Monkey in the wild. These photos show that the elusive ‘Snubby’ really does exist, despite much skepticism – and the fact that no scientist has yet seen this monkey alive.

Hunters had previously told of the monkey’s existence, and a carcass had been photographed. But until now no photographs had ever been taken of this rare and endangered monkey in the wild.

“These photos are a huge boost for conservation in Myanmar. It’s a great success for our long-term collaborative effort – let’s hope it heralds a new phase of field conservation and community engagement.”, said Andrew Grieser Johns, biodiversity specialist and PRCF board member.

The recently discovered primate has been described as ‘the Elvis monkey’ due to a characteristic tuft of hair that can hang over its face like Presley’s famous quiff. “I don’t know that it looks exactly like Elvis,” says Mark Grindley (PRCF Myanmar’s Program Manager), “but as the rarest and most threatened of primates in the country, it’s certainly Myanmar’s ‘King of the Monkeys’.”

A joint field survey team with members from the Myanmar Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association, Fauna & Flora International and PRCF carried out expeditions to setup the camera traps. Conditions were extremely challenging: the northeastern region of Myanmar on China’s border is rugged and isolated, and heavy snow and rain made expeditions even more difficult.

Sites for the camera traps were selected only with information gathered from hunters, with no guarantee of success. But just one month later the team’s efforts proved worthwhile when a small group of monkeys walked through an infrared beam and into history.

The resulting photographs captured both individuals and groups in their natural habitat. Survey team members were excited to see photographic evidence of live monkeys in the wild – and that some females were carrying babies.

New species discovered to science

Early in 2010 the same collaborative survey team, led by BANCA’s Ngwe Lwin, discovered the monkey in the high altitudes of Kachin state (Geissmann and others, 2010). Known officially as the Burmese Snub-nosed Monkey (Rhinopithecus strykeri), the species was named in honor of Jon Stryker, President and Founder of the Arcus Foundation. His grant to PRCF helped lead to the discovery of the species.

“The project partners collaborated for nearly three years on primate research throughout Myanmar,” said PRCF’s Fernando Potess. “It was gratifying to see the BANCA team making important new discoveries.”

The species was discovered during work on the nationwide Myanmar Primate Conservation Program, a collaborative biodiversity conservation program originally established to work on the Hoolock Gibbon Status Review, with funds from Arcus and the US Fish & Wildlife Service to PRCF.

Threats

Snub-nosed monkeys are threatened primates previously known only in isolated locations in China and Vietnam. The newly discovered species is geographically isolated from other snub-nosed monkeys and separated from them by two major rivers—the Mekong and the Salween (Thanlwin). This may also help explain why the species had not been discovered earlier.

Hunting and loss of critical habitat are the main threats to the species. Hunting was formerly part of the local’s subsistence livelihood but has now become a commercial business to satisfy the demand for ‘bush meat’ by construction workers; logging, road construction and a huge hydroelectric plant development are also major threats.

The primate is known in the local dialect as ‘mey nwoah’, or ‘monkey with an upturned face’. Hunters report that this makes it easy to find when it rains: the monkeys sneeze when water drips into their upturned noses.

According to locals, the monkeys spend the summer months between May and October at higher altitudes in mixed temperate forests. When winter arrives and food becomes scarce, they descend to lower elevations – bringing them closer to villages – and hunters.

The Myanmar Snub-nosed Monkey’s distribution area is believed to be about 270 square kilometers, with an approximate population of 260-330 individuals. This means that it would be globally Critically Endangered, according to The IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria.

Future conservation and community projects

According to Andrew Grieser Johns, “As developments in Myanmar enter a new phase, so too does field conservation.
“The collaborative efforts that led to the first [camera trap] photos of ‘Snubby’ lead the way for conservation and community engagement in Myanmar”.

Program members BANCA, FFI and PRCF are now working with Myanmar’s Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (MOECAF), local authorities and communities to help safeguard the future of the species.

Who funds the conservation work?

The snub-nosed monkey survey work was funded by the Halycon Fund and implemented through the Hoolock Gibbon Conservation Status Review Project in Myanmar, jointly funded by the Arcus Foundation and the US Fish & Wildlife Service Great Apes Conservation Fund. The conservation program now also has an EU grant.

The use of project funds in Myanmar was authorized by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

Photos: BANCA/FFI/PRCF

Reference
Geissmann. T, Lwin. G, Aung. S, Naing Aung. T, Aung. Z M, Hla. T, Grindley. M, Momberg. F, “A new species of Snub-nosed Monkey, Genus Rhinopithecus Milne-Edwards, 1872 (Primates, Colobianae), from Northern Kachin State, Northeastern Myanmar”, American Journal of Primatology, Wiley-Blackwell, October 2010.

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