On a small island in Cat Tien National Park, a group of conservationists has big plans to counter the trade in endangered

primates through rehabilitation, research and education. By Tom DiChristopher.
It is a big day at the Dao Tien Endangered Primate Species Centre. Two visiting veterinarians are preparing to conduct health checks and DNA tests on the preserve’s newest residents, Hoa and Binh, a pair of golden-cheeked gibbons— and sisters—who have been in quarantine since their arrival. Afterwards, the vets will fit four pygmy lorises with radio collars in preparation for their release into the wild. And some time in the middle of it all, Dao Tien’s first Vietnamese research intern will arrive. The excitement, however, has made Binh uneasy. Unlike her sister, Binh is refusing to cooperate. As she becomes more agitated, the expression on primate specialist Lee Butler’s face begins to sour. It’s becoming clear to him that Binh will not go quietly. He will have to enter the enclosure with head keeper Nguyen Trung Thanh, capture Binh with a net and then administer the sedative. Everyone is feeling sorry for Binh, but Dao Tien director Marina Kenyon, PhD sees the bright side. “That standoffishness will make her great in the forest one day,” she says. This small island just beyond the entrance to Cat Tien Na42 asialife HCMC

tional Park is where Binh will take her first step towards that goal. Established in 2008, Dao Tien is the first project of the Endangered Asian Species Trust (EAST), a charity established by the Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre in Dorset, England, the sanctuary featured for more than a decade in the documentary series Monkey Business and Monkey Life. The mission of

two black- shanked doucs. The trade in all three primates is illegal in Vietnam, but black market channels continue to circumvent overtaxed authorities and feed the demand for primate pets. “It’s not hard to get a pet gibbon if you ask the right people,” says Kenyon. “Even if you know nothing, you could soon ask a pet shop or find the right place, and if you wave enough

“To keep a social primate on its own is just cruel. They don’t domesticate. They’ll never be a pet” – Marina Kenyon
EAST is to abate the wildlife trade in Asia through rescue, rehabilitation, research and education. It is a natural extension of the work that has been carried out since 1987 at Monkey World, where hundreds of primates from Europe and Asia have found refuge. Whereas Monkey World provides a permanent home for rescued primates, Dao Tien seeks to re-establish wild populations and conduct conservation studies that protect them against future threats. Plight of the Primates Currently, Dao Tien is home to 27 gibbons, eight lorises and money around—about five, six hundred dollars—you’ll have a pet gibbon in a week.” The figurative price of securing a gibbon is far higher. To capture a baby gibbon, hunters shoot its parents and adolescent siblings. The slaughtered gibbons can then be sold as bushmeat or for use in traditional medicine. The orphaned babies find their way to tourist centres or into the hands of affluent individuals. (The exchange of exotic pets remains part of the lavish gift-giving culture among the rich despite its illegality.) Sadly, pet gibbons essentially have a shelf life of less than a decade for the same reason that

their parents and siblings are useless to pet traders. When a gibbon reaches 7 or 8 years of age, it will begin to bite and attack its owner as part of its natural play. When this happens, they’re often abandoned or killed. “To keep a social primate on its own is just cruel,” says Kenyon. “They don’t domesticate. They’ll never be a pet.” Dao Tien gets that message out by working with local international schools to educate children of affluent families, some of whom may own pet primates. The goal is to sensitize them to the animals, and it seems to be working; a recent colouring activity turned up pictures of gibbons outfitted with defensive claws, stones to throw at hunters and pouches to protect their young. Healing Wounds It would be a mistake, however, to view the demand end of the pet trade as symptomatic of regional culture. Many of the primates at Monkey World have been confiscated from European owners, and the United States registers as the second most profitable market for wildlife products after China. The Dao Tien team has seen evidence that this is not just an Asian

Photo provided by Dao Tien Endangered Primate Species Centre

problem, as well. One of the gibbons currently being prepped for release, Lucy, was rescued from an expatriate American couple, who Kenyon describes as “bright, intelligent business people.” However, Lucy’s condition suggested that her owners had done little to educate themselves on her needs. When she arrived at Dao Tien, she was half the size a gibbon her age should be. “They fed her only banana. They gave her no water,” says Kenyon. “They said, ‘If she wants to go get some water, she can go to the toilet.’” More difficult to remedy than physical ailments is the mental toll isolation takes on primates. Deprived of mental stimulation and interaction with their kind, gibbons often develop what Lee Butler calls “stereotypic behaviour,” such as wrapping their legs around their necks. “Boredom brings it on and it becomes a habit,” says Butler. “Generally, when you get them

with their own it goes to the background, but it’s always there.” Butler says the problem is that owners don’t realize the damage they’re doing. “Basically, what we’re trying to do is give back what they’ve taken away,” he says. Two Heads Better Than One? While rehabilitation is a critical step, Dao Tien is not meant to be a long-term home. The ultimate hope for every primate is release into the wild. Conventional wisdom says gibbons that are rehabilitated together should be released together, but Kenyon believes there’s little scientific basis to back existing release guidelines and plans to test prevailing assumptions. Kenyon’s theory is that a single gibbon released at the age it would normally leave its family could potentially thrive better in the wild. The challenge of following a mate through unfamiliar territory, she says,

might actually increase stress and potentially make it more difficult to find a mate. “If you’re a pair released … you’re no use to anyone because you’re your own unit,” explains Kenyon. “But if you’re a female released, all the males are going to quite like you. If you’re a male released, all the females gibbons are receptive to transient males.” To test her theory, Kenyon plans to release three pairs, three single females and three single males. Whether or not it checks out—Kenyon admits it may not—the experiment will yield a worthwhile result. Dao Tien researchers will use information gathered while tracking the gibbons to write procedures for release in Vietnam. Often, animals are released without being screened for diseases or DNA-tested to determine whether they are native. The hope is that smarter releases will translate into higher survival rates.

Dao Tien’s research has already turned up unexpected results. After releasing two lorises in the wet season, the staff were surprised to find they had dashed all over the island, venturing as far as 800 metres from their sleep sites. Little is known about the wild pygmy loris, so information like this stands to shed light on these nocturnal primates. “The process here is slow, but at the end of it, we can have guidelines about how to release each animal,” says Kenyon. With the wildlife trade still thriving, and given primates’ relatively long maturation period, it’s clear why boosting the survival rates of wild releases is a priority. Armed with sound release procedures, Vietnam’s Forest Protection Department and other organizations can give primates a fighting chance. For more information about EAST or to schedule a visit or make a donation, visit www.go-east.org.
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