Indochina’s Primates Face Oblivion


Within eyesight of a sign urging “Don’t sell wildlife,” a roadside vendor is peddling four slow lorises --little primates with sad, luminous eyes--to be burned alive and churned into purported Chinese medicine.

A gibbon, says Sem Sovan, can be ordered for $200 and delivered while customers wait at his ramshackle hut, squirming with snakes, mynah birds and other illegal “products” from nearby Kirirom National Park.

Once an Eden for primates, Cambodia, along with neighboring Vietnam and Laos, is being rapidly emptied of these creatures by meat poachers, traditional medicine merchants and villagers encroaching on their ranges.

Remarkably, not a single species of primate, man’s closest relative in the animal kingdom, was lost in the last century. But global extinction is looming, and it will probably occur first in Indochina, says Frank Momberg of Fauna and Flora International.


Four of the 25 apes, monkeys, lemurs and other primates listed by the U.S.-based Conservation International as possibly facing extirpation are found in Vietnam.

Only about 100 individuals on a single island remain of the Cat Ba Island golden-headed langur, while fewer than 200 Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys, hunted for the medicine trade, hang on in two areas of Vietnam, Momberg says. Almost as vulnerable are Delacour’s langur and the gray-shanked douc langur.

“The chances of them seeing the end of the century are slim,” he says of the Hainan gibbon, perhaps the world’s most endangered primate, which lives in a few scattered places in Vietnam and on the Chinese island of Hainan. A tiny gene pool--fewer than 50 individuals--survives.

To avert extinction, conservationists stress, there must be active population management, including captive breeding, and above all safe, sufficiently large natural habitat--a shrinking commodity throughout Indochina.


Even the Cardamon Mountains of southwestern Cambodia, long protected by war, malaria and their remote location, are threatened along with what is probably the world’s largest population of pileated gibbons.

Preliminary surveys show the mountains shelter several hundred to 1,000 of these gibbons, whose haunting songs once frequently resounded through the jungles of Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. Now they are often death warrants.

Ian Baird, a Canadian conservationist, recalls hearing a female singing one dawn in the Cardamons, a hunter tracking the sound, then silence.

Baird witnessed the subsequent “processing,” the animal’s skin sold, the meat eaten and the bones used for so-called medicine. Adult gibbons are also killed so their babies can be easily snatched for pets.

Momberg, Indochina program manager at Fauna and Flora International, hopes he has found one formula for salvation.

In a mountain forest of northern Vietnam, the England-based FFI is seeking to preserve the western black crested gibbon by involving a half dozen poor tribal villages in their fate.

“A reserve is not enough. We need the communities,” Momberg says. “If the community doesn’t want to care for them, that’s the end.”

Momberg wants the villagers around the Che Thao forest to establish the boundaries of the reserve and select the rangers. A weekly radio program, which includes conservation news, has been started, and former wildlife traders have been converted to teachers.


“These people don’t know they are harboring a gibbon that exists nowhere else,” he says. “But they can develop a pride that they are hosting the only population in the world.”

A mortal danger to these gibbons and other primates in Indochina is the area’s proximity to China, where the appetite for exotic meat, medicine and aphrodisiacs seems insatiable--and growing as the country’s economic prosperity increases.

Thousands of primates that once chattered and sang in Indochina’s jungles are reduced to powdered bones, dried feet, blood and wine concoctions and monkey brains on Chinese plates.

In the sweltering, pungent bowels of Phnom Penh’s Chinatown, around Orasay Market, skins of slow lorises lie artistically draped over jute bags in open-fronted shops. Sem Sovan, the wildlife vendor, says he sells about 10 a month to Chinese medicine traders in the Cambodian capital for $50 apiece.

He says that burning them alive increases the potency of the medicine, and drinking their blood mixed with rice wine is great for stomachaches.