It Takes just one Village to Save China's Langurs

From IHT.

In 1996, when the langurs were highly endangered, Dr. Pan Wenshi, China's premier panda biologist, came to study them in Chongzuo at what was then an abandoned military base. This was at a time when hunters were taking the canary-yellow young langurs from their cliff-face strongholds, and villagers were leveling the forest for firewood.

Pan quickly hired wardens to protect the remaining animals but then went a step further, taking on the larger social and economic factors jeopardizing the species. Pan also believed that alleviating the region's continuing poverty was essential for their long-term survival.

In the 24-square-kilometer nature reserve where he has focused his studies, the langur population increased to more than 500 today from 96 in 1996.

"It's a model of what can be done in hot-spot areas that have been devastated by development," said Dr. Russell Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International. "Pan has combined all the elements — protection, research, ecotourism, good relations with the local community; he's really turned the langur into a flagship for the region."

Historically, local farmers had occasionally killed langurs for food, but then teams of outside hunters began taking a serious toll on the population.

"In the 1990s, the Chinese economy started booming, and those with money — governors, factory owners, businessmen — all wanted to eat the wildlife to show how powerful they were," said Pan, 71.

A breakthrough in protecting the species came in 1997 when he helped local villagers build a pipeline to secure clean drinking water. Shortly thereafter, a farmer from the village freed a trapped langur and brought it to Pan.

"When you help the villagers, they would like to help you back," he said.

As self-appointed local advocate, Pan raised money for a new school in another village, oversaw the construction of health clinics in two neighboring towns and organized physicals for women throughout the area.

"Now, when outsiders try to trap langurs," Pan said, "the locals stop them from coming in."

In 2000, he received a $12,500 environmental award from Ford Motor Company. He used the money to build biogas digesters — concrete-lined pits that capture methane gas from animal waste — to provide cooking fuel for roughly 1,000 people.

Based on the project's success, the federal government financed a sevenfold increase in construction of tanks to hold biogas. Today, 95 percent of the population living just outside the reserve burn biogas in their homes.

As a result, the park's number and diversity of trees — the langurs' primary habitat and sole food source — has increased significantly.

In 2001, the county government built a research center in the reserve with accommodations for Pan and his students, a guesthouse and a yet-to-be completed education center to showcase the region's biodiversity.

In 2002, when Pan inaugurated the Chongzuo Eco-Park, a small part of the Nongguan Nature Reserve that is open to the public, he had a quote from the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius carved into stone at the front gate. The phrase, "In an ideal society, everyone should work for the well being of others," was a subtle reminder to local officials that the park should not be misused for their own financial gain. But the quote also reminds those looking to protect the langurs that they must consider the area's human community.

Yet his greatest achievement may well be what he has passed on to the next generation. In 1991, he founded Peking University's department of conservation biology — now the Center for Nature and Society — one of the first institutions in China dedicated to studying and protecting endangered species.

Currently staffed by 10 of Pan's former students, the department conducts fieldwork on everything from dolphins in the South China Sea to snow leopards on the Tibetan Plateau.

Pan became interested in langurs in the early '90s after reading "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis," a groundbreaking book by Dr. Edward Wilson, the Harvard biologist, environmentalist and writer. It suggested that certain social behaviors were evolutionarily advantageous. Pan wanted to test Wilson's ideas in the field, but needed a more gregarious species than the panda, which lives primarily in solitude.



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