Contributing Monkie G Monkie
Published on September 23, 2008
Long ago, in the poverty-stricken hills of southern China, a village banished its children to the forest to feed on wild fruits and leaves. Years later, when food stores improved, the children’s parents returned to the woods to reclaim their young.
To their surprise, their offspring had adapted to forest life remarkably well; the children’s white headdresses had dissolved into fur, tails grew from their spines and they refused to come home.
At the Nongguan Nature Reserve in Chongzuo, Guangxi province, the real-life descendants of these mythical children — monkeys known as white-headed langurs — still swing through the forest canopy.
As the langurs traverse a towering karst peak in a setting out of a Chinese landscape painting, they appear untouched by time and change, but it is remarkable that they and their tropical forest home have survived. In 1996, when the langurs were highly endangered, 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.
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. 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.
Pan is a charismatic leader who is as quick to lead his students into the field under grueling conditions as to don a langur costume at local festivals to raise awareness about the species. 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.
He has been studying langurs since 1996 and has observed numerous cases of infanticide — where an adult male that had taken over a family group killed all newborns sired by the prior reigning male.
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