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Voọc Cát Bà: The Endangered Primate of Karst Land

Imagine being born one color, and growing up into a very differently hued adult.

Such is the life of the Cat Ba langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus), or voọc Cát Bà, which lives on the island of the same name off of Hai Phong. The Cat Ba langur is one of the rarest primate species in the world, and they can only be found on their home island. 

The Cat Ba langur is one of the rarest primate species in the world, and they can only be found on their home island.

According to the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project, which works to protect all biodiversity on the karst-strewn island, there are currently as few as 76 individuals — down from nearly 3,000 in the 1960s, a population that has been decimated by poaching and habitat loss in the decades since. The conservation project closely monitors the voọc, who live deep in the national park, and any new births are announced on Facebook

A newly born voọc Cát Bà is a striking sight; their fur a bright, uniform orange that stands out from the grey limestone and green foliage of their environment like an unexpected ray of sunshine on an overcast day. As the young langurs grow, their coat turns black, with the exception of their cheeks and neck, as well as the crown of their head, which turns into a golden-white tuft. I sometimes wonder how this fairly dramatic transformation impacts the langurs: do they recognize their color change? Do they wish they had stayed orange? 

At this stage, I can’t actually remember when I first learned of the Cat Ba langur, but over the last few years they’ve become quite possibly my favorite of Vietnam’s many wonderful and often critically endangered endemic animal species. In early 2019, I visited the island and spent time with the conservation project, though I didn’t actually see any langurs — which didn’t come as a surprise.

The closest I’ve come to seeing an individual is the two rather frightening taxidermy specimens at the run-down, minimally informative museum at Cat Ba’s national park. I do have a voọc sticker on my desk, so a youthful primate is always looking at me, but at times I feel odd liking an animal that I’ve never actually laid eyes on so much.

Video by Fauna & Flora International

But given their appearance, and the fact that they are found in only one spot, why doesn’t the voọc Cát Bà have a more prominent image in Vietnam? China, for example, has its pandas, a headline species that has received immense conservation investment even though they prefer not to mate and have a wildly inefficient diet. 

Now, voọc aren’t quite as goofy as a panda: if it snowed in their enclosure at a zoo, they wouldn’t slide down it for footage tailor-made to go viral. Unfortunately, they also don’t fall under the “charismatic megafauna” label — in fact Vietnam has almost no megafauna left — so they don’t act as an umbrella for large-scale conservation efforts that benefit the entire ecosystem, the conservation project’s amazing work aside.

I’m taking this opportunity — with no actual power — to nominate voọc Cát Bà as Vietnam’s national animal, which is currently the water buffalo, an ungulate that is neither endemic or endangered. 

To be sure, we don’t need more tourists flocking to Cat Ba to see langurs, as well over two million people already visit every year, and Vietnam’s finest purveyor of cable cars, Sun Group, opened their latest sky-car rope-a-dope contraption, linking the island to a major highway, last summer.

As a symbol, however, I think the langur would be outstanding. Their unique appearance would surprise many who are unaware of their existence, though the critically endangered red-shanked douc langur of Da Nang (voọc Chà vá chân đỏ) also competes here. This would simultaneously highlight a rare positive conservation story for the country, as the Cat Ba langur population is slowly growing after bottoming out in the 2000s with only about 40 individuals remaining at the time.

Did you know?

The Cat Ba langur population is slowly growing after bottoming out in the 2000s with only about 40 individuals remaining at the time.

Overall, this would be an aspirational move: the chances of you seeing a voọc in the wild are infinitesimal, but perhaps that’s the way it should be. Vietnam could use their furry visage to raise funding for conservation work, and what child wouldn’t a bright orange baby langur stuffed toy, but let’s leave them at peace in the rocky forests of majestic Cat Ba.

Considering the fact that humans almost wiped them out, it’s the least we could do.

The chances of you seeing a voọc in the wild are infinitesimal, but perhaps that’s the way it should be.

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