For the love of langurs


Once caught in fishing nets for their bones as a cure-all for human diseases, the white-headed langurs are now a fiercely protected species, thanks to Professor Pan Wenshi.

Few expected Professor Pan Wenshi would embark on a new crusade to conserve biodiversity when he arrived in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region in the mid-1990s. By then, Pan had already won wide international recognition for the studies he and his students had carried out in the Qinling mountains, in southern Shaanxi province.

Their exhaustive research results, collected over years, unraveled the mysteries of the giant pandas living in the wild – their habits, eating patterns, family and community life.

In 1996, Pan visited Guangxi. Soon the plight of the white-headed langurs caught his attention.

A comparison of a survey carried out between 1996 and 1997, and that done a decade earlier, showed that in just 10 years the number of white-headed langurs had declined by 62 percent. There were fewer than 100 of them in the Nongguan mountain area in Chongzuo.

The monkeys used to be spread out over 500 sq km, roaming the valleys in a region dominated by karst landforms.

However, when the local human population began to swell in the 1970s, farmers began to clear the karst hills to grow corn for food and sugarcane for cash. They also cut down the trees for firewood.

Langurs lost their homes and their sources of food dwindled rapidly.

The langurs feed on leaves and some folk tales even claim these small monkeys know which herbs to turn to when sick. Thus, for decades, the langurs were hunted down for their bones to be put into liquor as a cure-all for humans.

\”When I was a middle school student, I heard that some farmers used fishing nets to catch the monkeys,\” Lu Jintong, a handyman at the Chongzuo Biodiversity Research Institute says, recalling the 1970s. \”There was even a celebration one day when some people netted nine monkeys in one go.\”

Pan couldn\’t leave the region without doing something for these monkeys.

He and his team knew from their studies in the Qinling mountains that logging posed the biggest threat to the giant pandas. Pan wrote letters to the central government and it was his efforts that turned a state logging business in Yangxian county, part of the Qinling mountains, into a national nature reserve for the giant pandas.

In 1998, Pan and a few students settled down in an old military base in Chongzuo and began studying the white-headed langurs and their social behavior.

Above all, he was determined to retain the Nongguan mountain area as the langurs\’ last natural habitat.


However, he soon discovered that more than 5,000 farmers in seven villages also lived and made a living in this area. Poverty was rampant, as the excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers had left their fields depleted, soil eroded and water contaminated.

\”I wanted to find ways to change the way the locals lived and ensure the well-being of both the farmers and the langurs,\” Pan says, adding that protection of the endangered monkeys cannot be achieved at the expense of the livelihood of the farmers.

Over the years, he has devoted a lot of time to lobby and raise money. At his request, local stone quarries closed down to stop the damage to the local ecology.

Thanks to him, villagers in nearby Leizhai now drink clean water from a mountain spring and channeled through 7-km-long government-built waterworks. Pan also put together the cash he won from a Ford Environment Award and the money he raised from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Netherlands Embassy in Beijing, to help install methane gas pits in villages. About 1,800 rural families now mainly use methane gas for cooking, thus leaving the shrubs and trees that the langurs feed on, intact.

A new school has also been opened, to improve basic education for the farmers\’ children.

However, it\’s not been praise for Pan all the way. In fact, some have complained that he and his students have published few research papers.

What is the use of research papers if local farmers continue to live in poverty and if the white-headed langurs are dying

Meanwhile, the local ecology and the monkey population are both thriving now. Thanks to abundant rainfall, and the farmers desisting from cutting down trees, the local flora has flourished and the limestone mountains have recovered their green cover. In the nature reserve, there are now more than 600 white-headed langurs, living in some 45 families, along with several smaller all-male families in transition.

Even the severe drought, early this year, left the Nongguan mountain area relatively unaffected, thanks to Pan and his team.

Their efforts are not lost on the local population.

Lu, the assistant at the Chongzuo Biodiversity Research Institute, says he worked in Guangdong as a migrant worker for years before he came to work with Pan.

\”I enjoy working here,\” Lu says. \”Even my temper has cooled down.\”

The institute has attracted a number of volunteers, among them Pan\’s two daughters. The older one, Pan Dai, has donated water-treatment equipment to supply the research institute with clean water and four electric golf carts to make it easier for researchers and visitors to travel between the fields and headquarters.

With her friends, Pan Yue, the younger daughter, has created a blueprint for a close-circuit television monitoring system, \”so that my father can sit in his office and watch the langurs all day\”, she says.

She has also talked a major TV camera-making company into giving the institute five close-circuit monitoring cameras at the lowest price possible.

The best way to save a species is to protect the ecological diversity of its habitat

\”I have always believed that protecting the white-headed langur, the giant panda and so on means protecting the future of human society and of Mother Nature,\” the researcher says.

White-headed langurs are native to China and researchers say they share quite a few traits with the feudal families of ancient times. Li Xing reports

I can feel multiple pairs of eyes staring at us as my colleagues and I crouch in a stone cave in a big karst hill in Nongguan mountains, in the southwestern part of Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. Before we mount a wooden platform, we feel the morning dew dropping off the leaves on our skin.

\”Move, it could be langur urine,\” Lu Jintong, 40, a handyman at the Chongzuo Biodiversity Research Institute, whispers.

Despite Lu\’s warning, I raise my head to see who is watching and making fun of us up on the cliff. The movements in the trees overhead stop. In the bright morning rays, I catch sight of a couple of monkeys with tails longer than their bodies, hanging down.

Although I cannot see their almost pitch-black faces clearly, I easily spot them from their head of bleach-white hairs, shaped like a witch\’s hat. Their newborn babies, however, have golden hair.

As I survey the cliff, I see several other langurs climb nimbly, holding on to the crevasses. A few mothers carry their babies and move with the same agility but with considerable care.

Some 15 minutes after we arrive at the vantage point, all the langurs disappear from the cliff, the trees and our sight.

They will spend the whole day feeding on more than 100 plant and flower species and at high noon, they will take shelter in the forests and help each other comb their hair, Qin Dagong, deputy director of the Chongzuo institute, tells me.

However, a few pairs of eyes are still watching us, through three high-resolution close-circuit television cameras, with their monitor installed about 1,500 meters away in the research institute\’s head office.

One of those pairs of eyes belong to Professor Pan Wenshi, China\’s foremost giant panda expert, who founded the institute. He has studied the white-headed langurs for 14 years in Chongzuo.


Indigenous to China, the white-headed langurs are a critically endangered species that are on the list of Nature Conservancy International. With their ancestry dating back some 3 million years, they seem to have lived only in the southwestern part of today\’s Guangxi.

Although their 24-hour monitoring under close-circuit cameras began only a year ago, researchers have already documented a large langur family of 31 members for years.

On Jan 13, the researchers spotted a young pregnant mother fidgeting on the cliff. \”I immediately sensed that she was going into labor,\” Pan Yue, Professor Pan\’s younger daughter and a businesswoman, recalls.

The team had, of course, seen langur mothers giving birth before. \”I\’ve seen one pulling out her baby in the open,\” says Lu, who joined Pan\’s research team four years ago.

However, after a baby is born, other females surround the newborn, taking turns to hug or carry the baby.

\”But we went beyond being just an eyewitness this time. For the first time, we documented in full how a young mother goes through hours of labor pains and finally gives birth,\” Pan Yue, who has joined her father\’s research as a volunteer, says excitedly.

Research on wildlife takes years to bear fruit, Pan Wenshi says, showing the family tree he and his students have compiled through their daily observations of one langur group for 14 years.

The langurs are polygamous. The researchers liken them to the big feudal families of ancient China, with a patriarch, his wife and concubines as well as their children.

The family that has been under the closest watch by Pan and his students since 1996 has seen its patriarch change four times.

It is now headed by a middle-aged male nicknamed Yintang Xiaotu, or Little Patch of Baldness on the Forehead.

Little Patch\’s reign began in the middle of 2006. Like three of his predecessors, he has to give up his \”throne\” after he grows older and can no longer protect his big family.

He can expect a younger but stronger male from the outside to invade his turf, fight him and drive him away. The power change is brutal, as the new patriarch takes control of the fertile females and tries to kill their infants so that he can have his own children.

Although Little Patch will accept defeat, he will not abandon his children. Instead, he will take them along and raise them with the help of his older sons.

In January 1998, Pan and his students heard a male langur called Tutu letting out a single syllable, ai. In more than three hours, they recorded 735 ai from Tutu.

\”We guess the male head of a family was marking out his turf, warning other families not to intrude,\” Pan says.

The karst hill where we had a close encounter with the langurs is Little Patch\’s family home. It once served as a military warehouse. The cliff above the former warehouse with its small caves, buttresses and crevasses, is the family bedroom.

The previous evening at dusk, we watched the family return to their beds after a day\’s \”work\”, from a 33-meter-tall iron tower, standing some 40 meters from the cliff. Erected early last year with donations from Wang Shi, one of the nation\’s real estate tycoons, the tower also houses the close-circuit cameras.

In twos, three and fours, the Little Patch family made their way adroitly down the sharp cliff. Mothers held their babies tight while the older ones lent a helping hand to the younger, fearful ones. They then settled down for a well-deserved rest.

But their night\’s sleep was not without interruptions, as they needed to answer calls of nature.

Pan had plastic buckets lined up on the wooden platform under their \”beds\”, to collect their droppings.

\”I didn\’t know their droppings were so precious,\” Lu says, as he carefully places his \”collection\” into the buckets.

Pan tells me his team will take their studies to a new and molecular level.

\”The droppings and hairs will help us learn how these leaf-eating monkeys passed down their DNA and their genetic traits and evolved over the past 3 million years,\” he says, beaming.