A remarkable 44 species of primates call the Greater Mekong home, with 19 species endemic to the region and some existing in only one country or a small part of a landscape.
“Primates of the Greater Mekong: Status, Threats and Conservation Efforts” a new WWF report, highlights the amazing diversity of lorises, macaques, langurs and gibbons that live in the five Greater Mekong countries - Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam. The profiled species include the skywalker hoolock gibbon, which was described as a new species in 2017, and the Popa langur which was only described as a new species in 2020. The 44 primate species found in the region, 19 among which are endemic, are a testament to the amazing biodiversity of the region, but their conservation status is a stark reminder of the grave threats they face.
But many of these species are severely threatened by habitat degradation and hunting driven by trade and consumption for meat and traditional medicine. A quarter of the species in the region are classified as Critically Endangered, and about half are Endangered in the IUCN Red List. In the latest Red List assessments, a quarter of the primate species in the region showed increased extinction risk compared to previous assessments, while the rest showed no reduction in extinction risk. Urgent and targeted conservation efforts must be taken to protect the incredible diversity of primates in the Greater Mekong.
Primates from this region are not only losing their precious habitat at an alarming rate, they are severely threatened by the wildlife trade - both legal and illegal. Their meat is sold as food, parts are traded for use in traditional medicine, and live animals are marketed as exotic pets or props for tourist selfies. The number of primates in the legal wildlife trade - often for use in biomedical research and pharmaceutical testing - has been on the increase, with the legal trade in primates estimated to be worth US$138 million in 2015.
Furthermore, research has predicted that all apes and Asian and African monkey species are at high risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans. Zoonotic diseases - which have their origins in animals and are often caused by the frequent and unsafe contact between wildlife and humans in the trade - can then be transmitted back to animals, further threatening their survival. Rhesus macaques and long-tailed macaques, both of which occur in the Greater Mekong region, were infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus in laboratories and developed COVID-19 symptoms similar to humans.
Fortunately, many organizations, government agencies and local communities are working tirelessly to protect some of these unique species from disappearing. WWF is carrying out surveys in some protected areas to monitor primate populations, such as the white-handed gibbons in Nam Poui National Protected Area in Laos, or the Ha Tinh langur in Thach Hoa district in Viet Nam. In Myanmar, WWF has worked with partner organizations to insulate newly constructed power lines to protect gibbons from getting electrocuted. WWF supported patrols are disarming snares and releasing primates caught in traps back into the wild in the Annamites of Laos and Viet Nam and the Eastern Plains of Cambodia.
There are many other conservation organizations protecting, researching, rescuing and restoring the unique primates in the region. Fauna and Flora International is working extensively in Viet Nam and Myanmar to monitor and protect threatened primates in key locations. The Endangered Primate Rescue Center in Cuc Phuong, Viet Nam, is rescuing and working on breeding threatened species to reintroduce them to the wild. The Little Fireface Project is researching lorises in the wild while also working to tackle their trade as pets and props for selfie-tourism. Organizations like the Jahoo Gibbon Camp in Cambodia and the Gibbon Experience in Laos are creating safe ways for tourists to see and hear primates in the wild, with a goal to improve local economy and livelihoods and in turn, reduce hunting pressure.
WWF and other conservation organizations, government agencies and local communities are working constantly to protect these unique species from disappearing - by conducting surveys in protected areas, monitoring and protecting key primate populations, disarming snares, rescuing and rehabilitating primates from the wildlife trade for reintroduction to the wild, and running ecotourism ventures that allow people to learn more about primates in a safe way while providing livelihood opportunities for local communities.