Wildlife Photographer of the Year: the uncertain future of China's primates
This year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning image showcases two beautiful golden snub-nosed monkeys set among the temperate forest in which they live.
They represent the poorly known primate diversity found in China, much of which is silently sliding toward extinction.
The endangered monkeys, with golden fur framing their blue faces, are little known outside of their native range in the Qinling Mountains of central China.
In addition to its 1.41 billion people, China is also home to a surprising diversity of non-human primates.
Found living across the country's mountains, forests, cities and mangroves, there are 25 species of monkeys and apes native to China, including gibbons, langurs, lorises
But many of these species face an uncertain future.
'Up to 10 of these species have fewer than 500 individuals remaining, while two species of gibbons have fewer than 30 individuals,' says Paul.
'For some of these, the populations have lost much of their genetic diversity and the species are effectively extinct.'
The golden snub-nosed monkey is no exception. Even though as many as 22,500 of them are thought to survive in the temperate forests blanketing the mountains on which they live, the populations are highly fragmented.
Threatened by habitat destruction, they have been pushed further and further into the lofty heights of central China.
Images such as The Golden Couple are helping to highlight the plight of such incredible primates, which are often passed over for more charismatic species.
A hidden diversity
Asia is one of the richest and most diverse places on the planet when it comes to the sheer number of primate species.
Containing roughly 20% of all known primate species, this amazing diversity of monkeys and apes is largely a result of the huge assortment of habitats found on the continent, coupled with the thousands of islands scattered across the ocean.
Prof Helen Chatterjee, who has studied the speciation of primates in
'The region has three major plates converging which
This has resulted in species adapted to tropical rainforests, coastal mangroves, temperate forests and even mountains covered by snow for half the year.
As human populations expand, the need for more land and space grows with it, and people are encroaching into all of these environments. The main outcome of this is that many species of monkeys and apes are being pushed closer to the edge of extinction.
But evidence suggests that this phenomenon is not entirely new.
The current wealth and variety of primates
Several dynasties ago, at the same
Then, as now, these thriving
The first species of primate that is known to have gone extinct as a direct result of human activity is the gibbon Junzi
This is likely only a part of the story of extinctions to have swept the region. Fossil remains in the humid tropics are scant, but there are other ways to delve into the past.
'We know that there were primates throughout much of China in the past,' explains Paul. 'China is unique in a way because there are dynastic records, political records
'For example, the literature also shows that snub-nosed monkeys were much more widely distributed in the past.'
This can be combined with where primates are currently found to hint at the past situation.
Today five species of snub-nosed monkeys are found scattered in pockets across eastern Asia. Based on the ecology of the surviving species and the environments in which they live, they were most probably once found across much of the land connecting these groups.
It is suggested that they are only currently confined to remote patches of forests because populations that once roamed across the entire region, including now-extinct species, were snuffed out of existence as human activity spread.
A call for conservation
Unfortunately, this decline of native monkeys and apes has not stopped.
In Asia is it understood that 95% of primate populations are either declining or there is insufficient data to accurately assess them. This includes the striking snub-nosed monkeys as well as some of the rarest mammals on the planet.
It is thought that only 26 Hainan gibbons survive on a small island off the coast of southern China, with only six breeding females remaining. While this population is actually increasing due to the efforts of ZSL, the forest in which they live is still being cut down.
Habitat destruction is one of the biggest drivers for the decline of primates in China.
The last century has seen
Almost all species now exist in a fragmented landscape,
But this doesn't mean that the trend has to continue. 'Things can be done,' says Paul, 'but they need to be acted on immediately.
'China has an outstanding set of scientists and human capital that can make a difference.'
There needs to be an active programme of restoring China's native forests, suggests Paul. As most species now live in sub-populations, the creation of habitat corridors is vital to join them together and allow genes to flow once more.
This is certainly true for the golden snub-nosed monkeys as they exist in dispersed populations.
'Planting will help when looking at the future, but it is not going to help in the short and medium term,' says Helen. 'You need a local, regional, and international approach.
'It is all about coordination between all these stakeholders to create conservation action plans. It's about everyone taking ownership of the problem and then working together to prevent further loss.'
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