Southeast Asia's Douc Langurs: The Prettiest Primates You've Never Heard Of

Southeast Asia's Douc Langurs: The Prettiest Primates You've Never Heard Of
Credit: Art G. / CC BY 2.0

What you need to know

These 'mini-Santas' of Indochina are increasingly threatened. Let's appreciate their beauty.

With peach faces ringed with a Santa Claus beard of white whiskers, with their gray and black coats that end in fluffy white wrists, and with their black thighs and red stocking-like shins, Red-shanked douc langurs could pass for a skinnier version of Saint Nick that dirtied their suits climbing in and out of chimneys. They could just as easily be mistaken for a resident of “Whoville” in the film “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”

An “old world” monkey found only east of the Mekong River in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, douc langurs are one of the most strangely beautiful primates in the world. They come in three “shank colors”: Red (Pygathrix nemaeus), Black (Pygathrix nigripes), and Gray (Pygathrix cinerea), and they are all listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered or critically endangered.

A douc langur spotted on a tree root by a camera trap. (Credit: Habitat ID)

I first learned about douc langurs when one sat down on a large buttress tree root in front of one of our camera traps in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park and posed almost contemplatively in front of the lens. The photo was one of our best “captures,” and it was solid evidence that this increasingly rare primate lurked in this particular corner of the park near the border with Laos. They’ve been camera trapped eating soil, as if ingesting a kind of oral beauty cream, and they scatter in the canopy with a human infant-like cry at the approach of man.

And yet, as extravagantly colored and “costumed” as they are, as exotically beautiful and odd in appearance as they may be, their numbers are decreasing throughout their range for all three species, and as economic development projects continue to be hatched (roads and dams are two of the biggest threats to their forest habitats) their situation will likely become grave.

Douc langurs don’t draw the kind of attention that orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, or even gibbons can attract. Those “superstar apes” grab most of the primate attention. But “doucs” aren’t some scrubby cousin of Asia’s ubiquitous “macaques” that plague tourists at temples and parks from Nepal to Thailand to Bali – they’re not marauding “dumpster diving monkeys” like that.

Douc langurs are an otherworldly residents of the ever-vanishing triple canopy of the jungle, kings of the tree crowns of the once-mysterious Annamite Mountains and their foothills, and they are found nowhere else but here. The Annamite Mountains have one of the world’s highest rates of endemism, meaning they are found nowhere else on the planet, and in this sense, douc langurs are like local Michelangelo artworks of regional evolution. We could lose all or most of them within a generation, and how many people would know or care?

Douc langurs are an otherworldly residents of the ever-vanishing triple canopy of the jungle, kings of the tree crowns of the once-mysterious Annamite Mountains and their foothills, and they are found nowhere else but here.

Deforestation is on the rise across Southeast Asia, and it is particularly serious in Indochina. The region has already lost all of its tigers and only a handful of common leopards remain in eastern Cambodia, their final stronghold, having been extirpated in Laos and Vietnam. The last Javan rhino was killed in Vietnam’s Cat Tien National Park in 2011, and elephant numbers are decreasing throughout this region; the kouprey has vanished.

Yet this embattled region, which has survived innumerable U.S. bombing runs and chemical defoliant showers during the war between the U.S. and Vietnam, continues to surprise. The saola, a large and mysterious ungulate, was only discovered by scientists in 1992, and Large-antlered muntjac wasn’t discovered until 1994. Other enigmatic species such as clouded leopards, marbled cats, gibbons, and the Annamite Striped Rabbit continue to lurk in the remote redoubts of the jungle-coated mountains. Or at least they can continue to hide out there until new roads are bulldozed through their homes or until hunters find them.

Douc langurs spotted by a camera trap. (Credit: Habitat ID)

Another serious threat is poaching for traditional medicines, and if ground snares weren’t bad enough (with over 100,000 collected in one single Cambodian national park alone), “tree snares” are now being set high up in the canopy in Vietnam to snag macaques, gibbons, and doucs. Some infant doucs are killed and placed in large wine bottles and filled with alcohol and/or other fluids to create potent folk remedies for human illnesses. Certainly, the future is looking increasingly grim for Indochina’s colorfully costumed doucs.

In 1866, when France commissioned a Mekong expedition to see if the river could be sailed from Vietnam all the way up to China (it couldn’t, with the Si Phan Don Waterfalls on the Cambodia-Laos border blocking the way), Francis Garnier and his team came upon what sounds like a troupe of black-shanked doucs, and he wrote:

“While we proceeded beside the bank, a band of small, bizarrely colored monkeys descended from branch to branch to the ground and amused us with their skipping and gamboling. They have gray fur and black faces; a long white beard runs from one ear to the other. None of us had any thought of firing at these innocent animals, whose meat provides only a mediocre meal. We kept our powder for better occasions. Soon we approached a hamlet. The frolicking group then stopped and re-entered the forest.”

Credit: Chi King / CC BY 2.0
One of Southeast Asia's captivating douc langurs.

It was another era in our measurement of time when they were abundant, but in geological time it was only yesterday, and they could soon – like some of their former denizens of the forest like the tiger and the rhinoceros – be gone. Douc langurs could and should be seen as a flagship species for conservation in Indochina, yet they remain under the radar.

At the very least, their beauty and their strange “costumes” should arouse our curiosity. What are they? Where do they live? Why do they look like that? I don’t hear questions like that very often any more, and maybe that’s part of what the Anthropocene Era – or the Era of Man – is all about, a lack of curiosity about the natural world while we all let ourselves be sucked into our mobile phones.

For the time being, however, these bizarrely-furred mini-Santas continue to hop from tree top to tree top in the ever-dwindling forests of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

Gregory McCann is the project coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book “Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.” You can find out more about douc langurs here.

Read Next: Hanging Out With Vietnam's Critically Endangered Primates

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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