by Josephine Johnson

It’s 8:00 am Saturday, March 26th, and I’m waiting at the gate of Xi’an International Studies University for Professor Songtao Guo. Dr. Guo has invited me to join

Golden Monkey Research Station, village somewhere in the Qin Lings

him and a Beijing research team on a trip to the Golden Monkey Research Station in the Qin Ling Mountains. I’m at my university’s main gate. And so are 1000 or more students. There’s a national language exam today, and my university is one of the test sites—the plaza, sidewalk, and surrounding streets are jammed with impatient motorists and students rushing to the exam building. There’s no way the team will be able to pick me up here. After a quick call to Dr. Guo, we agree I should take a taxi to the highway ring road and meet there. A half hour later, I’m riding shot gun in a Toyota 4Runner headed to the research station.

Road to Research

For two hours we travel south. The Qin Lings to the east are discernibly jagged on this rare, very clear day, and as we turn and begin winding into the mountains, the paved highway gives way to gravel and dirt. We travel two more hours on a washboard one lane path, the 4Runner often within inches of the road’s edge. After a series of hairpins, deep ruts, and a steep climb, we arrive. The research station rests on a knoll in a valley within a village of approximately forty people.

Research Station

Dr. Guo has been researching the golden monkey, also called the snub-nosed monkey, for the past ten years and has made key behavioral and genetic observations of the species. He and his advising professor have worked tirelessly for more than twenty combined years to develop the research

Grand Views, Epic Food--Cooks Shed

station into a flagship for golden monkey research. Primatologists from all over the world, including researchers from Cornell and the San Diego Zoo, visit the station to observe the monkeys and learn. And today, two researchers from Beijing are on board to assist with new subcutaneous tracking equipment. The team from Beijing will help with data collection and processing that the tracking equipment monitors. The golden monkey is an endangered species and is threatened most by human encroachment and loss of habitat. The tracking equipment will aid the researchers in better understanding the range and habitat use of the monkey.

Primate Research

As Dr. Guo and the Beijing team

Dr. Gou & New Equipment

begin unpacking and cataloging the new equipment, I take a quick walk around the grounds. The research facility is spacious, tidy, and accommodates seven to eight researchers. Once the equipment is photographed, Dr. Guo, a graduate student, the Beijing researchers, and I hit the trail and head toward the monkeys.

“I remember my first winter in the field with two other undergraduates,” reminiscences Guo, “we only had tents. In the middle of the night they went down the mountain to get warm. They said they would be back in the morning, but they didn’t come back. They went home they got so cold. But I stayed.” Dr. Guo smiles, “Now, ten years later there’s a nice research facility with electricity, and it’s known all over the world.” He pauses, “OK, primatologists and researchers know about it.” He chuckles and walks ahead of me.

To the Monkeys

As we hike out of the village and into the forest, we encounter a black, four-door Volkswagen Jetta on the dirt trail. It pulls up to us, stops, and I see four policemen, under thirty, clad in neat black uniforms. Dr. Guo, ever smiling, approaches and hangs his head in the open back passenger window. They talk

The Village

for several minutes. Though he is still beaming, the twinkle is gone from Dr. Guo’s eye when he comes away from the vehicle. In a cheery voice he says we should keep walking. A bit further up the path we encounter several high-end, parked vehicles, one of which is a BMW. Another is a Lexus. As we pass by, Guo says nothing.

Drying Corn

Dr. Guo begins telling me about the group of golden monkeys we’re about to see. He explains that there are two populations—the east population and the west population—and that we’ll be observing the west group. This population is more habituated to humans and we’ll be able to get very close to them. They might even approach us.

Guo continues, “The social structure of this species is unlike any other primate. The larger social group consists of smaller family groups headed

Two Female Golden Monkeys

by one male.” He explains that a family group will have one male, seven or eight females, and two or three babies or juveniles. The west group has ten primary males, so there are about one hundred animals total in this social group. There are also fifteen bachelor males outside the main social group. These males are waiting for their chance to take over a family unit.

And then there is a sound like a large house cat meowing.

The Big Guy

“There,” Guo stops abruptly. “That is the monkey.”

We continue hearing them though they remain hidden as we cross a dry wash. And then as we emerge from the boulders, I catch a glimpse of golden fur in bare branches.  Suddenly, all over I see monkeys. In the trees, on the ground, some stretched on rocks in the sun. Golden monkeys, everywhere.

There are also people, a bunch of people—sixteen, maybe eighteen people with huge cameras

Monkey Family

and telephoto lenses. They are crowding around the animals clicking and noise-making attempting to get them to look in their cameras.

“These are friends, rich friends, of the village officials. Part of Chinese culture,” says Guo. He’s steadfast in his smile but discernibly crestfallen. And I put it together. The SUVs must belong to these people.  The village police must have accepted some kind of payment so these people could come and take pictures of the monkeys. Ah, part of the culture. Typically, only researchers are allowed here not tourists or weekend photo vacationers.

Regardless, Dr. Guo is bent on making this awkward situation as educational as possible. He knows each individual monkey in this group and has known them for years, and he uses these years of study and observation as a springboard to educate the uninitiated photographers. I watch as he

Baby

goes from person to person pointing to the monkeys, presumably

Primates

explaining aspects of behavior and other bits of important biological information. His animated explanations can’t help but catch and demand attention.  The photographers relent and listen.

Eventually, Guo returns and explains in English to me and a Chinese graduate student his observations of one female monkey that set the social hierarchy on end. One female in this social group, he

Big Conversation

explains, is considered so desirable that she actually has more power than several of the primary males. And he knows this because she will be able to eat first or will have access to better tree branches and resting spots.

So Much Alike

Usually, he explains, the males hold the highest rank in a family group, and they eat first and generally direct the action of the family group. Then, among primary males of a social group, there is yet another hierarchical ranking. But this one female holds enough social sway to be akin to a middle-ranking primary male. I wonder what desirable attributes grant her so much power? But before I can pose this question, Guo is off to another group of people, pointing, explaining, smiling.  The grad student and I remain standing and smiling, positively beaming at how Dr. Guo has turned this research-wrecking photo-op into a finely managed, most important teachable moment.

Of course, behavioral research, genetic study, and close scrutiny of familial associations go a long way in developing a cohesive body of knowledge about a species, knowledge that will ultimately be used to protect and preserve it in the race against extinction. But maybe just as important as field research and scholarly publication, when it comes to protecting a species, is an adroit spokes person who can give voice to the story of an animal or species. Watching Dr. Guo flit from group to group gesticulating, smiling and explaining drives this point home. His work with the golden monkey, no

Not Just a Bump on a Log

doubt, provides baseline information crucial to the species survival. But Dr. Guo’s ability to translate years of observation into insightful, easily understood, and often witty anecdotes is just as important. He knows the monkey’s story. And because he is able to share these monkey tales with such accurate and unabashed enthusiasm—his adept story-telling ability will also go a long way toward protecting the golden monkey.

It’s after 4:00, and the sun has fallen behind the mountain. We walk back to the research station, and I’m in awe of how much I’ve learned, how close I’ve gotten to so many golden monkeys, how I am now (and so are you!) a small part of their story. And I’m thankful to have been invited on such an adventure. Thank you, Dr. Guo. You’re so much more than Professor and primatologist—you’re a primate protector, golden monkey savior, and perfect interspecies ambassador.  :)  ~Jos

 

Oh, primates & their tools...