On February 8, the Year of the Monkey will swing in, and in honor of the Chinese New Year, this weekly series will check in on the monkey business going down across the planet until the fireworks begin blasting over Beijing.
Why not just let all the giant pandas die, already? They barely eat enough to survive, don’t seem to have any interest in mating (even when shown panda pornography), and don’t have much habitat left (thanks to the timber and agriculture industries). Wouldn’t the millions of conservation dollars raised for these overgrown teddybears be better spent on wombats or whales or Nubian ibexes?
This line of thought has already been roundly, and reasonably, rejected elsewhere, but here’s another reason to be pro-panda: The golden snub-nosed monkey, an endangered primate, has the panda (and panda lovers) to thank for keeping it around.
My guess is you’ve never heard of golden snub-nosed monkeys. Nobody has a golden snub-nosed monkey bumper sticker. No international organization uses its image as a logo. The animal hasn’t even made a cameo in a single animated movie.
And that’s a shame, because these smash-faced primates are every bit as valuable to ecosystems as pandas, penguins, hedgehogs, or any of the other cute creatures we love. Snub-nosed monkeys are highly social, they subsist almost entirely on lichen and plants, and their babies are so squee, their tiny blue faces will make your heart hurt.
“My official opinion as a conservation scientist is that it’s OK to call them cute,” says biologist Stuart Pimm, an extinction expert and professor at Duke University.
Despite these charms, financial support for snub-nosed monkeys pales in comparison with the support for pandas and other funder favorites. That’s not entirely a bad thing for the monkeys, though, since pandas are what conservationists call an umbrella species.
The idea is that when you protect the habitat of an umbrella species, you also protect habitat for others living within the same ecosystem. Pandas and golden snub-nosed monkeys are neighbors with overlapping ranges, so when China doubled down on panda conservation in 2007—by increasing its number of nature reserves from 34 to 67, protecting nearly 13,000 square miles of habitat—the monkey made out, too.
To test the umbrella theory, Pimm and a graduate student named Binbin Li analyzed distribution maps for all of China’s native mammals, birds, and amphibians and then compared them with maps of all the land that’s set aside for pandas.
In their findings, which were published in the November 2015 issue of Conservation Biology, the researchers describe how the areas where pandas live—mostly in the western and southwestern parts of the country—have very high levels of biodiversity and endemism. In other words, a high proportion of panda habitat (more than 96 percent) overlaps with what Pimm and Li call “endemic centers,” places with many species that exist nowhere else. “So protecting pandas protects lots of species of mammals, birds, and amphibians,” says Pimm. And that includes our friend the golden snub-nosed monkey.
Panda conservation promotes monkey conservation in several ways. For starters, hunting is forbidden in China’s national nature reserves. Going after monkeys for meat or bones (which are used in the traditional medicine trade) is now a no-no. (“At least on paper,” observes Pimm, who acknowledges that in real life, “things don’t always work out that way.”) Logging is also off-limits in these areas. This is particularly important for the snub-noses because the lichen they love grows on dead trees, which timber companies typically harvest. Finally, protecting large expanses of mountains and forests prevents the fragmentation of the monkeys’ habitat, allowing plenty of room to roam (or swing) for troops that can include up to 600 individuals.
Of course, this sort of coincidental conservation has its drawbacks, particularly for creatures, like amphibians, that inhabit small ranges such as a single watershed or mountain range. A panda-centric nature reserve will have boundaries designed to help save bears, not bullfrogs, so any animal whose habitat doesn’t line up perfectly with pandas is going to miss out on some of the conservation spillover. Pimm and Li couldn’t even measure other taxa like insects, since the information available on the distribution of such Lilliputian species is so spotty.
My official opinion as a conservation scientist is that it’s OK to call them cute.
Even so, with species going extinct 1,000 times faster than they were before modern humans arrived on the scene, we need to start wringing every bit of bang out of every available buck. And panda conservation does that more than most, according to Xiaohai Liu, the executive director of programs for WWF-China. The organization counts crested ibis, snow leopards, musk deer, golden takins, and even the beloved red panda as some of the many other species benefiting from panda protections.
And it’s not just animals. “Protecting pandas’ forest landscape plays a significant role in safeguarding not only the region’s rich biodiversity,” says Liu, “but critical ecosystem services for 100 million people living within the area and more than 600 million additional people living in the central and lower river basin communities.”
So even if you don’t hold pandas in high evolutionary esteem, remember that saving these bears also saves primates—some of which look like you and me, and some of which look like doe-eyed, lichen-licking mini-Chewbaccas.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.