The newly described primate has been named after Mount Popa, a sacred pilgrim site in Myanmar.
It’s not every day that new species of non-human primates are discovered, but now and again they still are, especially in remote locations like the jungles of Myanmar, a Southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma.
According to the authors of a new study published in the journal Zoology Research, a group of langurs living in Myanmar’s forests are a new species. Yet, before we celebrate their discovery, we need to remember that the finding is bittersweet: these newly described leaf monkeys are already on the brink of extinction with only 200 to 250 of them having remained in the wild.
Called the Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa), the monkeys have been named after Mount Popa, a sacred pilgrim site in the predominantly Buddhist nation as many of them inhabit forests near Mount Popa, an extinct volcano in the central part of the country which rises more than 1,500 meters above ground and is home to various shrines of guardian spirits.
The monkeys have prominent white rings around their eyes and sport an unruly silver crest, giving them a distinct look. Unlike other similar langurs in the same Trachyphithecus genus, Popa langurs have differently shaped teeth and skull. The members of the genus currently contains 22 species, which are distributed widely around South and Southeast Asia. Many of them are listed as endangered and critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“Throughout its range, Trachypithecus popa is threatened by hunting, habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation caused by agricultural encroachment, illegal/unsustainable timber extraction, and disturbances caused by collection of non-timber products and free cattle Grazing,” the authors of the study report.
The monkeys live in four isolated areas in Myanmar. Their two largest populations occupy the Popa Mountain National Park and the Panlaung-Pyadalin Cave Wildlife Sanctuary. While the langurs’ population at the first location is estimated to be around 110 individuals, only between 50 and 100 individuals inhabit the latter.
“Hunting is a big problem but the bigger threat is the habitat is almost gone and it is reduced, fragmented and isolated due to human encroachment,” says Christian Roos, a research scientist at the German Primate Center.
Myanmar has been well known for its biodiversity hotspots and the country is home to around 20 nonhuman primate species. Abundant forests left intact can contribute significantly not only to the cause of biodiversity conservation but also to global carbon sequestration efforts. For decades, however, these forests in Myanmar have been becoming severely degraded as they continue to be cleared for new agricultural land and for timber.
When the country, today one of Asia’s poorest nations, proclaimed its independence from British colonial rule in 1948, its forests were estimated to cover about 70% of its land area. The high rate of deforestation in Myanmar, however, has reduced the area of land covered by abundant vegetation from 56% in 1990 to just 52% within a single decade by 2000.
Experts warn that if deforestation continues apace the country might lose all its remaining forests by 2035. “Agricultural expansion and logging are the two major driving forces of deforestation in Myanmar,” they note.
Not only will newly described Popa langurs will lose out but so will many other species of wildlife in Myanmar, which are facing the threat of being driven extinct by the continued diminishment of remaining forests. Their survival depends on urgent and concerted efforts to protect their habitats.