By Matt Cowan
Aug 15, 2022
I’VE COME TO A LUXURY five-star resort in Vietnam to monkey around. I’m visiting central Vietnam’s InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort – an enchanting, mountain-side, Bill Bensley-designed beach hideaway recently voted best in Vietnam – not just for any old monkeys. Not those blasted macaques like the ones that try to sit on your head at the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary in Ubud or the ones that bathe in the hot springs of snowy Nagano Prefecture in Japan.
No, no. I am hoping to catch a glimpse of the more civilized and much rarer red-shanked douc langur.
Vietnam has one of the most diverse populations of primates in the world and is home to three types of douc langur – all of which are critically endangered. Population studies in the jungles of Son Tra Peninsula, where the resort is located just 30 minutes by car from Danang International Airport, estimate 1,500 red-shanked douc langurs live here. In total, it’s believed there are just 2,000 in Vietnam, so I’ve definitely come to the right spot.
Most guests will be escorted on their mission to see these shy creatures of the treetops by the resort’s activities team – among the surprise revelations: duoc langurs don’t eat ripe fruit because they can’t digest sugar without it fermenting in their rather rotund bellies and causing one hell of a tummy ache.
But on my trip, I’m lucky to snag then-resident British zoologist Anthony Barker for a personal tour of the 39-hectare property. Anthony himself is a rare species. Before recently leaving the position (another zoologist is on the way), he was one of just a few resident zoologists at resorts around the world, and this year won the World Tourism Network (WTN) Tourism Hero Award in recognition of his outstanding conservation efforts that include collaboration with local authorities and NGOs on projects and educating InterContinental Danang Sun staff members and the surrounding communities about the importance of conservation efforts for monkeys and other wildlife as well.
“The doucs are almost solely arboreal, except for eating the odd piece of unripe fruit, so they very rarely come to the floor of the forest,” he tells me from behind the wheel as we carefully negotiate our way past a buggy full of guests heading the opposite way for breakfast. “We try to educate guests and other visitors that the red-shanks aren’t normal monkeys like the macaques we also have on the peninsula that eat just about everything.”
I crane my neck to look up into the lush canopy of foliage above us that rises some 700 meters above sea level and blankets 60 square kilometers of pristine wilderness just 10 kilometers outside of Danang and wonder if today will be my lucky day.
“It really is one of the only places in the world where you can see them because the other populations have been so disturbed – they don’t like humans very much at all,” he tells me with one eye on where we’re going and the other looking for telltale signs like half-eaten leaves, discarded branches and poop that indicate these long-limbed and slender leaf-eaters may be within close proximity to us.
But as Anthony points out the tropical almond trees that are a favorite of the red-shanks’ and the natural bridges they provide so the population doesn’t get fragmented and “islanded” giving them access to feeding trees and “home trees” on the resort grounds during the stormy season, something tells me I may not get a chance to see these most handsome of animals today. The sun is already getting higher and hotter, more than likely forcing them deeper into the cool of the shade somewhere else on the mountain.
I still wonder if we’re being watched, though, and ask Anthony if human encroachment on their habitat is the main reason why red-shanked douc langurs switch to high alert whenever they come into contact with humans. “One of their main threats is poaching because they’re prized on the black market for traditional Chinese medicine,” he explains. “They’re similarly valued to rhino horns, but with the red-shanks, it’s for their brains. It’s believed that eating their brains has magical properties for human health.”
Indeed, Vietnam has a serious poaching problem that has left some of its 27 different species of primates on the verge of extinction. It’s believed, for example, that just 67 Cat Ba langurs remain, with their habitat being near the World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay.
While not under such immediate threat as their northern cousins, the red-shanked douc langur, so named because of its rusty red-coloured legs from the knees down, remains a target of poachers and is at-risk of greater habitat loss from tourism over-development around Danang.
“The best thing is education when it comes to this,” says Anthony, who understands better than anyone his juggling act of being a champion of conservation while representing a property that has been criticized in the past for encroaching on the habitat of the very endangered species he’s now working hard to protect.
“What I’m trying to do is set an example here for other properties in a similar situation, because when you have the responsibility of being set in a nature reserve like this, you’re really taking on a lot of responsibility. The world is becoming more crowded, so we really need to come up with conservational ways in which we can live harmoniously with nature. I would love it if other properties could make a stand like we have here and start implementing ways they can have a relationship whereby humans and wildlife benefit together.”
Indeed, since Anthony arrived at InterContinental Danang in 2019, the douc langur population has flourished, building on the efforts of the resident zoologist before him to protect the monkeys, efforts the resort promises will be sustained and even pushed further in the future. And importantly, poaching attempts on the peninsula, at least in the proximity of the resort, have been all but eradicated.
Anthony’s even witnessed the rare phenomenon of two sets of twins being born into the population over the last few years, along with having the enviable privilege of being able to regularly monitor a healthy family with more than 20 members that spends countless hours feeding in the trees the resort has protected and nurtured especially for them.
The resort’s Discovery Center is due to open this year, aiming to not only educate younger generations of Vietnamese about the unique diversity of their country’s precious primate populations, but also drive funding campaigns for further research into them in collaboration with NGOs like GreenViet so they can continue doing the amazing work they do.
“I like to think we’re helping,” Anthony says as he pulls up the buggy to the front of my room after an enlightening tour that has impressed upon me the importance of conserving such wonderful animals and how resorts and the travel industry at-large can play an integral role in doing so.
While I haven’t had a close encounter with any of the monkeys he’s told me so much about today, I leave thinking it’s probably for the best anyway.
danang.intercontinental.com; doubles from US$450 including breakfast.
All photos courtesy of InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort.