Primate Conservation Limelight

Neahga Leonard

With only about 80 Cat Ba langurs remaining in the wild, the need to save this critically endangered species remains as urgent as ever. Most recent counts at the beginning of this year (2024) show a population of just 79 individuals, up from a perilous low of 40 only a few years ago. While this represents a significant leap forward, the struggle to bring Cat Ba’s endemic langurs back from the brink is only just beginning. Despite conservation efforts that have increased their numbers, growth is not only very slow but easily reversed as the langurs still face severe pressures and challenges that threaten the species’ existence.

At the forefront of this conservation battle is Neahga Leonard, Director of the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam. In a recent interview with New England Primate Conservancy’s Zachary Lussier, Neahga discussed the vital efforts to protect these rare primates, the challenges posed by Cat Ba Island’s bustling tourism industry, and the meaningful successes the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project is achieving under his leadership.

What is your official title?

Currently, I’m the director of the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project, a biodiversity conservation INGO in NE Vietnam focused on a wide range of interlocking conservation issues in the Cat Ba Archipelago, with the Cat Ba langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus) as our flagship species.

We are currently sponsored by Zoo Leipzig out of Germany, with additional support from ZGAP (Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations). Previously the AllwetterZoo Münster provided the majority of our support.

Tell us a little about your background and where you are today

People often ask about my first name, Neahga, and try to guess where it’s from. It’s an Onondaga name, one of the Iroquois tribes, meaning ‘Highest Hill’. My mother wanted to keep traditional names in the family and asked my grandfather for suggestions. She liked this suggestion, so it’s the name I got.

I have a BA in Anthropology with a minor in Geology from the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) that I received back in the mid-‘90s and an MSc in Ecological Planning from the University of Vermont from around 2010.

We moved a lot growing up. Originally I’m from a small town called Inverness on the northern California coast, but lived in a lot of places around the Bay Area in California, out in the desert in Southern California, briefly lived in Chicago, spent a year with my parents driving around the US and Canada when I was little, lived next to LA for a while, and in the Santa Ynez valley near Santa Barbara. I tend to think of Inverness and West Marin, California as home as that’s where my earliest memories are from.

Currently, I’m living and working on Cat Ba Island in the northeast region of Vietnam. In the US I’m registered in Vermont but haven’t been living in the US for a long time now.

Cat Ba langurs

When we lose species, the potential of an ecosystem is reduced. When we have fewer species, ecosystems are less resilient to changes, ecological niches are lost, ecosystem services are impaired, and evolution has fewer tools to work with so more time is needed to find a new ecological stability.

What do you consider some of your biggest achievements?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I don’t tend to think of things that way. I do what needs to be done, think about what I could have done better or differently, and look for things to do in the future. I generally look at things I’ve done or accomplished as nothing really more than just something I was doing at the time.

What was the first primate you ever saw in the wild?

It was either a black-capped squirrel monkey, a saddle-back tamarin, or a black-headed night monkey. It was a long time ago when I was working in Peru in the Alto Madre de Dios region. It was probably the squirrel monkeys.

I’d been hearing them for a long time when I was working in the area. I was making trails for part of a monitoring array for a jungle research center, and they were often passing overhead in groups. The first time actually seeing them was basically just a bunch of shaking branches and a few individuals silhouetted against the sky as they jumped between gaps in the branches and trees.

We had several night monkeys living right next to the research station, and we’d sometimes see their eyeshine at night but never got a clear view of them.

At the station, we had a rescue tamarin who was being rehabilitated for release back into the wild. Sometimes wild tamarins would come down to where she was being kept and we would see them up close. Eventually, we released her, and she joined up with some of these wild ones.

Did you always imagine yourself working with primates?

No. I wanted to be working in the natural sciences and did a bunch of different things with that goal in mind. Briefly some archaeology, glacier work as part of my undergrad degree, tracking Andean spectacled bears in Ecuador, the research station work in Peru, ecological assessments for new protected areas with my grad school cohorts, developing a rare plant monitoring protocol for the Shenandoah National Park Service, working in northeast Vermont on wildlife connectivity, climate adaptation, and maintaining living landscapes, as well as a bunch of other things like winemaking combined with habitat restoration, teaching university in China, landscaping and stone wall building, and a bunch more.

It wasn’t until a short-lived position in Indonesia that I found myself actually working with primates, orangutans specifically. During my job hunts after that position, the current position with the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project opened up and it seemed like a good fit.

Oddly, I’d actually met and talked with Jane Goodall back in undergraduate school when she came to Stanford to talk with some students and some of us from UCSC drove over to attend the talk. It turned out to be a very small group of students overall, so we wound up having a chance to sit and talk for a while afterward.

What might you say an 'average day' looks like in your role with the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project?

I wouldn’t really say there is an ‘average day’ as days can be extremely variable.  Sometimes days are low-key and it’s just office work and doing things like data processing and analysis, finances, report writing, or logistics; other times checking on things happening with the langurs and working with my field crew and the park rangers on that; other times it’s abruptly getting called late at night to do a dolphin rescue; often there are meetings with our anti-poaching teams; sometimes it’s meetings with politicians other times it’s a week or two of filming with a documentary crew; sometimes it’s doing presentations for a variety of audiences. It varies quite a bit.

As director, most often it’s more on the office side of things though.

I’ve been in this position since March 2014, so a bit more than 10 years now. So far this is by far the longest amount of time I’ve ever spent in one area.

Neahga Leonard with reporters in Cat Ba, 2018
Can you describe a bit how you came to be in this role?

After the position in Indonesia fell apart I was back in the US and looking for international positions in conservation or research with a certain level of responsibility, rather than just field tech-type work.

At the time the AllwetterZoo Münster, Germany managed this project here in Vietnam and another wildlife rescue and breeding project in Cambodia. They were advertising for the director position for the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project. I sent in my info, and very soon after they got hold of me. As it turned out they were looking for director positions for each of the projects. As we talked I thought that the project on Cat Ba fit my background a bit better than the project in Cambodia, and they offered me the position.

The previous director was more than ready to move on, so when I arrived in Vietnam there was only a very brief whirlwind of information and introductions, and from there I had to catch myself up to speed very quickly.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

There isn’t a single favorite thing about the position, and that’s probably also my favorite thing about it. We work with local community members for anti-poaching, reforestation, and such, we work with the local government on environmental education for the children on the island, we work with the park administration and the rangers on a range of conservation activities, we work with the langurs (in a hands-off manner as we are an in-situ conservation program) and other wildlife.

I like the challenges and opportunities we face, even if those are also sometimes inordinately frustrating. I like the fact that I can never really let myself get complacent in my thinking or learning.

I like that much of our work heavily involves communication, building mutual trust and respect, and that the network of people involved all have to work together to get things done.

Cat Ba, Vietnam, Neahga second from right speaking with ranger, langur guard, and CBLCP staff, 2015
What is the most challenging thing about your job?

All of it. More seriously, it’s one of the same things that I like about the job, the communication and getting everyone working toward a similar goal.

It’s difficult, often it’s hindered by fluidity in the political administration, by changes in regional economic priorities, by short-term self-interest, and by large egos. 

All these things make for difficult work and sometimes it feels like you’re trying to run uphill in the middle of a landslide.

What can you remember about the first time you observed Cat Ba langurs in the wild?

It was shortly after I started here. We were making an inspection trip of the ranger stations and as we got to one of the stations in one of the langur areas the rangers said there was a langur group that had been near the station that morning.

We took a look around in the boat and just around a small fold in the cliff there was a small group with adults and one infant. Directly overhead was one of the older adults sitting on a branch over the water calmly eating leaves, and higher up and further back on the cliff the infant was exploring the vegetation while its mother kept hold of its tail with one hand and ate with the other.

What is it like to work in conservation on an island, especially one that is a tourist hotspot? How does it affect your efforts?

The island is fairly large, roughly 12.5 miles (20km) on the long axis by about 9 miles (15km) on the shorter axis, and has some 9 or so villages and towns and a population of around 20,000 people. Our office and my home is in the middle of the island away from any of the towns, so day-to-day it doesn’t really feel like an island. It’s very close to the mainland as well, so it’s far from being remote — although it often does take a decent bit of time to actually get to the mainland or back here again, especially during the main tourist season. This time issue does mean that it’s fairly isolating though and, when compared to the rest of Vietnam, the combination of it being an island and a tourist hotspot means that everything here is a good bit more expensive than elsewhere in the country.

Beautiful Cat Ba langurs and their perilous habitat
Would you consider locals or tourists to be more of an obstacle for Cat Ba langur conservation?

Tourism really makes things challenging, especially as there is a concerted official effort to boost already unsustainable levels of tourism vastly higher with almost zero consideration given to the impacts of this, the future of the environment, and fierce opposition to any sort of actually enforced regulation or limits to tourism activities.

Tour operators and companies are encouraged to essentially do whatever they want by the authorities and the branches of the government that are assigned with protecting the area and resources, as well as imposing some sort of order on everything (eg. the park rangers), have their funding cut and their authority undermined, making it nearly impossible for them to get tourist operators to behave responsibly and obey the laws and regulations of the region.

We regularly have major issues with tour operators harassing the langurs, to the point where they will sometimes try to push our research boats out of the way when we are observing the langurs. Due to the small numbers and fragility of the langur population, as well as the chaotic and unregulated nature of tourism here, all langur tourism is completely forbidden, yet we now have companies in Vietnam boldly advertising langur tours here and the authorities don’t take action.  When individual operators and boat captains are confronted, they just shrug it off as they know they won’t be facing any consequences.

It’s particularly frustrating as the tourists themselves are, for the most part, completely understanding and supportive of the conservation efforts and restrictions placed on activities, but the tour operators don’t understand that and encourage them to do illegal things and go into off-limits areas.

At present tourism is by far the greater obstacle to conservation activities in the region. Locals are just that, locals. You can work with them, develop a relationship, mutual trust and respect, and get behaviors to change (albeit slowly). Tourists are short-term and only a tiny percentage ever return. The tour operators are concerned primarily with outcompeting the hundreds of others here and with getting as much money as fast as they can while they still can, before moving on to the next place they can do the same thing. Many of the tour operators and companies are not from the area and have no real connection to it, and therefore mainly see this as a place to extract money from, rather than a place to preserve for the future.

Any thoughts on eco-tourism? Are there benefits? Are there drawbacks? Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? Do you think tourism can ever be made truly sustainable?

We have a joke about ‘eco’-tourism, that the ‘eco’ refers to ‘economic’ rather than ‘ecological’.

Ecotourism is great as an idea, but in practice, it tends to be anything but. There are a lot of factors that contribute to this. 

One of the major aspects is just the sheer number of people involved.  Each person, no matter how careful and well-meaning, has a measurable impact on an area. As long as the net impact of everyone is within the recovery potential of the area that’s ok, but, no matter what, there is a carrying capacity that is eventually reached. For ecotourism to be effective, this carrying capacity needs to be strictly adhered to with firm and clear laws, regulations, enforcement, and consequences. In many areas, this is not even remotely the case. 

Another piece of the puzzle that is important when it comes to ecotourism is financial transparency, benefits to the local community, and putting money back into the environment. Again, this tends to be very rare, especially in Southeast Asia.

A major complication in Vietnam specifically is that, at the national planning level, administrators don’t really understand that not all tourism is equal and that different types of tourism are sometimes best kept in different areas. As an example, in California, both Disneyland and Yosemite are popular and successful tourist attractions, but they attract different types of tourists with different goals and expectations. They are successful because they are in different areas where they can cater to those different demographics. If you combined them at least one would lose out. Here in Vietnam, there is a big push to combine all sorts of tourist activities into ‘tourist’ areas, so you have roller coasters, karaoke, and such places directly in areas that have nature-based tourism as their main and original attraction, resulting in major and irreversible impacts in these areas.

In the way tourism is currently managed in the region, we see no environmental benefits and, as a result, the drawbacks massively outweigh everything else. Again, that’s from the perspective of looking at the impacts on the environment of the archipelago.

Can tourism be responsible and/or sustainable? Yes, but doing so takes a lot of work and planning that administrators are often unwilling to do.

Langurs sampling salt water, a behavior that is still being studied
Which of your projects or efforts seem to be having the biggest impact on bringing Cat Ba langurs back from the brink of extinction?

The things that have had the biggest effect on stabilizing the langur population and allowing it to recover are twofold: one is education and the second is providing the langurs with a safe space of good quality habitat where they can remain undisturbed. 

Education is critical. In the early days of the project, 24 years ago now, a great deal of effort was made focusing on developing a sense of local pride in the langurs, getting people to understand and appreciate that this was something that was unique to this specific island, and that whether it survived or went extinct was a matter of personal and regional pride or shame, depending on what happened. This was effective, and once we had that initial key factor in place, local people stopped hunting the langurs and we were able to turn our educational efforts toward the children on the island. Now, we have our environmental education program as an integral portion of the regular class curriculum for all 5th and 6th graders on the island. This is key as these children grow up with a better understanding and awareness of their surroundings, and they also ask questions of their parents and tell them things, thus influencing the adults around them.

Ensuring a safe space for the langurs is also critical as it is often the case that, if left alone and given the opportunity to do so, even species that have suffered catastrophic collapses can recover on their own. At the low point in 2003-2004, the Cat Ba langur population had fallen to around 40 individuals. As of the start of 2024, the official count was 79 individuals (plus a handful that we do not include in the official count as they had not been seen in the previous 6 months), and so far in 2024, we have had 13 surviving babies. Providing the langurs with a safe space has resulted in the population more than doubling and maintaining a steady and increasing growth rate.

Unfortunately, now tourism threatens that undisturbed portion of the equation.

In terms of ecology and evolution, biodiversity is a bit like money is for us humans. It represents potential, the ability to do things, to respond to the unexpected, to have options, and to be able to take advantage of opportunities. Evolution doesn’t work in a vacuum, it can only work with the materials at hand.

What do you think is the current outlook for the species?

As long as impacts and disturbances can be kept to a minimum the outlook is good. Recent genetic analysis indicates that, despite there being low genetic diversity, the population is very healthy. In the same analysis, there is evidence to indicate that the prehistoric population went through repeated population bottlenecks and re-expansions, which suggests that, when conditions are right, they have a history of recovery.

The population will never be large and will always need protection and monitoring. The genetic work suggests that the past population was vastly smaller than previously estimated, and independent habitat analysis of the island also indicates that the island was not capable of supporting a population as large as past estimates claimed.

Ideally, we need to pre-emptively place regions of good habitat into higher levels of protection in order to ensure that the future population has a place to expand into.

Island life for Cat Ba langurs
What do we lose when primate species like the Cat Ba Langur go extinct?

This always strikes me as one of those questions that walks the line between philosophical and practical, with a range of different answers that overlap.

In terms of ecology and evolution, biodiversity is a bit like money is for us humans. It represents potential, the ability to do things, to respond to the unexpected, to have options, and to be able to take advantage of opportunities. Evolution doesn’t work in a vacuum, it can only work with the materials at hand, be those fundamental building blocks like alleles (a stretch of DNA), the larger expression of those in the form of species, or the intersecting network of species we call ecosystems. 

When we lose species, the potential of an ecosystem is reduced. When we have fewer species, ecosystems are less resilient to changes, ecological niches are lost, ecosystem services are impaired, and evolution has fewer tools to work with so more time is needed to find a new ecological stability. Impacts of species loss can be general reductions in ecosystems, or they can be specific and have rapid and dire effects on other species, especially if the one going extinct is a keystone species, such as beavers, or one with a tight evolutionary relationship with specific other species, such as that between the aardvark and the aardvark cucumber.

Primates are no exception to this sort of ecological relationship, and in many areas primates are important forest engineers as they distribute seeds widely, maintaining forest diversity and food supplies that other species also rely on.

We also lose knowledge. When it comes to primates in particular, studying them helps to inform us about ourselves not only in a biological sense but in terms of behaviors and social structures. We learn about things like the evolution of language and the foundations of morality and fairness by observing our relatives and how they interact with each other.

Perhaps most abstractly, but no less importantly, we lose something of ourselves when we allow species to go extinct as a result of our actions. We lose that wonder and appreciation of nature, and, to my mind, we demonstrate that we are irresponsible as a species and in our cultures and not deserving of being stewards of the planet.

The harsh landscape of Cat Ba Island
What might people choose to do or be mindful of in their everyday lives that could help conserve Cat Ba langurs or other critically endangered primates?

I get this sort of question often and, on a certain level, it bothers me a little bit due to one of the assumptions built into it. Often people are more willing to provide aid and assistance to something far away from them rather than looking at what’s going on close to home.

Don’t get me wrong, primates around the world definitely need assistance due to the threats they face, and projects like ours cannot operate without the generosity and concern of people from all over the planet, but the ecological problems we face are not all far from home.

For me, what I’d like to see more of is people getting more engaged with environmental and conservation issues near where they live. Paying more attention to the types of politicians they elect and what the background of those politicians is and what they’re actually qualified to be legislating on, holding businesses accountable for their environmental practices, and encouraging greater access to and education in sciences. These things, when implemented well, have wide-reaching and long-lasting effects — in the long run being far more effective than on-the-ground conservation work.

Again, don’t get me wrong, we need the on-the-ground work and support for it, but in a sense, those of us out in the field are more akin to EMTs or firefighters responding to emergencies and dealing with our local challenges. Thing is that without large-scale enforced policy changes, these local challenges don’t ever stop. An analogy would be how legislation on things like seatbelt use, car crumple zones, road building specifications, and the like have reduced the percentage of fatalities in car accidents. 

If someone does want to contribute to primate or other conservation work focused on a specific species or area we, obviously, welcome it. I encourage everyone doing so to do their background research first and reach out to the conservation organizations doing the work to find out more. I especially encourage people to be looking at the ones that are smaller and actually based on-site, even if it is more difficult to provide support or the support isn’t eligible for a tax write-off. In my experience, the smaller local organizations often do the most with the least and have the largest immediate effect both for the species at hand and when it comes to things like education and local livelihoods. For people who may have more money available and/or may be more interested in policy changes, then look at the larger organizations and see what they’re doing, as well as universities that work on these issues.

For us specifically, our primary sponsor is Zoo Leipzig in Germany, so support earmarked for the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project can be provided to us via them.  For non-European-based supporters, it’s a bit more challenging, but contact us and we can often find a way to make something work.

What gives you hope about Cat Ba langur conservation and/or primate conservation in general?

A really good thing is that, on average, education and awareness are rising, especially in younger generations. It’ll take a while but, as these people move into positions of responsibility and decision-making, they will have an increasing influence over legislation, policy, business, and the like.

Our work here demonstrates that, with a long-term commitment and hard work, primates and other species populations can stabilize and start to recover. However, doing so in different areas requires a deep understanding of the local pressures people face and how to address those vis-à-vis the ecological goal. This means that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach and that flexible tailored approaches are vital. There is an ever-increasing awareness of this, and hopefully, this will result in more projects that have a long-term commitment to an area, the species, and the people.


Donations can be made directly from their Facebook page:
Use the tab labeled “Spendenaktion” (“Fundraising”). They request that you send them a message if you do donate. Any and all donations are greatly appreciated and will be applied directly to their conservation work.
If anyone is interested in donating gear instead, the two most reliable options are to bring or send gear to Zoo Leipzig, tagged for the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project, or to physically bring the items to them on Cat Ba Island if you’re traveling in the area.
Types of equipment we always need:
• Waterproof Binoculars
• Durable point-and-shoot cameras
• Waterproof field notebooks
• Waterproof bags/backpacks
• GPS units (Garmin)
• Laptops (windows)
• Canon camera equipment (DSLR)
Any durable, useful field equipment will be put to good use by their staff, anti-poaching teams in the villages, or the rangers working to protect the langurs and other species on Cat Ba Island.

All photos courtesy of ©Neahga Leonard

By Zachary Lussier, June 2024