Vietnam's endangered langur losing home to bonsai industry

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The lucrative bonsai business in Vietnam has tempted many people to steal trees from a national park, driving a near-extinct douc langur species closer to the edge.

The white-headed langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus), which is among the rarest primates in the world, is a critically endangered species found in Cat Ba Island, Vietnam and Guangxi, China.

VnExpress news website report Monday said there are around 70 members of the species at Cat Ba National Park in northern Vietnam, a ten member increase from 2000.

But conservationists said the species is suffering from severe habitat loss as people are stealing trees from the park, particularly the fig tree, a popular bonsai item that can sell for more than US$1,000.

Nguyen Cong Chi, owner of a potted tree business in Hanoi that has around 700 items for sale, said in a Guardian report last Friday that some of his trees which are more than 150 years old can sell for $350,000 each.

Chi said older trees bring more money, which is why many are taken from the national park.

This practice has prompted the Vietnam Natural and Traditional Beauty Association to ban its members from taking trees from protected forests and expel anyone doing so, the Guardian reported.

But it's not easy for poor farmers living near Cat Ba, one of Vietnam's most famous national parks.

Pham Van Tuyen, a conservation officer, said as hunting has become more difficult with animals growing scarcer, local people are taking the trees instead.

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"It just takes a couple of hours to go into the forest and take a tree but it can take 30 to 40 years to grow one," he told the Guardian.

Another conservation officer Vu Huu Tinh said soon "there will be nothing left in the park, not even trees."

Both Tinh and Tuyen are working for the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project, set up in 2000 by German zoological experts, aiming to employ local people to protect the langur and run education programs in surrounding communities.

Project manager Rick Passaro said the island is very rich in biodiversity.

"Recently rangers found a species of snake never recorded on the island before. Scientists just found two new species, one bat and one gecko, but the large animals are in deep, deep trouble," Passaro said.

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