Sanctuary for the casualties of man vs. nature

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An animal rescue center in Vietnam's north saves injured primates, restores them to health and nurtures a love of wild creatures amongst staff and visitors alike.

It was almost midnight on the first day of March when army veteran Dang Kim Cuong came across two men who were about to kill a douc for food in Hanh Thuan, a commune in the central province of Quang Ngai.

Cuong managed to convince them to give him the wounded grey-shanked douc (Pygathrix cinerea), a tree-dwelling colobine monkey with an orange face and tufts of whiskers, by saying it was a rare and precious animal.

Keeping the animal tied up in the office of the provincial veterans' association, Cuong couldn't help worrying that it would escape or struggle against the chain until it died.

So the next day he called the Emergency Primate Rescue Center of Cuc Phuong National Park, 120 kilometers from Hanoi.

Almost immediately, German primate expert Timo Gessner and chief breeder Nguyen Duc Vinh arrived in Quang Ngai to pick it up.

From that moment until it was well again, the two men took care of the douc just like they do for any survivor from the wild.

To Vinh, a 36-year-old member of the Muong tribe, it was a routine rescue mission with one difference.

A grey-shanked douc which was transfered to the center early this month, is getting familiar with its new environment

This time they didn't have to pay a ransom in return for the animal, a first in Vinh's dozen years at the center.

"On many rescue trips, I have seen our director Tilo Nadler crying and beating the table as I tried to convince them to hand an animal over to us," Vinh says.

Established in 1994 by Cuc Phuong National Park and the Frankfurt Zoological Society, the center is the first place in the world to help all species of douc.

It even breeds and raises grey-shanked doucs, which are listed as critically endangered.

At the moment, the center is caring for 150 primates injured by hunters or in the forest.

The wounds caused by traps and bullets can be heartrending, says Vinh, who has often come across mutilated doucs. Some have damaged arms, while others are bleeding and crying aloud.

Some primates have no external injuries but their digestive tracts have been damaged by poor diet. These cases take a long time to recover, and sometimes they don't.

Doucs mainly eat leaves along with some acrid vegetables and roots, but people who don't know their diet feed them bananas and sweet fruits, like they would for any monkey, Vinh explains. Some animals die because their stomachs have been destroyed by the wrong food.

When a new primate arrives at the center, it is put into isolation and given frequent small meals and health checks.

At first, the animal is fed a variety of leaves in accordance with its habits and habitat, then by observing which leaves it likes, the human minders learn which ones to feed it regularly.

A newcomer has many small meals a day, usually once every three hours, while the center's veterans get four normal meals daily.

"Upon arrival here, every one of our 'friends' is panicky so it receives special care that can help it become familiar with the 'family,'" Vinh explains.

The 25 members of staff including international experts often refer to an adult primate as "friend" and a young one as "baby."

The story of Regala

Last August, the Emergency Primate Rescue Center of Cuc Phuong National Park admitted a distressed douc from the Ba To Ranger Center in Quang Ngai.

Less than 12 months old, the tiny animal had become hysterical after seeing its parents shot to death.

Rangers saved it from a family's house where it had not eaten or drunk anything for three days.

Vinh says he has never seen such a case in his 12 years at the center. The douc, which he named Regala, was so weak that it almost died.

"We rushed it to the center, made up some formula and fed it like a baby. But it was too tired to keep the bottle in its mouth," Vinh remembers.

The worst was the extreme stress that Regala was experiencing. The animal would scream at times and even have convulsions.

The center assigned female staff to comfort and feed the douc every day.

Gradually, Regala became familiar with humans and learned how to pick up a leaf.

Nowadays, the diminutive creature has its own comfortable pen heated to 25 degrees Celsius at all times. It also has its own water pillow and warm towels kept in a wardrobe labeled "Regala."

Twice a day, the "mothers" carry their charge around in the sun that shines through the trees.

As it gets familiar with the forest again and learns the douc way of doing things, Regala's milk intake is being reduced in favor of more leaves and vegetables.

Nguyen Thi Thu Phuong of the center says the milk will stop altogether once Regala is two years old.

"If we coddle it too much, the 'baby' won't be able to live independently and will find it impossible to return to the forest," she says.

"Still, it's good to see that Regala has gained weight and changed its attitude recently."

Regala is just one of many touching stories about doucs that nurture a love of animals not only among the staff but also the many visitors from all walks of life, Vinh says.

Vietnam is now the only country in the world that has grey-shanked doucs. According to the center, there are still over 500 inhabiting some of the old forests from Quang Nam on the coast to Kon Tum in the highlands.

Hunting, trapping and loss of habitat, however, remain a perpetual threat to their existence.

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