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German zoologist has engaged in conservation efforts in Vietnam for nearly 30 years


Dr. Jörg Adler (2nd, L), director of Allwetterzoo Münster in Germany's northern city of Münster, and Vietnamese forest rangers during a 2012 field trip in Cat Ba Island, the northern province of Quang Ninh. The German zoologist has worked for wildlife protection projects in Vietnam since the 1990s./ PHOTO COURTESY OF JÖRG ADLER.

If you want to see a photograph of the Cat Ba langur, you can google it.

Chances are that almost every photograph you get see was taken by Jörg Adler.

Chances also are that if you were to get a chance to see the golden-headed primate in real life, Adler's work made it possible.

The 67-year-old German, currently the director of Allwetterzoo Münster in Germany's northern city of Münster, does not remember exactly how many times he has visited Vietnam over the past three decades. But the purpose of all his visits has been the same helping Vietnam conserve its wildlife.

When he returns to Vietnam this November, he will review a project to conserve the critically endangered langurs on Cat Ba Island, which is situated to the south of Ha Long Bay. He needs to make sure that the project is still doing well to continue receiving sponsorship from the German government and international organizations.

Adler has been part of the project since it was founded in 2000 by the Münster zoo and the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations in collaboration with Vietnamese government.

The efforts of Adler and his colleagues to protect the langurs are also featured in a documentary titled Die Affenfänger von Cat Ba (literally translated as "The langur catchers in Cat Ba") that the German-owned television broadcasting company Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, or ZDF, aired in July.

One of the film's main features is the mission of bringing two isolated langurs back to their group in Cat Ba Island in November last year. The monkeys had lived with two others on Dong Cong Island that connected with Cat Ba by a mangrove forest. However, after the forest was destroyed for shrimp farms many years ago, they were separated from their group.

One of the monkeys was later killed by poachers, while the other died of old age.

Experts and staff members with the Cat Ba conservation project spent about two years preparing for the moving plan that was led by Adler. They started the plan early November, and waited for some ten days before successfully catching the animals and returning them to their group.

The mission was among many activities that the project has undertaken over the past 13 years, helping stop the hunt for Cat Ba langurs and increasing its population from 53 to at least 65 individuals now.

Protecting the rare langurs in Cat Ba is not the only project in Vietnam that Adler has supported.

In November 1990, he visited Cuc Phuong National Park in the northern province of Ninh Binh following reports that a douc langur had been seen there. It was a species believed to be extinct then. 

However, when he reached the park, the monkey had already died, because it was fed bananas and rice when it could only eat leaves.

Adler and his Vietnamese colleagues spent many days going around the park until they found three douc langurs in a cave.

"We had a party right in the forest with boiled eggs, hand-rolled rice and a few beers," said Adler, recalling the happiness and celebration.

Following the discovery, Adler founded a project to conserve the species and set up a primate rescue center at the park with support from the Frankfurt Zoological Society.

A year later, his wife, Gudrun Adler, was shot by poachers when she was working near the cave. Although the bullet did not threaten her life, it took many days to get her hearing ability back, Adler said.

Vietnamese authorities tried to track down the culprits but did not succeed, the German zoologist said, adding that he thought the poachers wanted to threaten them so they would stop protecting the doucs.

However, the shooting did not discourage Adler. In fact, he even convinced his friend Tilo Nadler to come to work in Vietnam, and Nadler now is the director of the national park's Endangered Primate Rescue Center.

For his contributions, Adler was honored by the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations with a medal for "peace and friendship between peoples."

The gifts

Adler said he first came to Vietnam in 1986, when he accompanied animals that the Leipzig Zoo, where he was working, gifted to Ho Chi Minh City's zoo. Previously, Vietnam's authorities had given elephants to the German zoo.

They traveled by sea then, and each trip took them one and half month, so both Adler and the animals were seasick, he recalled.

It took Adler four years to deliver all the animals, including zebras, giraffes, lions, and orangutans to their new home.

Among all the trips, he can never forget the one in which one of his colleagues accidentally let a lion escape from its cage and run to the deck. Everyone was frightened, and all they could do was close the door of the hold to protect themselves from the roaring animal.

Adler then called the Leipzig Zoo for help and was instructed to drug the lion with anesthetic. All by himself, he faced the animal and induced it to eat a piece of drugged meat.

"I thought my situation at that time was rather similar to Pi in the movie Life of Pi. But, I was much luckier than him because I, the animals and all of my colleagues survived it."

During those early trips to Vietnam at that time, Adler brought along boxes of cacao powder, glutamate, soaps and other necessities as gifts for his Vietnamese friends. Another item that he added after the first trip was apples, after seeing how much his friends loved the fruit, then rare in the country. He gave out apples to his friends, the zoo's staff, visitors and especially children at nearby kindergartens.

Adler also took part in training staff members for zoos in HCMC and Hanoi.

Ha Dinh Duc, a Hanoi-based associate professor who worked with Adler at the Cuc Phuong National Park, said his German friend once told him that he "learned a lot" from Vietnamese people when working with them.

Adler told Duc that the way Vietnamese showed their respect and love for their parents encouraged him to visit his parents in Leipzig City more frequently, and later, to take his father to live near his home in Münster City and care for him when he had fallen sick.

Although he is now based in Germany, Adler's bonds with Vietnam will never be broken. His house in Münster has full of memorabilia collected during his numerous trips here.

He even has a cassette tape with the recording of a phở street vendor calling out for customers at night in Hanoi during the 1990s.

"It is the most melodious sound I have ever heard in my life," Adler said.

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