Autumn in the Kingdom of Heaven: Golden Monkeys and Golden Leaves in China

Brad Josephs May 6, 2018 0
born in china, golden monkey china

When our group hiked a short distance into the forest and encountered a troop of 90 golden snub-nosed monkeys, the first thing I noticed was how beautiful they were with an autumn foliage backdrop.  This was my first fall in China, and it was even more enchanting than I had imagined.

A visit to Sichuan, Qinghai and Shaanxi provinces of China in autumn reveals amazing sights, including incredible encounters with wild golden snub-nosed monkeys that have lost their fear of people. The color of the changing leaves, the stunning winter coats of the monkeys and that crisp fall weather make for magical moments in the wild mountains of Shaanxi Province.

born in china, china golden snub-nosed monkeys

This is the same troop of monkeys that was featured in the stunning film “Born In China.” These light colored, hyperactive guys with the blue faces, like this guy, are the subadult males. They have been kicked out of the harem family groups by the alpha males and form their own gang known in the film of “the lost boys.”

The golden snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellana) of southwestern China is endangered due to habitat loss and historical hunting, and only between 8,000 and 15,000 of them remain in the wild. There are three subspecies of golden snub-nosed monkeys found in the mountainous regions of Hubei, Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces.  There are only 4,000 of the subspecies that we encountered (Rhinopithecus roxellana qinlingensis) in the Qingling Mountains west of Xi’an. Only one troop of wild monkeys have become accustomed to people through occasional supplemental feeding programs. These monkeys are still wild and eat their normal wild foods such as inner tree bark, flower buds, leaves and insects; however, they do take advantage of rangers who provide apples and corn for them at certain times of year. The habituation to people allows for nature enthusiasts like us to observe and photograph them, film projects such as to allow the world to fall in love with them and wildlife biologists to study them. During one of our visits, we met two Chinese wildlife biologists unlocking mysteries on their nutrition and sleeping behaviors through observational research because the monkeys are indifferent to their presence.

Of the many primate viewing and photography experiences I have enjoyed throughout the world, hanging out with these golden snub-nosed monkeys is definitely my favorite. Not only are they the most beautiful primate I have ever seen, their crazy social dynamics and behaviors are also the most entertaining and intriguing. They travel in groups of up to 800 animals, depending on the time of year, which helps keep them safe from predators such as goshawks, and leopards.  Each mature male in the greater troop is accompanied by a few females and their offspring. These are known as small harem groups. This social structure, consisting of many small, independent families that travel and coexist together, makes for constant drama. Jealousy runs deep in these monkeys.  One minute a squabble breaks out between two females, who accuse each other of staring too long at their males, and then one of the females attacks a male for inappropriate eye contact with another gal.  Chaos breaks out for a few minutes, with monkeys flying all over the place, screeching and jumping from tree to tree. Just as quickly, it subsides, and all the families reunite separately and make up with long, intimate hugs. It is thought that hugging has a dual purpose, primarily for social bonding and also to stay warm on long winter nights. Golden snub-nosed monkeys live at a colder average temperature than any primate other than humans. Their strange lack of noses is possibly an adaptation to cold weather, as the nose is often the most vulnerable to frostbite.

golden monkey encounter, Xi'an

Unlike macaques, baboons, orangutans and other primates that have no fear of people and can be naughty and sometimes dangerous, we are never threatened or approached. We feel as if we are invisible and can just watch the action. Image of Dr. Marie Crandall, an ER surgeon and surgery professor from Jacksonville, Florida.

Golden monkey in China

One of the many adult males keeps a close watch on his wives and offspring of his “small harem group” as they mingle with other family groups.

Golden monkey in China.

After a squabble breaks out, which usually arises from jealousy, hugs relieve the tension, and restore social bonds.

Golden monkey in China.

What a face!

Golden monkey in China.

Opposable thumbs on the feet of primates allow them to grip branches with all four limbs.

Golden monkey in China.

One of the “lost boys.” These guys are curious, mischievous, hyperactive teenage males.

Golden monkey in China.

The wartlike growths at the corners of an alpha male’s mouth are thought to show its mature status. There is a theory that the warts secrete pheromones to attract females.

Golden monkey in China.

I often wonder what goes through the mind of a primate when they stare and study me. I must look so strange to them.

Golden monkey in China.

Eye contact.

Golden monkey in China.

Golden monkey in China.

Golden monkey in China.

A big guy and one of his females relax and snuggle together after they have copulated.

Golden monkey in China.

Within each harem, the 3 or 4 females help each other raise the offspring.

Golden monkey in China.

Mom and baby.

Golden monkey in China.

Another intimate hugging moment.

Golden monkey in China.

I love to find something interesting to put in the background when photographing an animal. Here, a family in the back is just perfect.

Golden monkey in China.

Linda Magnusen watching the monkeys.

Golden monkey in China.

Golden monkey in China.

Nat Hab traveler with golden monkey.

This amazing woman, Donna Silverman, was on the first trip I guided in China in 2008. Since then, our trips have become so different and so much better. I was happy to share China at its best and take her off the beaten path to explore and appreciate the “Real Wild China.”

Marlene Miller-Dyke and Donald Dyke on their 11th nat hab trip.

Marlene Miller-Dyke and Donald Dyke on their 11th Nat Hab trip.

Donna Silverman with golden monkey.

Donna Silverman

Family moment with golden monkeys

A family moment.

Golden monkey in China.

Young monkeys this size are always on the lookout for the silent, lightning-fast enemy that can appear out of nowhere at any second—the infamous Goshawk.

Golden monkey in China.

Golden monkey in China.

I can’t get enough of these beautiful and unique primates in the mountain forests of China. This is one of many species that was saved from extinction by the conservation efforts to save the giant panda beginning in the 1970s. Nat Hab was one of the first companies to support China’s budding ecotourism industry, which is helping to put a value on wildlife and wild places in China.

All photos © Brad Josephs

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