Popa Langurs and popa langur products are in use for medical purpose in many countries across the Indian ocean. Stories about this animal were gathered and written by students. They are all part of a pedagogical project, funded by the National University of Singapore and the Université de Paris. The Bestiary site is a work-in-progress and a participatory educational tool, representing animals whose products or body parts are used to promote health and healing.
The Popa Langur
A Story by Myat Pan Yone
The popa langur, only discovered as recently as 2020 (CNN 2020), is an animal found exclusively in Myanmar. Unfortunately, together with its discovery, it was also found that the popa langurs are on the brink of extinction with less than 300 left (CNN 2020). The popa langur is, however, not red-listed by the IUCN, likely due to its relatively recent discovery. But it could be red-listed in the near future.
The popa langur is named after the Popa Mountain, an extinct volcano and most famous as a site of pilgrimage for Theravada Buddhists. The sacred site is also home to other species of primates who live freely on the mountain, and tourists are expected to respect these creatures when visiting the mountain. Though the popa langur is associated with the Popa Mountain, it has little religious significance and appears it was only named as such because the majority of the popa langurs are found on the mountain.
Due to its recent discovery, there is little that is known about the popa langur. However, there is documentation of the other species of langurs found in Myanmar and unfortunately, the documentation reveals the cruelty that has been inflicted on them for their supposed medicinal benefits. For instance, in the Mon state in Myanmar, local traditional medicine sellers have been found to sell langur bones as they are believed to be a cure for tendon pain (Nijman and Sheperd 2017). Based on the analysis of the non-human body parts that were being sold, Nijman and Sheperd conclude that the vast majority of the body parts had to have been obtained by killing the animal. This was because body parts such as bones are not naturally shed by animals, unlike antlers, and it was unlikely that such a volume of animal parts could be obtained through the animals’ natural deaths alone (Nijman and Sheperd 2017). However, because the use of langur bones for medicinal purposes, so far, has only been found in the Mon State, the popa langurs may have been relatively safe as they are found in a different region of Myanmar.
Furthermore, it is perhaps unlikely that any poaching or other forms of violence will be inflicted on them because the popa langurs are mostly found in a sacred site. One of the core principles of Buddhism is to inflict no harm on other beings, and to kill or injure animals on a sacred site like Popa Mountain would be considered taboo or deeply profane.
More research and documentation is necessary to understand more about the popa langur. Additionally, more scientific interest and international attention to the popa langur could urge the local authorities to take more measures in protecting this endangered species.
Monkeys, crocodiles, crab (Mukteswar temple, Orissa, India, 2018) © Leo Jalais
Popa Langur, © Zweer de Bruin, 2015, Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0
Value of Asian medicine
The Delacour’s langur from Vietnam, in particular, has been a popular choice among traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners to produce remedies because almost every part of its body, from its bones to internal organs, is considered to have medicinal value (Still, 2003). Due to the demand for the Delacour’s langur body parts for TCM, they are illegally hunted, and this has caused the species to be classified as “critically endangered” (Species Conservation, n.d).
Besides TCM, traditional Burmese medicine also considers the langur to possess medicinal value. Specifically, in the Mon state in Myanmar, it is believed that the body parts of the langur can be used to provide humans pain relief (Nijman and Sheperd 2017). Therefore, it is not just TCM but other variations of traditional medicine in Southeast Asia that pose a risk to the langurs in the wild.
Similar to the Delacour’s langur, the Francois’ langur has also been the target for poaching because of the animal’s supposed medicinal benefit. Unfortunately, like the Delacour’s langur, the Francois’ langur has also been declared to be an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and only around 2000 of them remain in the wild today (Pairidaiza, 2019). Besides illegal hunting, the Francois’ langur has also been endangered due to habitat loss because the forests they live in are cleared by the local residents who depend on firewood for energy and economic activities (Hu et. al, 2004).
It is interesting to note that although langurs are believed to possess medicinal powers that can heal humans, they also have the ability to carry diseases that can harm humans. It has been well-established that langurs, like other monkeys, are zoonoses carriers that can transmit harmful diseases to humans (Still, 2003). As the trafficking and hunting for animals for TCM are still largely unregulated, there is a lack of documentation regarding the diseases that specific species have transmitted (Still, 2003). Nonetheless, there is a very close association between the body parts of langurs, and primates in general, and the transmission of infectious diseases like rabies and tuberculosis (Still, 2003). It is thus rather ironic that body parts of the langur can, in fact, cause deadly harm to humans despite the fact that they are used for medicinal purposes.
Through the lens of “western” medicine and science, it appears that there is more evidence to suggest that the use of langurs is more dangerous than helpful to humans. This is because although there is scientific evidence to support that they are zoonoses carriers, there is little to no scientific evidence to support the claims of benefits to human health. It could be argued that there is value in TCM that simply cannot be explained through the lens of “western” medicine and science. However, considering the permanent and significant environmental harms that TCM and other traditional medicines can cause, it is worth exploring the possibility of regulating the traditional medicine industry more strictly. Perhaps, governments can encourage or incentivise TCM practitioners to develop alternative medicines that can be made using plants only rather than animals. Likewise, individual consumers can also choose to spend their dollar on other more sustainable types of medicine to lower the demand for animal-based traditional medicine.