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Denver Zoo staff to travel to Vietnam to help Asian elephants, Michael Jackson monkeys

This month, four Denver Zoo staff members will travel to Vietnam to help two endangered species: Asian elephants -- up to twelve of which will one day live in the zoo's new Asian Tropics exhibit -- and Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys, an extraordinarily endangered species of monkey that zoo conservation biologist Amy Levine says looks like "a cross between Michael Jackson and Angelina Jolie."

There are only 150 Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys left in the wild, Levine says. In the past, the locals hunted them for food and traded them. (Both acts are now outlawed.) In addition, deforestation has threatened their habitat. They live in the limestone karst forests of northern Vietnam, which Levine describes as "dangerous; the limestone is sharp and slippery." To navigate it, researchers wear special protective gloves and sturdy shoes, and scramble on all fours up and over the rocks.

Not many people live in the forest, although quite a few live just outside it, Levine says. On this trip, the researchers will be conducting what Levine calls a "forest resources use analysis" to determine if the people and the monkeys are using the same resources.

"People use the forest, and so do the monkeys," she says, "so we'll be trying to determine if they're using the same trees or the same fruits or the same parts of the forest so that we can target our conservation efforts toward those trees, fruits and parts of the forest."

The Denver Zoo doesn't have any Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys (to Levine's knowledge, there are none in captivity), but it does have two Asian elephants: Mimi and Dolly. And when Asian Tropics is completed in the spring, they may get up to ten more -- eight of which could be males, making the zoo's bull herd the largest in the country.

Read more about this daunting feat -- and the heightened sexual period known as "musth" experienced by male elephants -- in the Westword cover story, "Caution: A herd of bull elephants is coming to the Denver Zoo."

In Vietnam, Levine and others will be helping to build elephant-proof fences at Dong Nai Culture and Nature Reserve, a natural area in the south where both elephants and people live. The fences are necessary to protect people's crops from hungry elephants -- and in turn, protect elephants from angry people.

"They destroy human livelihoods in the region," Levine says. What's more, she says, "sometimes, the elephants trample homes to the ground in order to get to the rice.... One of the ways we've found to mitigate that conflict is by building sturdy electric fences around the crops and around the people."

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And since the Denver Zoo now has some elephant-fence-building expertise as a result of the construction of Asian Tropics, its experts will be lending their knowledge in terms of how big, how sturdy and which shape the fences should be, among other aspects.

So why is the Denver Zoo being so helpful? "Conservation is becoming the mission of zoos," Levine explains. "If animals aren't conserved in their natural habitat, there's little reason to have animals in zoos in the future. It's important to not only see them every day here, but to make sure those animals are still in the wild for generations to come."

Because a world without a species of monkey that resembles the King of Pop is a world that's way lame. Don't believe us? Check out the photo below and dare to disagree.

More from our News archives: "Hand-feeding Burger King food to bears? When it comes to stupidity, that's a Whopper!"

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