updated 7/3/2007 5:10:29 PM ET 2007-07-03T21:10:29

The largest known population of rare, gray-shanked doucs has been discovered in a remote part of Vietnam, raising the prospect the endangered monkeys can be saved from extinction, scientists said Tuesday.

Considered one of the world's 25 most-endangered primates, the species has only been recorded in the five central Vietnamese provinces. Fewer than 1,000 individuals are believed to exist, and until now only one other population with more than 100 animals was known.

"This is an exciting and important discovery because of the large size of the population," Barney Long, a conservation biologist with the World Wide Fund for Nature's Vietnam program, said in a statement.

"It's very rare to discover a population of this size with such high numbers in a small area, especially for a species on the brink of extinction," he said. "This indicates that the population has not been impacted by hunting like all other known populations of the species."

Three surveys since 2005 by the WWF and Conservation International in Que Phuoc commune in Quang Nam province recorded at least 116 animals, with an estimated population of over 180 individuals. To date, only a small part of the area has been surveyed, meaning significantly more doucs may live in the adjacent forest, the agencies said.

"To put it into a human perspective, this discovery is like finding a new country with over 1 billion people in it," said Ben Rawson, a regional wildlife biologist for Conservation International's Indo-Burma Program. "We now have a much greater opportunity to overcome the very serious threats faced by this species and prevent its disappearance from our planet."

The gray-shanked douc, or Pygathrix cinerea, was first described in 1997. They are colobine monkeys with cream-and peach-colored faces and white around their mouths. Their backs, bellies and arms are gray, and their hands are black; they have tufts of gray on their heads and white whiskers and tails. They spend much of their time in tree tops, subsisting on fruit and leaves.

Like many primate species in Vietnam, their population has been devastated by hunting and to a lesser degree by habitat loss. A 2006 assessment by the World Conservation Union determined 65 percent of Vietnam's primate species and subspecies were endangered or critically endangered, making the country one of the highest global priorities for primate conservation.

Long said the WWF has done a feasibility study of the 133,434-acre area in Quang Nam Province, where the monkeys were found. It has recommended the area be turned into a species- and habitat-protected area that would, among other things, ban hunting and prevent forest from being converted into plantations.

"There are lots of important areas in the province and the government is weighing which ones they are going to protect," Long said of four areas up for protection.

"I obviously would like to see them to protect all four," he said. "But they have to weigh the benefits the province will get from biodiversity conservation against the things they would lose, such as potential logging revenue and things like this."

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