World’s gib­bon pop­u­la­tion faces threat of ex­tinc­tion

The world’s gib­bon pop­u­la­tion is fac­ing the threat of ex­tinc­tion. Chen Liang finds out what is be­ing done to pre­serve what’s left of the pop­u­la­tion in China.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at chen­liang@chi­ Li Yingqing con­trib­uted to the story.

Western black-crested gib­bon is more en­dan­gered than the gi­ant panda, even though it is the coun­try’s most pop­u­lous gib­bon. With a global pop­u­la­tion of 1,100-1,400, it was listed as crit­i­cally en­dan­gered on the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion’s Red List. The gib­bon, No­mas­cus con­color, has a dis­con­tin­u­ous dis­tri­bu­tion across south­west­ern China, north­west­ern Laos and north­ern Viet­nam. Yun­nan prov­ince has the big­gest pop­u­la­tion, with nearly 80 per­cent of the pri­mate species liv­ing in moist ev­er­green broadleaf forests on the Ai­lao Moun­tains and Wu­liang Moun­tains.

For­tu­nately, their habi­tats on the moun­tain ranges are by and large un­spoiled.

“Plac­ing 1,000-1,300 western black-crested gib­bons and their habi­tats un­der pro­tec­tion has be­come the coun­try’s big­gest hope to keep gib­bons singing in the wild,” says Long Yongcheng, the chief sci­en­tist with The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy’s China Of­fice. He was speak­ing at the launch cer­e­mony for a trekking event on the Ai­lao Moun­tains, held re­cently in Kun­ming.

Gib­bons’ singing was of­ten de­scribed in an­cient Chi­nese po­ems, the bi­ol­o­gist said, as they could be found as far north as to­day’s Gansu and Shanxi prov­inces. “But now, few peo­ple know the ex­is­tence of gib­bons in the coun­try,” he says. “Fewer have the luck to lis­ten to their duets in the wild.”

That is be­cause the coun­try’s six gib­bon species can only be found in Yun­nan and Hainan prov­inces, and the Guangxi Zhuang au­ton­o­mous re­gion. The to­tal pop­u­la­tion stands at about 1,500.

Of them, a small area be­tween north­ern Viet­nam and Guangxi is the only habi­tat in the world where the east­ern black-crested gib­bon is found. With 18 fam­i­lies of about 100 an­i­mals, they have been “wan­der­ing around the bor­ders”, ac­cord­ing to Fan Pengfei, one of the coun­try’s lead­ing gib­bon re­searchers.

The Hainan gib­bon, found only in the is­land prov­ince, is also one of the world’s most en­dan­gered pri­mate species. The new­est fig­ure is two fam­i­lies of 23 mam­mals, Long says, all re­sid­ing in Bawan­gling Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve. In 2003, there were only two groups of 13 gib­bons.

North­ern white-cheeked gib­bon, with a pop­u­la­tion of more than 2,000 in south­ern Yun­nan in the 1960s and a pop­u­la­tion of about seven groups of 40 an­i­mals in 1989, has not been sighted for many years. “It might be ex­tinct al­ready in the coun­try,” Long says.

Hoolock gib­bon is dis­trib­uted in the coun­try mainly in Yingjiang, Teng­chong and Baoshan of western Yun­nan, with a pop­u­la­tion of 150 in 40 fam­i­lies.

The white-handed gib­bon that lives in the south­ern­most part of Yun­nan had three fam­i­lies of about 10 mam­mals in 1992, and hasn’t been spot­ted for sev­eral years. “The sta­tus of the western black-crested gib­bon is the only one that is not so gloomy,” Long says.

About 150 groups of 700-800 western black-crested gib­bons are liv­ing on the Ai­lao Moun­tains, of which an es­ti­mated 500 gib­bons in 124 groups were recorded in the Ai­lao Moun­tains na­ture re­serves within Xin­ping county, in a sur­vey done in 2009 and 2010.

“Thus, Xin­ping has the world’s largest pop­u­la­tion of western black-crested gib­bon with the high­est den­sity,” says Yang Xian­ming, di­rec­tor of the Ai­lao Moun­tains Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve’s Xin­ping Bureau.

While the other gib­bons liv­ing in the coun­try face se­ri­ous threats of habi­tat loss and poach­ing, Yang says, the western black-crested gib­bons still dom­i­nate the coun­try’s largest prim­i­tive mid­dle-moun­tain moist broadleaf forests on the Ai­lao Moun­tains. In Xin­ping, moist broadleaf forests cover more than 30,000 hectares, Yang says.

The forests, of­ten dis­trib­uted 1,800 me­ters above sea level, are much higher than hu­man set­tle­ments in the area, Yang says. On the lower slopes, the res­i­dents have enough col­lec­tive forests for fire­wood and con­struc­tion-ma­te­rial wood. Peo­ple of the Dai eth­nic group liv­ing in the area have no deep­rooted tra­di­tion of hunt­ing.

“We don’t have too much pres­sure from hunt­ing and log­ging,” Yang says. “Since a mas­sive mud­slide killed more than 40 peo­ple in 2002, our (county) gov­ern­ment has paid spe­cial at­ten­tion to en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion.”

In the past decade, more than 40 vil­lages near the re­serve were re­lo­cated to lower ar­eas. Be­sides 14,000 hectares of the forests within the ju­ris­dic­tion of the na­tional re­serve, the lo­cal gov­ern­ment al­lo­cated an area of 10,000 hectares as countylevel na­ture re­serve and a 4,000-hectare State-owned for­est to the re­serve’s man­age­ment.

“That means 28,000 hectares of in­tact forests with­out any vil­lage,” Yang says. “It has truly sim­pli­fied our man­age­ment work.”

Now, Yang is most con­cerned about for­est fires and a short­age of man­power.

“The dry sea­son be­tween Novem­ber and May is the busiest sea­son,” he says. “The moun­tains are so vast and pre­cip­i­tous that if there is fire, it will be dis­as­trous for the for­est and gib­bons.”

Only 14 for­mal em­ploy­ees and 50 tem­po­rary pa­trol­men are man­ag­ing the re­serve, Yang says, do­ing ev­ery­thing from fire­proof­ing to an­i­mal mon­i­tor­ing.

“For our 500 gib­bons, we have only five pa­trol­men ex­clu­sively re­spon­si­ble to mon­i­tor them in the forests,” he says.

“It’s far from suf­fi­cient. But we have the con­fi­dence that th­ese for­est spir­its will be able to swing freely through our for­est canopies.”


A fe­male western black-crested gib­bon feeds in the canopy of a moist ev­er­green broadleaf for­est in Yun­nan prov­ince.

The Ai­lao Moun­tains in Yun­nan is home to the coun­try’s best pre­served moist broadleaf forests.


A male western black-crested gib­bon feeds on ten­der leaves.

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