Today (24th October) we celebrate International Gibbon Day, a day to celebrate and spread awareness for the 20 recognised species of small ape, or more commonly known, the gibbon.
Gibbons may be referred to as small apes but that does not make them any less impressive as their close relatives the gorilla and orangutan. These swinging acrobatic primates are the voice of the rainforests or southern Asia, living perfectly adapted to their life in the trees, rarely descending to the ground.
Currently 20 species of gibbon are recognised, with the most recent being the Skywalker Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing), with the team discovering the species being huge Star Wars fans. Of these 20 species, 19 are considered Critically Endangered or Endangered on the IUCN Red List, due predominately to anthropogenic threats, including habitat loss and hunting for the pet trade or use in traditional medicine practises. These threats have lead to many gibbon species to be among the most threatened primates on earth.
Zoos and wildlife parks across the world play a fundamental role in the conservation of gibbons. This is through a variety of ways, from funding/running and aiding conservation projects within the wild, to funding vital ground breaking research on wild species, or running captive breeding programmes to maintain a long term healthy and genetically managed captive population. Zoos involved in gibbon conservation include: Twycross zoo, ZSL London zoo, Britsol zoo, Chester zoo, Wellington zoo, Perth zoo, Lincoln Park zoo.
ZSL and ZSL London Zoo in particular play a critical role and contribute large amounts of funds to Gibbon conservation through their Hainan Gibbon Program. The Hainan Gibbon (Nomascus hainanus) currently has the status as the world’s rarest ape and primate, with a mere 28 individuals remaining in the wild, giving them their critically endangered status. Numbers of the species saw a severe decline in the late 20th century, primarily due to habitat loss and hunting. The last surviving population is currently restricted to a single forest patch in the Bawangling National Reserve on Hainan Island, China.
ZSL, working alongside Fauna and Flora international (China Programme), IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group’s Section on Small Apes (SSA) and Sun Yat-sen University, have set up and are committed to a long term recovery project for the Hainan Gibbon within Bawangling.
The project aims include:
Help to ensure the continued effective protection of gibbon habitat and enhanced forest connectivity at Bawangling.
Utilise optimal monitoring methods in order to understand gibbon habitat requirements and dispersal.
Encourage new gibbon group formation and expansion into good-quality habitat across the wider Bawangling landscape.
ZSL also supports vital research on wild Gibbon species. Working in conjunction with University College London (UCL) and ZSL Institute for Zoology, Carolyn Thompson, a PhD student is currently “investigating the patterns and drivers of small ape decline in China, Vietnam and Myanmar with a hope of informing future conservation management strategies”.
Carolyn’s doctorate research focuses on three endangered gibbon species: Skywalker Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing), the Cao Vit gibbon (Nomascus nasutus) and the Hainan gibbon (Nomascus hainanus), where she contributes largely to ZSL’s Hanian Gibbon Program. All three of these species are facing serious declines from increasing anthropogenic threats such as hunting and habitat loss, leading to all species being restricted to small isolated forest fragments. Through an interdisciplinary, mixed method research approach, using both biological and ethnographic methods, Carolyn hopes to improve the human-gibbon interface and ultimately improve wild gibbon conservation efforts.
Research projects such as Carolyn’s show the important role that zoos play in the conservation of critically endangered wild species. Highlighting how zoos like London Zoo contribute a large amount of funds to aid conservation and research work to ultimately save species from extinction.
Find out more about ZSL's Hainan Gibbon Program.
Also find out more about Carolyn Thompson and her research on gibbon decline across China, Vietnam and Myanmar. You can also follow her journey to save gibbons on twitter!