Scientists press China for action plan to save Hainan gibbons from extinction

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 December, 2014, 10:50am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 December, 2014, 1:22pm

Scientists are set to present an emergency plan to the Chinese government to save the rainforest-dwelling Hainan gibbon from becoming the first ape driven to extinction by man.

There are a mere 25 Hainan gibbons left in the world. The threat of their extinction is so strong that a single typhoon could wipe them out entirely, as London-based scientists put finishing touches on a report urging China to be more “proactive” in efforts to prevent their annihilation.

“It should be possible to prevent their extinction, but it will take a lot of effort – they really are on the very verge of extinction,” said Sam Turvey of the London Zoological Society who will present their suggestions on how to boost population numbers to the Chinese government in a report in the coming months.

The Hainan gibbon has been losing its natural habitat over the last 50 years to feed China’s insatiable appetite for natural resources, and make way for plantations and urban developments.

Hunted for meat and squeezed out of their forest habitat amid China’s insatiable appetite for timber, the number of gibbons has dwindled from thousands to just dozens in the last five decades.

Hainan gibbons are beautiful animals and top-class acrobats – the world would be a much poorer place without them
Sam Turvey, London Zoological Society

“The main reason for gibbons’ threat of extinction is logging, but it wasn’t always illegal like it is now,” said Wu Hao, an activist at Greenpeace. “During 1960-1980, there were large areas being logged in Hainan to supply national timber needs – the gibbons’ habitat was seriously degraded in that time.”

In the 1990s, huge expanses of the forest were transformed into paper and pulp plantations, forcing the gibbons to migrate to an area higher up in the mountains, which were less suitable to their survival.

“Because the population is so tiny, there’s a real risk that they could just be wiped out in an event like a typhoon,” Turvey said.

He said the report would advise conservationists at Hainan Bawangling National Nature Reserve, set up in 1980, on how to be more “proactive” in the event of an emergency threat to the gibbons, which are known for their shrill morning call.

The report will highlight areas that need “tightening” in order to save the gibbon, including creating bridges to help them move around the reserve that is now cut up by roads and electricity pylons.

“Gibbons feel very vulnerable on the ground, they don’t like to go on it because their legs are short and they waddle instead of walk,” Turvey said. “So right now they’re trapped on tiny islands of forests of about 15 kilometres.”

At present, three different social groups roam the reserve, while some gibbons live in isolation in the forest and struggle to mate.

Turvey, from the London Zoological Society, hopes that the report will provide political leverage to help conserve the species.

“We want to get this report ratified as soon as possible, because it’s time delays that really kill off species,” he said, recalling how the Yangtze river dolphin, last seen in 2006, became extinct in spite of repeated warnings by conservationists across the globe.

He said they the group was finalising the report from the March workshop, and was using this as the basis for a Chinese government-approved species action plan for the gibbon.

The action plan “will hopefully provide further political leverage and open up new internal funding sources to assist in the species’ conservation”, he said.

“No one did anything about the dolphins and now they’re all gone,” he said, adding that the same might happen to the gangly orange gibbon.

The Hainan gibbon appears to have “fallen down the cracks”, owing to conservation efforts focusing on more “charismatic” endangered animals like the panda, said Turvey.

“It’s very disconcerting how poorly understood this issue is,” he said. “Hainan gibbons are beautiful animals and top-class acrobats – the world would be a much poorer place without them.”