A Love Song Suggests New Hope for the World’s Rarest Primate

“Dueting” by a new pair of Hainan gibbons is music to the ears of researchers.

Jun 6, 2020
A Love Song Suggests New Hope for the World’s Rarest Primate | “Dueting” by a new pair of Hainan gibbons is music to the ears of researchers.

Two members of the world’s rarest primate species, the Hainan gibbon, have been spotted and heard singing a haunting song together. Excited conservationists see this as a sign that they have formed a bond and may mate in future, an encouraging indication that this critically endangered species may be rebounding.

These primates are known for their ability to swing gracefully through the forest canopy. Adult males are jet black, while the fur of females transforms into a rich gold when they reach maturity. Observing the animals is tricky because gibbons are painfully shy and seldom come down from the trees.

Back in the 1950s, around 2,000 Hainan gibbons were left in the wild on the tropical Hainan island off the southern coast of China. But poaching for use in traditional medicine and the pet trade, as well as deforestation, which hacked away at their habitats, resulted in these numbers dropping dramatically to near-extinction levels. Fewer than ten individuals remained in the 1970s .

Only two family groups remained until the turn of the new millennium. Since 2003, however, due to efforts by the Hainan Gibbon Conservation Project run by the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong, the gibbon population has gradually come back from the brink of extinction. Today, there are a total of around 30 gibbons. A third and fourth family group formed in 2011 and then in 2015.

Conservation efforts have included local patrols, the planting of thousands of trees to offer food and shelter, research into the apes’ ecology and behavior, and awareness-raising activities among the local community. Philip Lo, senior conservation officer, shares that the conservation team have enlisted former hunters to help protect the gibbons. He told the South China Morning Post  that the ex-hunters are really satisfied with their work now: “That is the main point of conservation work, it’s just as much about the people. And now people who were on opposing sides are teammates working together to protect the gibbons.”

This new couple was found living outside the species’ current territory in the Hainan Bawangling National Nature Reserve. This is an exciting discovery, as a lack of genetic diversity due to the small gene pool can lead to poor health and fertility problems.

Until recently, the entire Hainan gibbon population was isolated within a 1,600-hectare (4,000-acre) forested area of the reserve. But in October 2019, villagers first reported seeing a male and female gibbon eight kilometers (five miles) outside their usual range. In November 2019, community monitoring teams heard the shrill call of the male gibbon, and two months later, they heard the female hooting alongside the male. According to the researchers “Well coordinated duet calls were detected in mid-January 2020.”

When a male and female “duet” together, this signifies that their relationship has been established, and that they have formed a new family unit says Philip Lo. He has co-authored a report on the new family formation. "I can't imagine how sad it would be if Hainan rainforest lost this beautiful animal and its wonderful song," Lo told the BBC.

The new family group lives on the forested slopes of Mount Dongbengling, an area of grassy shrubland and lowland forest that have replaced pine plantations and grassland that the researchers assume previously presented an impassable obstacle to the gibbons.

The researchers take heart in the ability of the new gibbon group to explore and settle in a suitable lowland habitat. This area is at a lower elevation, so there are more delicious figs, lychees and other fruits that the gibbons love to eat:

“The ability of the Hainan gibbon to utilize secondary forest and substantially expand its range is an encouraging sign for the long-term survival of the species, which appears to be slowly but steadily recovering,” they reveal. They are hoping to raise the population above 50, which will downgrade the status of these gibbons from “critically endangered” to “endangered”

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Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.