December 5, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Sarah Gaunt finds that the Hainan gibbon is hanging on, but only just
Hainan gibbon female with infant (c) Jessica Bryant ZSL cropped1_1024w
Hainan gibbon female with infant

As the sun breaks over the rainforests of Hainan Island, the soft, golden glow catches the morning mist, scattering glittering droplets across the treetops.  Deep in the forest, a lonely call rises, swelling to a crescendo, and then falling away again into an eerie silence.  With ears pricked, a team of watchmen wait for the response that will lead them to the sound.  This time, the call goes unanswered.

For the last decade, Dr Sam Turvey– Senior Research Fellow at the Zoological Society of London – has led his team into the forest, listening for the whooping, chattering song of the Hainan gibbon.  Each morning the woolly black males would sing out to their rivals, while golden furred females would join in a lilting duet.  Once numbering in their thousands, the cacophony could last from sunrise to noon.  Now, the apes that Sam and his team seek have been reduced to a pitiful gang of twenty-five.  With their forest home disappearing around them, the tiny group face extinction from a single storm or contagious disease.  The Hainan gibbon, clinging to survival, is now the rarest primate on Earth.

Hainan gibbon male 2 (c) Jessica Bryant ZSL_cropped_1024w
Hainan gibbon male

In a last ditch attempt to coax the gibbons back from the brink of extinction, Sam and his team needed an urgent action plan.  But he couldn’t do it alone.  In March of last year, Sam gathered more than one hundred experts and officials to meet in Hainan, fighting to give the gibbons a second chance.  “Really it was a case getting various people who know the lay of the land; the politics, the management, and the various relationships you have to deal with, and bringing them together with experts on gibbon conservation.” Sam explained.

Amongst more than forty essential actions that the team will enforce, are many novel solutions.  Canopy bridges masked by natural vines will link patches of forest, allowing gibbons to move safely to new habitats.  “We are also trialling acoustic recording devices to work out where the gibbons are calling, and call playback as well, to see if we can find solitary individuals.”  Said Sam, explaining how developments in technology are crucial to the rangers on the ground.

And so with the plan now in motion, and armed with an infectious optimism, Sam is confident that it is not yet time for the sun to set on these endangered primates.  “It is a flagship symbol of the island,” he says, “I definitely think it is possible to save the gibbon.”

Sarah Gaunt is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Images: copyright Jess Bryant ZSL, reproduced with permission

ZSL report on the Hainan gibbon