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Finding and saving the world’s rarest primates

By Lara J Carim, on 3 June 2011

The Hainan gibbon, a small Chinese ape, is the world’s rarest primate. Lottie Davis describes the discussion about its survival at the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology on 24 May, the International Day for Biological Diversity.

The ‘Journey to find and save the world’s rarest primates’ event provided an opportunity for people from all backgrounds to come together and celebrate the International Day for Biological Diversity, as well as the International Year of Forests. Organised by gibbonologist Helen Chatterjee (UCL Genetics, Evolution and the Environment), the evening sought to raise the profile of the Hainan gibbon, the world’s rarest primate.

The Hainan Gibbon. Copyright Jessica Bryant 2011.The evening was extremely thought provoking and provided a means to highlight the crises facing many relatively unknown species. With several people within the audience admitting to not knowing that the gibbon, a small ape living in China, was the most endangered ape, Helen Thirlway, the Director at International Primate Protection League (UK), reported that there are still many people who do not even know what a gibbon is.

Helen Thirlway was accompanied by fellow gibbonologists Jessica Bryant from UCL Genetics, Evolution and the Environment and Sam Turvey from the Zoological Society of London. The evening was made possible through support from the UCL Public Engagement Unit under the Beacons for Public Engagement programme – funded by the UK funding councils, Research Councils UK and the Wellcome Trust.

The talks were kicked off by an overview of the probable extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin. Although obviously not a primate, this talk essentially provided a case study with regards to what happens when not enough is done to help a species. Sam Turvey took us on a poignant journey of the story of this fresh water dolphin, a tale of destructive fishing practices, habitat loss and hunting, a sadly familiar story, which has lead to a decline from 400 animals in the late 1970’s to possibly only 13 individuals in the 1990s.

The inclusion of the last photograph of this species, taken in 2002, provided a moment of realisation that since 2002, no Yangtze river dolphins have been seen. Attempts were made for both in situ conservation, conserving animals in their habitat and ex situ conservation in closely managed semi-natural reserves; unfortunately these schemes proved unsuccessful.

The important question raised was, were the failures seen in the preservation of this species as a whole specific to this project, or a likely outcome for many such projects? I hope that the success in projects such as the giant panda in China may indicate that other critically endangered animals do have a future, provided that the necessary input of money and time and a sense of urgency are felt by those in the position to make the most difference.

When we then turn to the story of the critically endangered Hainan gibbon, with a total global population of only 23 individuals we have to ask: could we be approaching the first ape extinction in recent times? This was a crucially important point raised by Jessica Bryant, followed by a plea for action, given that time is running out.

Jessica showed us a great set of clips from her field work which is undertaken in collaboration with the Hong Kong based NGO Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Gardens and Bawangling National Nature Reserve, home to the few remaining Hainan gibbons. Hearing the melodic sounds these gibbons make and seeing footage of them in the forest canopy allowed us to see the beautiful animals, if only fleetingly, without the need to eat congee for breakfast at 4am followed by a mammoth game of ‘chase the gibbon’, challenges faced by Jessica and her colleagues each day they work in the jungle.

The fact that so little is know about this species of ape means that an understanding of why the population size does not appear to be increasing beyond a population of between 13 – 25 individuals makes knowing where to start with the conservation of these animals difficult. Could providing a larger habitat space be enough to increase their numbers, or is it more complex than this? My feeling is that there are many aspects that need to be addressed together in order to help this species. The donations of money and time to the cause are the only way to continue taking steps forward.

Organisations such as the International Primate Protection League provide a crucial step forward for primates in order to raise awareness in the general public and instill the importance of conservation upon the authorities involved. The IPPL works to increase the awareness of the need to protect the world’s primates. Money raised so far has been presented to projects to be used in the protection of primates in their native country of China. Media coverage has been generated with the help of several celebrity faces including Bill Oddie and a re-release of the Goodies’ ‘Funky Gibbon’ song. However, Helen tells us that she still gets a blank look on occasion when she mentions the word gibbon, indicating that still more work is needed to raise the profile of these small apes. Let’s hope that this evening has gone some way to doing that.

Please visit Save the Gibbon where you can help the cause!

Read the Q&A on the UCL Museums & Collections blog.

Image: The Hainan Gibbon. Copyright Jessica Bryant 2011.

2 Responses to “Finding and saving the world’s rarest primates”

  • 1
    Gary Simpson wrote on 27 June 2011:


    I attended the event and was much touched by each of the presentations. Gibbons have certainly been neglected by many and particularly the seeming lack of knowledge that they are apes. I hope through time to contribute to projects that help secure their survival.



  • 2
    Helen Chatterjee wrote on 29 June 2011:

    Hi Gary,

    Many thanks for your comment. I’m really pleased you enjoyed the event and found it worthwhile. I do hope in the future you will consider getting involved.

    All best wishes,

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