The gibbons, also known as small or lesser apes, are found in China, India and Southeast Asia. The Chinese white-handed gibbon (Hylobates lar yunnanensis) lived in China and Myanmar. Tree-dwellers, gibbons live in tropical rainforests and feed on fruits, leaves and small animals.
The sixteen species of gibbon are facing some of the same challenges as their kin, the great apes. Those threats include forest habitat fragmentation and degradation and being hunted for food and pelts. But the gibbons have one challenge the great apes don’t – lack of awareness of their existence.
Little Known Apes
Most people name several, if not all, of the great apes and know something about their habitat or behavior. But the gibbon family, which includes siamangs, doesn’t have the visibility that Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas and Dian Fossey were able to give the chimps, orangutans and gorillas. Bonobos, the least studied of the great apes, are better known than the gibbons.
Even within the scientific community, the gibbons have received less attention than the great apes. Detailed study of small apes is limited, with some gibbon species having not been studied at all in the wild. This makes protecting them more difficult as no one knows what critical habitat is for the species.
Two things are known. The gibbons need tree top corridors to travel from one area to another. Fragmented forests isolate the lesser apes from each other. Each family group protects its territory, so when appropriate habitat is limited, new family groups can’t be formed.
The White-handed Gibbon
The white-handed gibbon species is considered Lower Risk/near threatened. This means that the species is close to being listed as Vulnerable to Extinction. But within the white-handed gibbon species, the Yunnan subspecies is listed as Critically Endangered.
White-handed gibbons had been found in several forest areas of China’s Yunnan province but were last actually seen within the Nangunhe Nature Reserve in 1988.
Researchers from the Gibbon Conservation Organization didn’t find any white-handed gibbons within China during this latest survey. There is, however, a slim hope that a few members of the subspecies still exist in Myanmar but it is not highly likely.
Other gibbons in China in Danger of Extinction
The Northern White-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus leucogneys ssp leucogneys), which was also found in Yunnan province, is listed as Endangered and may be extinct within China as well. Remnant populations of this species are found in northern Vietnam and Laos.
The Hainan crested gibbon (Nomascus hainanus) and the Cao-Vit Crested gibbon (Nomascus nasutus) also face potential extinction with very small numbers found in limited areas of China and Southeast Asia.
The loss or fragmentation of habitat that has played an important role in white-handed gibbon declines is a problem in other parts of China where other rare gibbons live. Detailed study of white-handed and other gibbon species, along with habitat protection, will be necessary to stop these small apes from going extinct like the baiji.
The picture for the Hoolock Gibbon in India, on the other hand, has just gotten a little bit brighter.