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Hundreds of Critically Endangered apes found in remote Vietnam

Northern white-cheeked crested gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys), Vietnam. Adult female with baby and adult male. Photo © Terry Whittaker.
Northern white-cheeked crested gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys), Vietnam. Adult female with baby and adult male. Photo © Terry Whittaker.

A new population—hundreds strong—of northern white-cheeked crested gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys) has been found in Vietnam by researchers with Conservation International (CI). The group estimates that around 130 gibbon groups—455 individuals—survive in Pu Mat National Park, making it the only known viable population of this species in the world and effectively tripling the global populations. Unfortunately, these newly-discovered gibbons are imperiled by road-building through the park.

“This is an extraordinarily significant find, and underscores the immense importance of protected areas in providing the last refuges for the region’s decimated wildlife,” Dr. Russell A. Mittermeier, president of CI and chair of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, said in a press release. CI was supported by Fauna & Flora International, Arcus Foundation and Sprague-Nowak SE Asia Biodiversity Initiative during the survey.

Gibbons are known for their boisterous, echoing calls at dawn. This behavior allowed researchers to identify the number of gibbons in the park through auditory surveying of their songs without actually having to spot each gibbon group.

While scientists are celebrating the find, they are concerned that this new population is imperiled by road development from Vietnam to Laos. The roads would fragment important habitat and bring an influx of people. Studies have shown time and again that roads in untouched forests open up the area to illegal logging and poaching with subsequent declines in wildlife.

“We don’t think we can stop the roads, so the best solution is targeted gibbon protection in key areas for this population,” Primatologist Luu Tuong Bach, a consultant to CI, said. “The major issue will be the hunting of these gibbons that were previously protected by the harsh terrain; so gun control will be vital. Without direct protection in Pu Mat National Park, it is likely that Vietnam will lose this species in the near future.”

Gibbons, who spend their lives in trees, have been dubbed ‘lesser apes’. Like other ape species—gorillas, chimps, and orangutans—gibbons do not have a tail, but they also share a number of characteristics with monkeys such as their smaller size. Gibbons use their songs to attract and mate and, once that is achieved, they sing to maintain their relationship. They are one of the only primates in the world who are monogamous.

Unfortunately, these charismatic rainforest primates are in grave danger worldwide.

“All of the world’s 25 different gibbons are threatened, and none more so than the Indochinese crested gibbons, eight of which, including the northern white-cheeked gibbon, are now on the brink of extinction,” explains Mittermeier.

The northern white-cheeked crested gibbon belongs to the crested gibbon family, which has been dubbed the most endangered primate family in the world. There are eight known species of crested gibbon, seven of these are either listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered. The eighth was only discovered last year and has not yet been evaluated, but researchers believe it is likely to be threatened as well.

“The fact that we are excited about the discovery of only 130 groups of northern white-cheeked crested gibbons is indicative of the state of this species and crested gibbons generally,” Ben Rawson, regional primate expert for CI and leader of the gibbon survey, said. “It’s important to remember though that conservation in Pu Mat National Park is vital not just for biodiversity, but for its benefits to people also as this is a watershed which provides water for 50,000 people vital for drinking and agriculture.”

Adult male northern white cheeked gibbon. Photo © Terry Whittaker.
Adult male northern white cheeked gibbon. Photo © Terry Whittaker.

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