Gibbons revive in last remaining Vietnam stronghold
by Tim Knight, Fauna & Flora International Credit: Dr Fan Pengfei/Dali University/FFI
A crucial population of one of the rarest primates on the planet is holding its own in the face of multiple threats, according to the latest surveys conducted in northern Vietnam.
Survey teams recorded at least 20 groups of western black crested gibbon—totaling an estimated 64-79 individuals—in its only known Vietnamese haven, providing further confirmation that the population has stabilized in the 18 years since Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and our partners first intervened to reverse its steep decline.
The fact that the population appears to be stable may not sound like big news, but in the context of the severe and ongoing threats to the survival of this—and other—primate species in Vietnam, it constitutes a major victory. In a world where one million species are reported to be close to the brink as a result of human pressures, every example that bucks the trend is a cause for celebration.
All 18 of the world’s gibbon species are threatened with extinction, due primarily to hunting and habitat loss. Many of the forest landscapes where FFI works in Vietnam support important populations of these small apes. In fact, the country harbors all but one of the seven species known collectively as crested gibbons.
Male western black crested gibbon. Credit: Dr Fan Pengfei/Dali University/FFI
FFI’s Vietnam Programme is working to ensure the survival of the country’s four rarest gibbons—a quartet that includes the western black crested gibbon. The entire Vietnamese population of this critically endangered primate is confined to a single block of forest in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains, which lie at the south-eastern tip of the Himalayas.
As a result of our long-term commitment to conservation in this remote area of northern Vietnam, FFI was able to make a persuasive case for the establishment of two protected areas that would help safeguard the remaining western black crested gibbons and their dwindling habitat.
Cao vit gibbon family in the forest canopy. Credit: Nguyen Duc Tho/FFI
With this vital protection in place, we are continuing to reap the benefits of more than a decade of constructive engagement with the communities living alongside the gibbons’ habitat—initially at Mu Cang Chai Species and Habitat Conservation Area and, more recently, in the neighboring Muong La Nature Reserve. Male western black crested gibbon. Credit: Dr Fan Pengfei/Dali University/FFI
Community-led forest patrols—focusing in particular on gibbons—are helping to ensure that illegal logging, hunting and agricultural encroachment are kept to a minimum. As well as developing community-based gibbon monitoring, FFI also supports a range of initiatives designed to improve the livelihoods of people living nearest to these threatened primates.
Beyond the project site itself, we are also working more widely with our government partners to help ensure that Vietnam’s gibbons continue to receive the attention they urgently need. FFI produced a Gibbon Status Review back in 2011 and, more recently, has helped develop the National Action Plan for Primates to 2030—signed by the prime minister.
We have also deployed a range of communications tools, including billboards, TV documentaries and short films, to highlight Vietnam’s position as potentially the most important country in the world for gibbon conservation.
Cao vit gibbon mother and baby hanging out to dry after a heavy downpour. Credit: Zhao Ch
An action plan specifically for the western black crested gibbon is now in place, and an international workshop dedicated to this species was held as recently as last week. We have also conducted a study, known in the trade as a population viability analysis, which concluded that the population has a viable future provided that hunting remains very low.
Josh Kempinski, head of FFI’s Vietnam program, is acutely aware that the situation remains critical: “Cardamom cultivation poses a growing threat to the integrity of the gibbon’s habitat, and there are unconfirmed reports that these wonderful primates are occasionally targeted by hunters. Nevertheless, these latest survey results are extremely gratifying and vindicate FFI’s holistic approach to conservation.”
The encouraging news for this particular species is just the latest in series of good news stories relating to Vietnam’s primates. Earlier this year, we reported that the population of the cao vit gibbon (the western black crested gibbon’s eastern counterpart) has also rebounded. More recently, the survival prospects of the critically endangered Tonkin snub-nosed monkey received a tremendous boost.
FFI remains committed to safeguarding the future of the entire spectrum of species that make up Vietnam’s astonishing primate diversity.
Neglected species: Sending out an SOS for a vanishingly rare primate
by Tim Knight, Fauna & Flora International Cao vit gibbon family in the forest canopy. Credit: Nguyen Duc Tho/FFI
Gibbons are great apes. There. We’ve said it. The purists may pooh-pooh the idea, but ours isn’t a scientific definition. These so-called lesser apes may not officially rank alongside the big guns of the primate world, but in their own inimitable way they are just as charismatic and characterful as the gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans that have had greatness thrust upon them. Many are also critically endangered, including the cao vit gibbon.
Also known as the eastern black crested gibbon, this relatively unfamiliar ape is one of the rarest primates in the world, but that precarious position is a marked improvement on its apparent status a mere two decades ago. Until it was rediscovered by scientists from Fauna & Flora International (FFI) in 2002, the cao vit gibbon was presumed to be extinct. Today, the entire world population is clinging to survival by its hooked fingertips in a small, fragmented forest on the border between Vietnam and China.
Like all gibbons, the species is an astounding acrobat. It is superbly adapted to its treetop habitat, capable of careering through the forest canopy at breakneck speed by means of its long, lithe limbs. For good measure, it can also move on two legs, balancing on boughs at vertiginous heights like some fearless, furry high-wire walker.
The adults differ markedly in color. Males are all black, while females are buff-yellow with a conspicuous black, pale-fringed face mask and black crown. For youngsters, it’s more complicated; all cao vit gibbons are born black, but females gradually assume their mother’s fur color, whereas males remain black. As a rule of thumb, if he’s a fella, he doesn’t turn yella.
The cao vit gibbon is named onomatopoeically – like the cuckoo – after its distinctive call. Gibbons tend to pair for life and defend their territories mainly by singing. The delightful dawn duets between male and female are one of the most evocative sounds of the forest. Credit: Fauna & Flora International
Hunted and hemmed in
In common with all the world’s gibbon species, the cao vit gibbon is threatened with extinction, but it is closer to the brink then almost any other primate. The main threats to its survival are all too familiar; hunting has historically taken a heavy toll, but the destruction and degradation of its dwindling habitat has also seriously undermined its long-term survival prospects.
Firewood collection, extraction of non-timber forest products and other forms of encroachment have inexorably nibbled at the edges of the gibbon’s final refuge, bringing the animals into increasingly close contact with humans and, in turn, making them more vulnerable to poaching.
One of the world’s rarest primates, the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey is confined to a handful of isolated forest fragments in the remote Ha Giang province, which is characterised by spectacular karst limestone formations.
Since rediscovering the cao vit gibbon, FFI has been working with local partners to set up community-based patrol groups, secure formal protection for crucial gibbon habitat and reduce threats in the buffer zones that surround this protected area.
In the past year, conservation messages emphasizing the importance and urgency of protecting the cao vit gibbon have been distributed in various forms, while a ‘junior ranger’ initiative rolled out in local secondary schools has taught students about cao vit gibbons and forest diversity. A recent festival to showcase cao vit gibbon conservation was attended by over 450 community members from the buffer zones around the protected area.
Conservation teams comprising members of the local community have been equipped and trained to monitor the gibbon population and patrol the forest, providing vital data and a visible deterrent against poaching and other illegal activities. Pilot projects designed to reduce forest degradation by promoting sustainable livelihoods—initially through livestock husbandry and the establishment of fruit-tree nurseries—have already yielded promising results.
Thanks to the combined efforts of FFI and our partners, hunting and habitat loss in the demarcated conservation area have been virtually eliminated. As a result, cao vit gibbon numbers have rebounded and are now believed to have stabilized at an estimated 135 individuals, more than double the population at the time of its rediscovery some 20 years ago.
The 1,600-hectare area to which these gibbons are currently confined is thought to have reached carrying capacity—in other words, there is no more room for additional territories within this landscape. A proposal to expand the protected area has received support from local communities after consultation with villagers in the four neighboring communes. If approved, this would safeguard a further 4,300 hectares of habitat, bringing the total area under formal protection to almost 6,000 hectares.
Hainan gibbon female with infant. Credit: Jessica Bryant/ ZSL
Gazing to the future
In March 2021, FFI helped convene an international workshop to develop a ten-year conservation action plan and a 30-year vision for the cao vit gibbon. Bringing together government representatives, protected area managers and primate experts from Vietnam, China and beyond, the event provided an opportunity to reflect on past success in bringing the species back from the brink. More importantly, it has set the cao vit gibbon on the long and winding road to recovery by promoting increased transboundary collaboration and exploring the feasibility of establishing a second population in the wild.
The cao vit gibbon is still in need of intensive care, but we look forward to the day when this endearing ape is no longer on the critical list. With ongoing support from Arcus Foundation and the Disney Conservation Fund, and with new support from IUCN Save Our Species, FFI is working to turn this collective vision into a reality.
Provided by Fauna & Flora Internationa