Jul 18

The largest known remaining population of the northern white-cheeked gibbon has been discovered in Vietnam, bringing new hope for this Critically Endangered primate. 

Photo of male northern white-cheeked gibbon walking along a branch

Male northern white-cheeked gibbon in forest habitat.

Globally significant gibbon population

Scientists from Conservation International made the discovery in Pu Mat National Park, near the Vietnam-Laos border, in an area of remote, dense forest that has been largely isolated from human activity. By recording the gibbons’ loud, territorial ‘songs’, the team were able to confirm a population of 130 groups, or 455 gibbons in total.

Previous work by Conservation International in other parts of north-central Vietnam had found no population of the northern white-cheeked gibbon larger than a dozen groups. The newly discovered population at Pu Mat National Park is therefore all the more important, as it represents over two thirds of the total population of this species in Vietnam and may be the only viable population left in the world.

Photo of male northern white-cheeked gibbon

Male northern white-cheeked gibbon.

Hugely significant find

The northern white-cheeked gibbon has undergone a precipitous decline over recent decades. Once found in China, Vietnam and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, it may now be extinct in China, and its status in Lao PDR is not well known. In Vietnam, there may be as few as 200 groups remaining.

The main causes of this decline are deforestation and hunting for food, the pet trade and traditional medicine.

Speaking about the newly discovered population, Dr Russell A. Mittermeier, Chair of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group and President of Conservation International, said, “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.”

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.”

Photo of female northern white-cheeked gibbon

Male and female northern white-cheeked gibbons differ in appearance. Adult males are black with white cheeks, while females are largely golden or buffy.

Dr Ben Rawson, regional primate expert for Conservation International, adds, “We are extremely excited about this discovery. Pu Mat was already important for its great diversity of species and for its benefits to the surrounding communities, and now it is a top priority for global gibbon conservation. 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; they are some of the most endangered species in the world.”

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.”

Photo of northern white-cheeked gibbon, male and female on branch

Male (right) and female (left) northern white-cheeked gibbons. Gibbons live in small family groups consisting of monogamous pair and their immature offspring.

Gibbons under threat

Worryingly, this last remaining stronghold of the northern white-cheeked gibbon is under threat from planned road developments, which would cut straight through this species’ habitat. As well as fragmenting its habitat, roads would provide access for harmful activities such as hunting and logging, and so inevitably lead to a decline in this Critically Endangered species.

Primatologist Luu Tuong Bach, a consultant to Conservation International, said, “We don’t think we can stop the roads, so the best solution is targeted gibbon protection in key areas for this population. 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.”

Read the full story at Conservation International – Largest population of Critically Endangered gibbon discovered in Vietnam.

View photos and videos of gibbons on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author