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China's gibbons 'more endangered than pandas'

AILAOSHAN, Yunnan -- The western black-crested gibbon (黑冠長臂猿) is more endangered than the giant panda, even though it is the country's most populous gibbon. With a global population of between 1,100 and 1,400, it was listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation's Red List.

The gibbon, Nomascus concolor, has a discontinuous distribution pattern across southwestern China, northwestern Laos and northern Vietnam. Yunnan province has the biggest population, with nearly 80 percent of the primate species living in moist evergreen broadleaf forests on the Ailao Mountains and Wuliang Mountains.

Fortunately, their habitats on the mountain ranges are by and large unspoiled.

“Placing 1,000-1,300 western black-crested gibbons and their habitats under protection has become the country's biggest hope to keep gibbons singing in the wild,” says Long Yongcheng, the chief scientist with The Nature Conservancy's China Office. He was speaking at the launch ceremony for a trekking event on the Ailao Mountains, held recently in Kunming.

Gibbons' singing was often described in ancient Chinese poems, the biologist said, as they could be found as far north as today's Gansu and Shanxi provinces. “But now, few people know the existence of gibbons in the country,” he says. “Fewer have the luck to listen to their duets in the wild.”

That is because the country's six gibbon species can only be found in Yunnan and Hainan provinces, and in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. The total population stands at about 1,500.

Of them, a small area between northern Vietnam and Guangxi is the only habitat in the world where the eastern black-crested gibbon is found. With 18 families of about 100 animals, they have been “wandering around the borders,” according to Fan Pengfei, one of the country's leading gibbon researchers.

The Hainan gibbon, found only in the island province, is also one of the world's most endangered primate species. The newest figure is two families of 23 mammals, Long says, all residing in Bawangling National Nature Reserve. In 2003, there were only two groups of 13 gibbons.

Northern white-cheeked gibbon, with a population of more than 2,000 in southern Yunnan in the 1960s and a population of about seven groups of 40 animals in 1989, has not been sighted for many years. “It might be extinct already in the country,” Long says.

Hoolock gibbon is distributed in the country mainly in Yingjiang, Tengchong and Baoshan of western Yunnan, with a population of 150 in 40 families.

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A White-Cheeked Gibbon (a subset of the black-crested gibbon) mother and her baby climb at the Beijing Zoo on Jan. 21. The zoo grounds were originally a Ming Dynasty imperial ...

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