Hainan, an island located in the South China Sea, is home to the world’s rarest primate - the Hainan gibbon (Nomascus hainanus). The pressure is on China to up its conservation efforts before this animal goes extinct and becomes the first known primate species to do so because of human actions.
The Hainan gibbon, or Hainan black crested gibbon, can only be found in a very small area of forest in Hainan. In the 1950s over 2,000 Hainan gibbons were present all across the island; now only 23 to 25 remain in a 20 square kilometer area of forest. Despite legal protection, the numbers have dropped due to lack of enforcement which has allowed continued habitat loss from illegal logging and paper plantations. According to a report from Greenpeace International, in 2011 the forests in Hainan were being wiped out at a rate of 200,000 square meters a day. Hainan gibbon numbers are also decreasing due to poaching.
An emergency meeting was held in Hainan last month in order to formulate a plan to save these animals from extinction. The first stages of the plan involve modeling the gibbon population; preliminary models suggest that while the gibbon may be safe from extinction for the next couple of decades, a single blow such as an outbreak of disease is all that may be needed to dramatically change their fate. Another problem to add to the list is a loss of genetic diversity due to inbreeding, which could cause health problems in offspring. Researchers are also concerned that their restricted habitat may mean that they no longer have access to the foods they need.
The Hainan gibbon situation is problematic since researchers face monitoring difficulties as such a small number of animals remain, and also because there is so little forest left for the animals to expand into. This is also not the first example of a devastating loss to occur in China; back in 2007 the Yangtze river dolphin was classed as extinct. But the government has started to take conservation more seriously in recent years; let’s hope a continued effort may turn around the bleak outlook for this beautiful primate.