It is not without a sense of guilt that Wei Guang has been a watchman at a rainforest reserve on China's Hainan Island for ten years, protecting the world's last 23 Hainan gibbons.


Typically living in rainforest trees over 10 meters tall, the Hainan black crested gibbon (Nomascus hainanus), with long arms and legs but no tail, rarely sets foot on the ground, making captive breeding difficult. They are more difficult to conserve than the giant panda, Wei said.


One of seven extant gibbon species, they are endemic to the island: They are found nowhere else.


A lot of efforts have gone into restoring their habitat, but helping the ape to survive has proved harder than expected.




Uncontrolled logging and poaching has put the species on the brink of extinction.


Wei, a Hainan native himself, worked as a lumberman in the southwest part of the island for six years in the 1990s. To make way for rubber plantations and other commercial forest, large tracts of rainforest — shelter and food sources for the Gibbon — were destroyed. The gibbons, originally resided in the lowland of rainforest, were forced to less suitable habitat at higher elevations as their own habitat was disappeared.


Gibbon bones are highly prized for their use in traditional Chinese medicine, and mass hunts took place between 1960 and 1980. Surveys show that in the 1950s, more than 2,000 gibbons lived on the island, but by the 1980s only seven could be found, and all of them in the Bawangling National Nature Reserve in Changjiang.


"When we were children, we didn't know that we should cherish the ape. We even hunted them," a villager surnamed Fu said. "There are only a few left now, and no one wants to kill them anymore."


On a visit to Hainan, Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, a non-profit organization, warned that the Hainan gibbon is the rarest primate in the world and faces a high risk of becoming extinct within the century.




"It hurts that the gibbons had to run all the way through the rainforest to find food," said Wei. "I always imagined that the mountains were thick with tall trees."


Aware of the extinction risk, the local government — with help from international organizations — has tried to restore the gibbon habitat.


The Bawangling National Nature Reserve was set up to preserve the habitat in 1980 and was expanded from 6,626 hectares to 29,980 hectares in 2003. The new area is mostly secondary rainforest — forest which has regrown after deforestation.


In the same year, a conservation plan was published, backed by governments and international organizations such as Fauna & Flora International. The plan outlined reparative measures, including increasing forest patrols and growing plant species that the gibbons need for survival.


Wei already had a good knowledge of the rainforest and joined a four-man squad set up in 2004 to monitor the apes and their habits. The squad was increased to eight and now patrols all year to dissuade illegal logging. They see the gibbons regularly and keep tabs on their movements.


In the latest attempt to save the gibbon, experts from 10 countries and regions met on the island in March, the first step toward a protection action plan and a conservation fund.




Thanks to the work of people like Wei, the number of gibbon is on the rise. A survey last year found three families — at least 23 individuals — in the reserve, but their reproductive habits remain something of a mystery. The breeding females have a single offspring every two years, this much people know. At least 30 of the gibbons have been born since 1984, only one each year.


"Why has their population failed to pick up?" asked Zhou Jiang from the Guizhou Normal University. Zhou believes that close inbreeding may have suppressed population growth.


According to the reserve management, logging and poaching have all but disappeared and local people have a keen sense of environmental protection. The Hainan gibbon, at the top of forest food chain, have hardly any predators. No dead gibbon has ever been found in the reserve.


In spite of the protection, humans remain the major threat to the gibbons. Human population in the area has boomed over recent decades. Residents with low incomes still depend heavily on the forest for firewood, food and herbs.


Primary rainforest which has been destroyed can never be replaced, but more than 30,000 trees have been planted in the reserve. However, trees take time to grow. It will take many years for the secondary forest to become a suitable home for the Hainan gibbon.




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