Working on the front line of gibbon conservation

by ZSL on

On International Gibbon Day 2021, research scientists at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, Heidi Ma and Carolyn Thompson talk to their collaborators in China, Liu Hui,  Chen Jingyu and Hu Fan about what makes gibbon conservation so important to them.

Heidi Ma and Carolyn Thompson 

Gibbons are the smallest of the apes. There are 20 species distributed across South and Southeast Asia. They are known for their territorial songs, coordinated duets, acrobatic locomotion, and small family groups. 

Thousands of years ago, gibbons were widespread across China. Now, only four species remain, including the Hainan gibbon, the world’s rarest primate with less than 35 individuals. Like 95% of gibbon species, gibbons in China are considered Critically Endangered. 

While conservation science is a new discipline in China, there are many dedicated young professionals working on the front line of gibbon conservation. Here, we introduce some of our inspirational collaborators. 

Heidi Ma: Dr Lui Hui, you are a lecturer and field biologist working for Hainan University. What excites you most about studying Hainan gibbons? 

Liu Hui: Hainan gibbons are mysterious and beautiful creatures. Even though we have been doing our best to get to know them, the more we learn, the more we realise how little we understand. 

Carolyn Thompson: We had some positive conservation news earlier this year with the birth of two Hainan gibbon infants, but the population is still extremely small and vulnerable. What do you think are the biggest challenges now? 

man and gibbon
Left, a Hainan gibbon infant, likely to have been born in March, 2021, with its mother in Bawangling National Nature Reserve, Hainan prvince, China. Right, Dr. Liu Hui, Hainan University.  

Liu Hui: In recent years, China has made great efforts to improve conservation. But to be honest, there are still shortfalls. There are a lot of unanswered biological and ecological questions about the species, which then limits our ability to make science-based management decisions.

Heidi Ma: Jingyu, you’re a project manager for Cloud Mountain Conservation, a gibbon conservation organisation who do work with local communities residing near gibbon habitats. What have different ethnic groups taught you about human-nature relationships?

Chen Jingyu: Before I got involved with community-based conservation, I thought behavioural and ecological research were the only ways to do effective wildlife conservation. I started getting to know the Lisu people, an ethnic minority group living in the Southwestern borderlands of China. The coexistence of people and gibbons there reinvented my understanding of conservation. To Lisu people, what we mean by ‘gibbon conservation’ is really just a natural state of existing alongside the forest and mountains. This is not to say that conservation is perfect here. Farming has led to fragmentation and loss of gibbon habitat, but at the same time, Lisu people have preserved their tradition of not hunting gibbons.


Chen Jingyu, project manager at Cloud Mountain Conservation, conducting community mapping surveys with a local resident in Lishu community, Yunnan province, China.  

Carolyn Thompson: Jingyu, you’re also a Master’s student in Anthropology at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. It sounds like you’ve adopted a wide interdisciplinary skillset. What do you think is the most important skill to have in this field?

Jingyu Chen: Keen observation and comprehension. I fully immerse myself into the daily life of Lisu people to try to understand it – gathering wild herbs and fruits, harvesting planted vegetables in the garden, and gathering non-timber forest products to sell to traders. The gibbons, another life form existing in the forest, also make up part of Lisu people’s world. Only by comprehending this can we achieve different types of conservation.

Heidi Ma: Hu Fan, you not only work at Eco Foundation Global, a conservation non-profit, but are also studying for a graduate degree. How has conservation work inspired you to pursue more academic skills and training?

Hu Fan: Because my undergraduate degree was not exactly about conservation, I tried to learn while working. This motivated me to apply for a Masters course in Public Administration at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. In Hainan, various stakeholders including governmental authorities, researchers, and local communities are now all inextricably linked to the gibbon. Last year, I did a research project for my course on how diverse actors can work together in conservation management.

people on greenery
Left, Fan Hu, assistant project director at Eco Foundation Global.  Right, Carolyn and Heidi, researchers at ZSL, in the forest in Hainan. 

Carolyn Thompson: International collaborations are increasingly important in our globalised world. Could you tell us about your role at Eco Foundation Global, and how collaborations benefit wildlife conservation?

Hu Fan: A major aspect of my work is on the Hainan Tropical Rainforest National Park and working with the National Park’s Research Institute to facilitate research and international collaboration. Proactively learning from the conservation experiences of other primates with very small populations is extremely important, especially from global examples and people who have expertise in relevant areas. 

Follow Heidi (@heidima825) and Carolyn (@gibbonresearch) on Twitter for updates on gibbon conservation in China. 

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