In a rainforest far, far away…

Samuel Turvey

The newly discovered species of Skywalker hoolock gibbon lives in the remote forests of the Gaoligong mountains in southwest China. Sadly, it faces the same risk to its survival as many other small ape species in southern China and Southeast Asia, and it's expected to be categorised as Endangered on the IUCN Red ListDr Samuel Turvey, Senior Research Fellow at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, tells us more about its habitat in the first of three blogs.  

Adult female Skywalker Hoolock tianxing gibbon
Adult female Skywalker gibbon (Hoolock tianxing), China

China is a vast and fascinating country that spans a huge range of environments – from pine forest to high-elevation plateaus and mighty river drainages – and Yunnan Province in the far southwest reaches the edge of Asia’s great tropical rainforest.

Here, in the remote Gaoligongshan region close to the border with Myanmar, the rainforest covers a series of steep mountains that rise higher and higher to the west until they reach the Himalayas, and that are separated by deep river valleys. 

This mysterious landscape seems destined to contain fantastic, undiscovered species – and this is also very likely from a biological perspective. Populations of animals and plants can easily become genetically isolated from their neighbours in landscapes like this, following independent evolutionary pathways under unique local conditions that can eventually lead to the formation of new species. 

Although Gaoligongshan has occasionally been visited by naturalists in the past, its remoteness and inaccessibility have also meant that relatively little scientific study has been carried out here, so that surprises can still await any intrepid researchers who are prepared to explore its distant mountains.

After several years of working on ZSL’s conservation programme for the Hainan gibbon – the world’s rarest mammal species, found in a single forest patch on China’s Hainan Island – I had been kindly invited by Professor Fan Pengfei, one of China’s foremost primatologists, to visit his study site in Gaoligongshan. Fan’s passion is also for gibbons, the beautiful small apes that live high in the canopy of the Asian rainforest, and that move through the trees at incredible speed using a form of locomotion called brachiation.

Rainforests in China and elsewhere in Asia are now under incredible pressure from human activities – both deforestation and hunting – but a few gibbons still survive high up in Gaoligongshan’s forested mountain ridges. 

The remote rainforests of the Gaoligong mountains, southwest China
The remote rainforests of Gaoligongshan, southwest China

Fan and his team have studied several gibbon family groups here since 2008, to try to understand their behaviour and how they use the local forest habitat. The gibbons were thought to be the same species that was known to occur across northern Myanmar – the eastern hoolock gibbon, Hoolock leuconedys

With two known species (eastern and western), hoolocks differ from other gibbons found in China in having striking white eyebrows on the black-furred males, which expanded into a full white face mask in the paler-furred females. However, Fan’s research was beginning to suggest that the hoolocks here in China were, intriguingly, somehow different…

Driving high into the mountains on a rough dirt track, I was shocked by how little rainforest was left – the trees had been cleared for agriculture even on steep slopes where crops could barely cling on. 

As we headed further, above 2000 metres in elevation, we finally reached the last untouched forest. It was beautiful. I hoped that there was still enough left to support a viable gibbon population, but Fan told me that there were only a few family groups now left in this region; there were maybe 200 hoolocks now left in China, but they were scattered and isolated across Yunnan’s fragmented forests rather than in large healthy populations. 

Hiking further uphill, the research station that Fan had set up high in the mountains became our new home. It had everything a field biologist could want – a smoky room inhabited by a reasonably friendly dog and cockerel, where we could play cards, eat, discuss animals and practice Chinese; sleeping quarters where we could try to dry our clothes; and rain. Lots of rain. 

Brightly-coloured tropical birds – flowerpeckers, sibias, minlas, shrike-babblers, cutias – flitted in the wet trees directly outside, and at night the tiny trickle of water running past the station became suddenly populated by dramatically patterned crocodile newts (Tylototriton), their bodies lined with bright orange wart-shaped poison glands. And at dawn, through the mist that clung to the treetops, we could hear the haunting, penetrating song of Gaoligongshan’s last gibbons. We had to find them.

Tune in for the next blog post coming soon... 

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