Is the world’s rarest mammal disappearing from folklore?

The world’s rarest gibbon is disappearing from traditional folktales – as fast as they disappear from the forests. China’s Hainan gibbon (Nomascus hainanus) is on the brink of being lost from Chinese culture, as the sound of their song slowly grows quiet throughout the forests of China. 

Hainan gibbon female with infant. (c) Jessica Bryant

Gibbons once occupied an important place in local Chinese myths and culture, especially in the southern province of Hainan Island. However, the Hainan gibbon – a species found only on Hainan – is now extinct across most of its range and restricted to one small area: Bawangling National Nature Reserve. 

Scientists from international conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London) conducted ethnographic interviews with local communities across the Hainan gibbon’s historical range, designed to measure levels of ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ – cultural wisdom about wildlife passed down between generations. 

This research published today in the journal Royal Society Open Science found that, while gibbons still feature prominently in folklore in regions of Hainan where they existed until very recently, elsewhere these animals are increasingly ‘forgotten’ in traditional tales. In contrast, local communities still retain knowledge of how to hunt gibbons, even in areas where the species has been extinct for several decades. 

Lead author Dr Samuel Turvey from ZSL’s Institute of Zoology said: “In an era of satellite imaging and GPS-tracking, using ethnographic surveys for conservation science might seem esoteric. However, there is an urgent need to understand the relationship between threatened species and local communities, and traditional folklore can often provide invaluable insights to inform future conservation strategies.

Hainan gibbon moving through trees. Image (c) Jessica Bryant

“The information about gibbon folklore gained from this study can hopefully be used to strengthen local people’s sense of connection to the natural landscapes of Hainan, and to encourage a greater sense of shared ownership of the future for the Critically Endangered Hainan gibbon – the world’s rarest primate, and possibly rarest mammal.

“Understanding how traditional ecological knowledge is being lost is pivotal to many conservation projects, as such knowledge often supports the sustainable use of environmental resources or can be used to promote conservation through indigenous value systems.”

The research provides unique new insights to inform conservation of the Hainan gibbon, and promotes the importance of conducting ethnographic research around threatened species. A full copy of the research can be found in the journal Royal Society Open Science

Find out more about ZSL’s work to conserve Hainan gibbons

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