Common names are not officially defined. They are based on everyday conversational language and may differ by country, region, profession, community, or other factors. As a result, it is not unusual for a species to have more than one common name.

Scientific names are in Latin and they are written in italics. They are standardized and for everyone, no matter what language you may speak. They are bound by a formal naming system, called binominal nomenclature, that has strict rules. Scientific names prevent misidentification. Those names only change if a species, or its genus, is officially redesignated by experts.

Ape, often referred to as a “small ape” or “lesser ape”

The Hainan gibbon species is restricted to just 0.8 sq mi (2 sq km) within the Bawangling National Nature Reserve on the western side of Hainan Island in the South China Sea. 95% of their original habitat of lowland, tropical primary forest has been destroyed. Today, these enigmatic primates occupy only a small patch of remnant rainforest, which continues to shrink. With the continued destruction of lowland forest, where trees are 32.8 ft (10 m) or taller, Hainan gibbons have been forced to take up residence in less-suitable mountainous forest, where elevations range from 328 to 5,905 ft (100-1800 m).

  • Hainan gibbons are the world’s rarest apes and one of the world’s rarest mammals
  • Total population: 37
  • 95% of their primary habitat has been destroyed
  • Hainan gibbons use song to communicate with one another. Each day, usually beginning at dawn, male and female Hainan gibbon pairs engage in a duet known as a “morning call.” They also engage in song duets for bonding and mating.
  • The song notes of Hainan gibbon duets are specific enough to deter interbreeding with the other six “singing” gibbon species who share the Nomascus genus.
They are at an extremely high risk of becoming extinct in the wild.

The Hainan gibbon is listed as Critically Endangered (CR) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, November 2015), appearing on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. With only 37 individuals remaining—on our entire planet—it has the ignoble distinction of being the world’s most Critically Endangered ape and has appeared multiple years, most recently 2016–2018, on the listing of “Primates in Peril–World’s Top 25 Most Endangered Species.” (Endangered species are routinely dropped from this listing, not because their situation has improved, but to focus attention on other species who also have “bleak prospects of survival.”)

Anthropogenic (human) activities such as habitat destruction (slash-and-burn agriculture, clear cutting land for conversion to farmland, illegal logging, etc.), human encroachment (in the form of new settlements and related infrastructure), hunting and killing these primates for their flesh (known as bushmeat) and for their body parts for use in folkloric medicinal remedies, and the illegal pet trade have all conspired to nearly eradicate the species.

Developing rubber and commercial logging industries, the construction of roads, a human population boom (between 1950 and 2003), and a subsequent increase in human settlements have all contributed to wiping out the Hainan gibbon’s original lowland rainforest habitat. This willful destruction of habitat has also resulted in a split of gibbon populations, isolating them from one another and hindering successful reproduction in the species. A significant decline in genetic diversity (many of the remaining individuals are closely related to one another) also jeopardizes the species’ viability.

Although the current rate of habitat loss has greatly diminished from decades of reckless disregard for the species’ survival and for the biodiversity of the island, the damage has been done—and the Hainan gibbon sits on the edge of extinction.

Historically, Hainan gibbons have been hunted and killed, and their bones have been traded on the black market to be used in “traditional medicines”—none of which have been proven valid. Mass hunts between 1960 and 1980 led to the deaths of approximately 100 gibbons. These rare apes have also been killed for their flesh (bushmeat).

The low income of Hainan citizens has fueled the illegal pet trade. Mother gibbons are shot and killed and their babies are stolen. Or, if a young mother is the intended kidnap victim, her baby is left to die. It is illegal to keep a Critically Endangered species as a pet. Furthermore, wildlife species require specific needs that are not met in a domestic environment, leading to their suffering and subsequent early death.

Hainan gibbons are also vulnerable to intrinsic threats related to their habitat destruction and low population. A natural disaster, such as a major storm, could wipe out the remaining population. As example, the region experiences annual typhoons, some which can be particularly devastating.

An epidemic could also eliminate the species. And these rarest of apes are at risk of succumbing to secondary anthropogenic causes, such as harmful pollutants inflicted upon the species’ environment. Conservation biologists refer to the confluence of any of these factors as an “extinction vortex.”

  1. Hainan gibbons are wild animals. Their diet and environmental needs cannot be adequately met or replicated in human living conditions. 
  2. To become pets, baby primates are stolen from their mothers. As a result, they do not develop normally emotionally.
  3. When taken from the wild, their mothers are killed to capture the baby.
  4. Primates are never domesticated. They always remain wild. 
  5. Caged primates are very unhappy and frustrated. They are likely to resist confinement. They are quick and cause damaging bites and scratches. Some die as a result of their captivity.
  6. Many locations have strict regulations that prohibit trading in or keeping primates and endangered species are pets. It is illegal to keep Critically Endangered species as pets.
  7. Hainan gibbons belong with other gibbons in the China’s lowland rainforests. They and their habitats must be protected, not exploited.

Visit the HAINAN GIBBON Primate Species Profile

 Copyright © New England Primate Conservancy 2019. You may freely use and share these learning activities for educational purposes. 
For questions or comments, e-mail us at [email protected].