Image: Northern white-cheeked crested gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys), Vietnam. Adult female grooming male.
Image Credit: © Terry Whittaker
Across the hoots, rustles and chirrups sounding through Vietnam's remote Pu Mat National Park, a dawn chorus can be heard. For the scientists working there, recording the evocative early morning sounds of the forest, this is no ordinary dawn chorus. To their surprise and delight, the haunting sounds they recorded represent a new hope for a critically endangered primate, the northern white-cheeked crested gibbon.
Conservation International scientists used auditory surveying - a technique identifying different species by their unique vocalisations - to study the species found in the near-pristine Pu Mat National Park, on the border between Laos and Vietnam. To the scientists' amazement, their survey discovered the largest known remaining population of northern white-cheeked crested gibbons. Gibbons are territorial and mark their territory using "loud, elaborate and prolonged" calls. Each gibbon species has a slightly different song, which the researchers can use to differentiate between them. A bewitching courtship duet between male and female gibbons, which mate for life, strengthens the bond between the singing pair and can also be heard ringing out across the forest.
Gibbon species are threatened across Asia, where they are declining due to habitat loss, hunting for the pet trade and use in traditional medicines. Northern white-cheeked gibbons are a particularly threatened species, with their population believed to have reduced by 80 per cent over the past 45 years. The 455 animals found in Pu Mat National Park are two thirds of the total population found in Vietnam and are believed to be the only population viable for the species' survival. Dr. Russell Mittermeier, President of Conservation International, said "This is an extraordinarily significant find, and underscores the immense importance of protected areas in providing the last refuges for the region's decimated wildlife".
Pu Mat's remote location and inaccessibility provides an ideal refuge for many threatened species. However, road development, to provide increased border patrols between Vietnam and Laos, will fragment the gibbon's habitat. As roads carve open the forest they will provide the opportunity for illegal logging and hunting, as they have done in the Amazon and Congo basins. Without adequate regional and global protection, the northern white-cheeked gibbon's future in the wild is bleak. Not only is road development a severe threat for the gibbons, Pu Mat National Park also provides water and sustainable resources for 50,000 local people.
Luu Tuong Bach, a consultant primatologist for Conservation International, says "the best solution is targeted gibbon protection in key areas for this population. The major issue will be the hunting of these gibbons that were previously protected by the harsh terrain; so gun control will be vital. Without direct protection in Pu Mat National Park, it is likely that Vietnam will lose this species in the near future."