The Forgotten Ape
Why can't the gibbon get any respect?
At some point in the next four months, Spain will likely become the first country to extend legal rights to great apes, thereby protecting gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos from abuse, torture, and unnatural death. The measure will, in practical terms, prevent the inhumane confinement of and testing on great apes, which are singled out among nonhuman animals for their cognitive abilities—on par, it is believed, with a 1-year-old human child. But there's another ape that might be just as sensitive and intelligent as the great apes, and yet the Spaniards are prepared to offer it no special rights or protections. No one stands up for the gibbon.
There are five types of ape. Four are considered "great." The fifth is the gibbon. Greatness in apes is largely a matter of size, and the gibbon, maxing out at 30 pounds, doesn't make the cut. To primatologists, it is known instead as the "lesser ape"—or, as its partisans prefer, the "small ape." As a result, it's overlooked in everything from environmental protections to fantasies of simian domination. (There are no slave-driving gibbons in Planet of the Apes.) Humans have resolved to protect our evolutionary family, yet we continue to ignore one of our closest cousins.
Gibbons may be small, but they bear all the requisites of apehood: large brains, no tail, and rotary shoulder blades. Like orangutans, they populate Southeast Asia. They're typically black with white markings around their faces, as if dressed in furry habits. Swinging through the treetops at speeds up to 35 miles per hour, they look a bit like flying nuns.
The gibbon's arboreal lifestyle is unique among the apes and, along with its small size, often leads people to mistake it for a monkey. (An ape, of course, is not a monkey: Both are primates, but they're not in the same superfamily.) Peter Gabriel, for example: His music video for "Shock the Monkey" stars a gibbon. The creators of the popular YouTube video "Monkey Death Wish" similarly misattribute their leading role. And a child swinging from monkey bars emulates the brachiation of a gibbon more than the movement of any monkey. They should be called gibbon bars.
The laboratory turns out to be no better than the playground. "I think quite often some researchers just look at gibbons like monkeys," says Alan Mootnick, who runs the Gibbon Conservation Center in California. That's one reason so little is known about them, even though they're more common and diverse than any other ape, with four genera and at least a dozen species. (Seventy percent of all apes are gibbons.) Louis Leakey, the famous paleoanthropologist, encouraged Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Mary Galdikas to study chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, respectively, but never dispatched an emissary to the gibbons. The practical difficulties faced by primatologists in the field also contribute to our ignorance: Gibbons live in small families in remote tropical canopies, while great apes like the chimpanzees and gorillas stay in large, terrestrial groups.
The scarcity of scientific knowledge about gibbons hampers advocacy on their behalf. In 1993, Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer co-founded the Great Ape Project, a nonprofit animal-rights organization based in Seattle. Singer's group champions the principle enshrined in the new Spanish law—extension of human rights to great apes on account of their self-awareness, sense of the future, and ability to use human language. Does the Great Ape Project leave out gibbons because they don't possess these special abilities? No. According to Singer, it's because "we just didn't know enough about them."
Ben Crair is an associate editor at the Daily Beast.
Photograph of gibbons by Joerg Koch/AFP/Getty Images.