What Happened to the Hainan Gibbon?

The Decline and Fall of Gibbons' Roamin' Empire

What Happened to the Hainan Gibbon?

The Decline and Fall of Gibbons' Roamin' Empire

What Happened to the Hainan Gibbon?
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 23 2010 11:52 AM

The Decline and Fall of Gibbons' Roamin' Empire

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Click to view slideshow "In Search of the World's Rarest Ape".

On the afternoon of our first day together, I asked Bosco what animals we were likely to see in Bawangling. For months, I had looked forward to seeing not only the Hainan gibbon, but also other wild animals I had otherwise glimpsed in only photographs and zoos. He named a few: flying squirrels, black giant squirrels, two types of imperial pigeon. This was not what I had in mind. I did not travel halfway around the world from New York City to see squirrels and pigeons, no matter how exotic. They are plentifully abundant in Central Park.

"Will we see pangolins?" I asked. I had read a reference to the spiny anteaters in a Hainan travel journal from 1939.

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"Oh, no," Bosco said. "Pangolins are very rare. They are one animal that the hunters told me is gone."

What about the clouded leopard? It, too, was "very rare." And the small-clawed otter had not been seen in years.

These animals had all been hunted if not to extinction, then at least to the point where they knew to scram at the sound of humans. They were popular not just for their meat, but also as ingredients in Chinese medicine. The pangolin, in particular, seems pained by Chinese medicine. Its scales, the travel journal said, are "roasted, ashed, cooked in oil, butter, vinegar, boy's urine, or roasted with earth or oyster-shells."

So it was all or nothing: If we failed to see the Hainan gibbon, there would be no consolation prize. And seeing the gibbon would not be easy. It had always been hard to come by on the island. In 1735, Jean-Baptiste Du Halde wrote of a "great black ape" on Hainan, but he said it was rare. One hundred and thirty-five years later, Robert Swinhoe went in search of the gibbon but never saw a living example. By 1900, most of what was known about the Hainan gibbon came from two animals kept separately in British zoos. (The description of one of these gibbons' "naked and turgid labia," by R.I. Pocock in 1905, makes you wonder what, exactly, the poor creatures were subjected to.)

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Still, as recently as 1950, the gibbon population topped 2,000, and it could be found in 12 of Hainan's 19 counties. Its decline began that decade when the Chinese government designated more than half of the island's lowland tropical forest for rubber farming. Over the next 30 years, Hainan's forest cover dropped from 35 percent of the island to less than 10 percent. As prime lowland forest grew scarcer and more difficult to access—because gibbons never travel by ground, even what might appear to be minimally intrusive constructions, like power lines and roads, carve up their ranges—the gibbons retreated into the mountains. By 1990, the gibbon's sole remaining refuge was Bawangling.

Today, just 20 or so gibbons survive. They live in two groups, which, compared with the groups of other gibbon species, are particularly large. Group A has 11 gibbons. It lives deep in the mountains and is not habituated to human trackers. So we would search for the habituated Group B, which has seven gibbons ranging in age from just a few months to a twentysomething female whom the trackers call Lao Tai Tai, Chinese for "old woman." (Two solitary adult males, expelled from Groups A and B when they reached sexual maturity, are also confirmed to live in the forest.)

Before my arrival, Bosco had asked Bawangling's best trackers—normally on the trail of the elusive Group A—to look for Group B instead, to maximize my chances of seeing the gibbon. But it had been weeks since the last sighting. The rainy season was supposed to have ended in September, but two typhoons had blown through Hainan in October, causing three weeks of rain prior to my arrival. When it rains, the breeding male and female of each gibbon group do not sing their morning duets, making it impossible to know where to find them.

Even if the weather cooperated, there were no guarantees. A reporter from Xinhua tried for six months before finally seeing the gibbon, and Bosco himself had seen it only eight out of 15 or so tries.

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"It's going to be tough," Bosco told me. "Two reporters visited from Hong Kong to see the gibbon—a woman writer and a male photographer. She threw up halfway, before we could even try to see the gibbon. We left her, because we figured we could just tell her what we saw, but the man wanted to come to take photos. I was pushing him up the mountain, while the other guy with us was dragging him from the front. He kept grabbing onto spiny trees, and his hands were bloody. When we finally saw the gibbon, he couldn't hold his camera."

We would depart for Bawangling the next day, but in the meantime Bosco and I visited a mangrove swamp outside Haikou. Mr. Li, a resident of the area, had invited Bosco to inspect an island he hoped could attract waterfowl. As a long boat with an outboard motor took us to the island, a haze settled over the water and dissolved the horizon; the wooden posts of funnel traps ran like sutures through the gray.

Those traps, which fish swim into but can't back out of, supplied our lunch. "It's contradictory," Bosco said. "We shake our heads and say 'so many fish nets,' but then we sit here and eat their catch." We had selected the meal from nearby tanks: mullet, prawns, crabs, clams, and peanut worms. When I saw the long, bloated bodies of the peanut worms, I had hoped that they were some kind of bean sprout. Bosco set me straight, then he suggested that I try them: They were something that I would not be able to taste in many other places in the world.

They arrived on a bed of chives, silvery and limp like deflated blimps. Bosco excused himself from eating them because of a protein allergy, but they were surprisingly edible—chewy with the light, fresh flavor of the sea. The rest of the meal was an exhibition of preparation techniques: deep-fried mullet, grilled prawns, steamed crabs, and raw clams on the half-shell. Everything was dipped into soy sauce with fresh garlic, ginger, chili, and the juice of a limelike fruit called calamansi.

After lunch, we headed to a duck pond where, a year earlier, Bosco and Mr. Li had seen rare geese. The property was outside the mangrove reserve and was slated for development into a golf course. We drove past betel-nut farms on a wooded road until Bosco pulled over, exited the car, and beat his way into the bush. The path was bright with pink and yellow flowers, and I was bothered by thorns and burrs, thinking them a nuisance—until Bosco said something about the meanness of the guard dogs.

The path opened up onto the pond. Needlefish circled in the shallows; the tips of grass peeked above the water's surface. Construction of the golf course had not yet started, but the pond was shrinking, pressed by fish farms on one side and duck farms on the other. A few egrets staked out positions in the grass, but the geese—like the guard dogs—were nowhere to be found.

"That's China," Bosco said. "You come here one year and it looks perfect and so remote that you think it will never change, and the next—" he gestured out over the fishponds and the duck pens. Soon they, too, would disappear, and the only pond would be a water trap in the dogleg of a rolling fairway. Bosco looked into his binoculars, but the goose, he knew, was gone.

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Ben Crair is an associate editor at the Daily Beast.