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Closer look: Vietnam’s gibbons

Cao vit gibbon
Written by: Paul Insua-Cao
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In several respects, the status of gibbons in Vietnam is an indicator of the general status of the nation’s biodiversity and the natural environment. The geography of Vietnam lends itself to the high level of biodiversity for which it is known. The distribution of its six gibbon species also reflects the countries diversity – with the primates found from the most northerly sub-tropical forests that experience cold winters at high altitudes, to tropical monsoon lowland forests in the south.

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Cao vit gibbon
Western black crested gibbon
Northern white-cheeked crested gibbon
Southern white-cheeked crested gibbon
Northern yellow-cheeked crested gibbon
Southern yellow-cheeked crested gibbon

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All gibbons in Vietnam belong to the genus of crested gibbons Nomascus, which are all among the world’s rarest apes. Of the seven species existing globally, six are found in Vietnam. In order of distribution, from north to south these are:

Cao vit gibbon.

The cao vit gibbon, or eastern black crested gibbon, (Nomascus nasutus) was rediscovered in 2002 on the border with China in Trung Khanh District, Cao Bang Province. Conservation efforts so far by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) appear to be driving a gradual population recovery. This is the only location where the cao vit gibbon is currently known to exist, with this population of about 110 individuals now restricted to approximately 1,000 hectares of limestone forest. The species is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Western black crested gibbon.

The western black crested gibbon (Nomascus concolor) has been the most closely monitored gibbon species in Vietnam over the past decade and subject to FFI’s longest continuous engagement at one site in Vietnam at Mu Cang Chai Species and Habitat Conservation Area. This is the only known viable population of the species in Vietnam and the western black crested gibbon may have become extinct without any intervention. The larger part of the population of this species occurs further north in Yunnan Province, China, with a small population in north-west Lao PDR. The species is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Northern white-cheeked crested gibbon.

The northern white-cheeked crested gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys) is distributed through a few areas of southern China (Yunnan Province), northern Lao PDR and north-western Vietnam. Surveys in recent years (2010/2011) brought a much clearer picture of the status of this species in Vietnam and most significantly, found a very large population of the species in Pu Mat National Park. Estimated to comprise of about 130 groups, this is thought to be the largest population in Vietnam. This species is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Southern white-cheeked crested gibbon.

The southern white-cheeked crested gibbon (Nomascus siki) has the most restricted range of any gibbon species in Vietnam, centred on Quang Binh Province in central Vietnam. The species is otherwise only found in neighbouring provinces of Lao PDR, where FFI is supporting its conservation at Phou Hin Poun National Protected Area. This species is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Northern yellow-cheeked crested gibbon.

The northern yellow-cheeked crested gibbon (Nomascus annamensis) is a new species to the genus. It was described in 2010 following years of discussion and research. About 200 groups have been recorded throughout its range in Vietnam and many areas yet remain to be surveyed. Large populations are reported from north-east Cambodia and are likely to occur in southern Lao PDR.

Southern yellow-cheeked crested gibbon.

The southern yellow-cheeked crested gibbon (Nomascus gabriellae), is the most southerly distributed species in Vietnam and probably makes up more than half the gibbons in the country. There are at least 300 gibbon groups in just two areas: Bu Gia Map National Park and Cat Tien National Park and the surrounding forests. Large populations remain in south-west Cambodia and this species is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

While habitat loss is a major cause of the dramatic past and present declines in gibbon populations, hunting represents the primary threat to gibbons in Vietnam. Gibbons are hunted for local consumption, for the pet trade or for any number of a plethora of inconsistent beliefs about their apparent health-enhancing properties. This is a common cause for the loss of much of Vietnam’s wildlife, and the tragic loss of mainland south-east Asia’s last individual Javan Rhino in 2010, poached in a national park in Vietnam shows how real this treat is.

So what needs to be done?

  • Awareness needs to be raised among the general public, government and local communities about the imminent loss of Vietnam’s gibbons and other wildlife.
  • Protected areas need to start functioning as they were intended, since most gibbon populations are now found in national parks and nature reserves, and there needs to be greater involvement of local communities.
  • Hunting and wildlife trade needs to be seriously addressed as priority issues affecting Vietnam’s biodiversity.

In 2011 a conservation status review of gibbons in Vietnam was prepared updating a similar review carried out in 2000. With so much more work carried out on gibbons during the past ten years, this report provides a clearer picture of the status of gibbons in Vietnam than was possible a decade ago.


Gibbon survey reports (listed from north to south)

Written by
Paul Insua-Cao

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“With six species of gibbon considered to be in Vietnam, this is one of the most gibbon diverse countries in the world and holds more species of crested gibbons than any other country”

Paul Insua-Cao

China-Indochina Primate Programme Manager, Fauna & Flora International

An image relating to Vietnam’s gibbons

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