Opportunity knocks for endangered primate

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Planned road projects threaten a population of endangered gibbons that could save the species

This undated photo handout released by Conservation International shows three northern white-cheeked crested gibbons (Nomascus leucogenys) at an undisclosed location in Vietnam. The lively morning calls of the rare species of gibbon have led to the discovery of the only known "viable" community of the talkative primates in remote Vietnamese forests, conservationists said.

Conservationists are pressing Vietnam to protect its only "viable" community of endangered primates before they are lost.

By listening to the morning calls of the species in the north-central province of Nghe An, experts at Conservation International (CI) discovered the largest known population of northern white-cheeked crested gibbons (Nomascus leucogenys), the wildlife group said in a statement on Monday (July 18).

The rare primate species is known for its loud song-like vocalizations which are used to mark territory and woo and keep mates.

Through auditory surveying, CI has confirmed the presence of a substantial population of 130 groups (455 animals) living in the thick mountainous jungle near the Laos border"”inside Nghe An's Pu Mat National Park.

"This discovery is significant because it quite probably represents the last opportunity to save this species from extinction in Vietnam," said Ben Rawson, CI's regional primate expert who has led the gibbon research project. "All other populations in the country which have been documented to date are tiny and unlikely to be viable in the long-term."

He indicated that saving the survival of the population will prove a true test of Vietnam's commitment to the environment.

"No primate species has gone extinct in the last century," he said. "While the species continues to persist in Laos, losing it in Vietnam would represent a failing of conservation in the country."

For the past three years, CI has failed to document populations of the gibbon larger than a dozen groups. This newly censused population represents two thirds of the total number in Vietnam and is the only confirmed viable population of this species left in the world, CI reported.

This primate is believed to be functionally extinct in China and the species situation is largely unknown in Laos, due to a lack of research.

Roads to extinction

But CI conservationists are now voicing concerns about plans to build a road through the Pu Mat National Park.

The roads were designed to increase border patrols between Vietnam and Laos and will cut directly through the gibbon's habitat, the CI statement said. This could have catastrophic effects on their numbers, as the roads will fragment the habitat and provide access for illegal and harmful activities such as hunting and logging, it added.

"The major issue will be the hunting of these gibbons that were previously protected by the harsh terrain," said Luu Tuong Bach, a CI consultant who led field surveys.

Wildlife is poached for traditional medicine and meat, and it is also kidnapped to be sold into the pet trade.

Bleak future

Bach and Rawson concurred that the discovery of this rare primate is a good opportunity to leverage additional funding for the species, which has been largely neglected despite its critically endangered status.

But "we don't think we can stop the roads," Bach admitted. He stressed that protection will require a concerted effort to keep transient poachers from decimating the key population.

"Without direct protection in Pu Mat National Park, it is likely that Vietnam will lose this species in the near future," he said.

Rawson pointed out that the gibbons help disperse seeds"”by eating fruit and then re-distributing seeds in their dung. "They play a significant role in maintaining forest health," he said.

An ongoing status assessment of Vietnam's gibbons conducted by CI and Fauna & Flora international corroborates the "precipitous declines" in gibbon numbers across the country in the last 25 years. Six species of gibbons in the crested gibbon genus Nomascus have been discovered in Vietnam.

All of the 25 gibbon species existing worldwide are threatened, and eight of the Indochinese crested gibbon species are near extinction, including the northern white-cheeked crested gibbon.

Rawson describes the gibbon's future as "bleak."

"It is true that wildlife in Vietnam is an underappreciated value of the country, appreciated mostly for its assumed medicinal values when consumed, rather than its position in healthy functioning ecosystems."

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