Geissmann, T. 2002: Gibbon diversity and conservation. In: Caring for primates. Abstracts of the XIXth congress of the International Primatological Society, 4th-9th August, 2002, Beijing, China, pp. 112-113. Mammalogical Society of China, Beijing.

Gibbon diversity and conservation

T. Geissmann

Institute of Zoology, Tierärztliche Hochschule, Bünteweg 17, 30559 Hannover, Germany, e-mail:

Key Words: species loss, vanishing apes, conservation bias

In an ever increasing way, media and scientists alike have succeeded in making us aware of the plight of the great apes, while at the same time ignoring the gibbons or small apes. We are being taught that the great apes are "neglected apes", "forgotten apes" or "vanishing apes" (book titles on great apes), and that our first conservation priority among primates should be directed at these species.

A simple review of research activities documents that not the great apes, but the small apes are the true neglected or forgotten apes. For instance, at the last Congress of the American Society of Primatologists, great apes were represented in numerous presentations as follows: Gorilla 18; Pan 31; Pongo 5. In contrast, the small apes were represented as follows: Bunopithecus 0, Hylobates 0, Nomascus 0, Symphalangus 0 (source: American Journal of Primatology 54 Supplement - 2001, pp. 200-201).

Similarly, a simple review of the population numbers suffices to show that conservation priorities should be directed at small apes. Whereas even the most endangered species of great apes (Pongo abelii) still has populations of more than 10,000 individuals in the wild, there are at least three gibbon species (e.g. Nomascus concolor, N. sp. cf. nasutus, Hylobates moloch) with less than 3,000 individuals. Population sizes of several other gibbon species have not been estimated since the early 1980's and population numbers of several other species are simply "data deficient."

Whereas the research on, and conservation activities directed at, the great apes are supported by a strong lobby, gibbons tend to be overlooked whenever media, scientists, funding agencies and conservation agencies are referring to apes. Not only is the continued preference for great apes unjustified, it has in recent years contributed to divert from the increasingly critical status of many gibbon populations in the wild. Gibbons are largely ignored in current debates about ape conservation (e.g. bush meat, world heritage status for great apes etc.). If the long-standing tradition to favour great apes, or to ignore the small apes, is not consciously and actively being counteracted, it may result in the loss of several ape species.

The gibbon symposium with the title "Gibbon Diversity and Conservation" shall represent a first step to counteract this development. This symposium title should be broad enough to encompass research activities of many gibbon researchers, especially if diversity is interpreted as including evolutionary, genetic, behavioural or anatomical diversity.

In contrast to great apes, gibbons or small apes are rarely featured in symposia. The last international gibbon symposium I can remember was held in July 1980. I would like to encourage all gibbon researchers who plan on attending the IPS Congress to actively participate in this symposium. In order to survive, the small apes apparently need to get out of the shadow of the great apes and obtain an equivalent share of attention from conservation agencies, scientists and media alike. In the roundtable discussion concluding the symposium, strategies (and priorities) promoting gibbon research, conservation and media presence shall be ssessed. Any consensus here could help to consolidate gibbonologists as a force promoting gibbon conservation.

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