Northern white-cheeked gibbon

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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Normally found in the evergreen and semi-evergreen forests of Vietnam, Laos, and China, the endangered northern white-cheeked gibbon has nearly disappeared from the wild.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is the northern white-cheeked gibbon?

Though they might look a bit like monkeys, northern white-cheeked gibbons are officially classified as apes. One easy way to tell the difference is that, like chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, northern white-cheeked gibbons have no tail.

As babies, northern white-cheeked gibbons are typically tan in color but gradually turn darker as they age. Males eventually sport completely black coats, save for two large patches of white fur on their cheeks that resemble sideburns. Mature females tend to range from reddish to brown and even light cream and beige.

Like other gibbons, northern white-cheeked gibbons possess exceptionally long arms, which they use to swing through the treetops at high speed. Their arms are so long, the gibbons hold them over their heads for balance when walking bipedally.

Habitat and diet

The northern white-cheeked gibbon can still be found in the evergreen and semi-evergreen forests of Vietnam, Laos, and China. Home ranges can be as large as a hundred acres, and the gibbons might travel up to a mile per day.

While not much is known about this gibbon species, scientists believe the animals’ diet consists mainly of fruit. Flowers, leaves, and insects may also make up a proportion of their meals.

Social structure

Northern white-cheeked gibbons maintain small family groups consisting of two adults and their offspring. Females give birth to a single baby once every two to three years, after a seven-month pregnancy, or gestation period.

When they are first born, baby gibbons cling tightly to their mother’s midsection, almost like a belt. This allows the female to hold the baby while sitting with her knees up—a typical gibbon squatting posture. Later, the little ones will use their long arms to wrap around the mother’s chest.

Like human babies, northern white-cheeked gibbons require a lot of care from their parents. After three years, the young can survive on their own, but they do not reach sexual maturity until six years of age. Offspring typically leave their family group at about eight to 10 years of age, at which point they will set off in search of their own territory and mate.

Threats to survival

As far as natural predators, it’s suspected that the northern white-cheeked gibbon’s habit of remaining in the treetops protects it from hungry mouths on the forest floor. Birds of prey, however, may represent a significant threat from above.

More troubling, though, is the danger posed by deforestation. Much of the northern white-cheeked gibbon’s former habitat has been cut down to be burned for fuel or converted into timber products. Land clearing for agricultural use also jeopardizes the species’ habitat.

Finally, northern white-cheeked gibbons are also hunted for food or for use in traditional medicine, which scientists say is likely the primary cause of decline for the species.

Conservation

While common in zoos, the northern white-cheeked gibbon has nearly disappeared from the wild.

No one has spotted this species in China since 1990, which means the gibbon may already have gone extinct in that part of its range. Only a handful of northern white-cheeked gibbon groups remain in the forests of Southeast Asia. Some of these exist within areas that are already protected, but proper enforcement of laws that protect wildlife remains a concern. Laos supports the largest remaining population of these gibbons, thanks to more intact habitat than China or Vietnam.

Overall, the northern white-cheeked gibbon’s outlook is dire, with the species’ population thought to have plummeted by 80 percent or more over the past 45 years. As such, the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers the northern white-cheeked gibbon to be critically endangered.