Gibbons – Malaysia’s Endangered Singing Apes

Species at risk

Non-human primates are deemed closest to humans, but 60% of all primate species worldwide are threatened with extinction. As seed dispersers, primates play an outstandingly important role for a healthy and diverse forest ecosystem, that we all depend upon. Malaysia is a global biodiversity hotspot; but we are losing critical primate habitats due to deforestation and therefore, our local primate population is fast dwindling.

As the only small apes, gibbons are commonly assumed to be monkeys, yet take a closer look and you’ll see that they lack the tails the latter are famous for. Like larger apes, gibbons share a high 90s percentage of DNA with us. Wild gibbons live in monogamous pairs or small nuclear families (parents and children), high up in the canopies of the forest, are highly arboreal and almost never come down to the ground. 

They are acrobats, and are well known as the king of brachiation, moving faster than any other primate in the world, but their most unique trait is singing. Gibbons sing to mark their territories and find mates, singing mostly in the early morning.

Sadly they face many threats. While deforestation contributes to their declining numbers, the biggest threat to gibbons is the illegal wildlife pet trade. Entire gibbon families are killed by traders so that their babies can be sold as pets. It is estimated that 10-20 individual gibbons are killed in the process of getting an infant from the jungle into the hands of an owner. Gibbons and other wildlife are sold openly on social media, despite it being illegal to do so. Many people, including well known celebrities, share photos of their gibbon pets on social media, this sadly encourages others to buy them as well.

Gibbons are totally protected in Malaysia. Below are the government wildlife organisations for Peninsular and Borneo and the their laws regarding gibbons.

Though categorised as ‘lesser apes’, gibbons are an intelligent and captivating species. No other primates in the entire world (except us) sing. Songs can last from 10 – 30 minutes. Both males and females are musically talented and sing to announce their presence in territories and attract mates. They are the fastest primates in the world, their highly dynamic technique of locomotion, have made gibbons the fastest primates on earth as they can travel as fast as 50 – 70 kph. This is why gibbons are known as the King of Brachiation! Of the 20 species spread across South East Asia, Malaysia is privileged to house 5. Gibbons mate for life. They live in small family groups consisting of a couple and their juvenile kids. Gibbon babies are cared for by both father and mother and stay with the parents for about 6 – 8 years.

How can I identify each species?

As concerned young Malaysian scientists and activists, we want to pro-actively contribute to primate conservation by pursuing an NGO-run, government-supported primate rehabilitation centre in Malaysia for confiscated primates. This will give the gibbons, and other primate species, a chance to safely return to the wild. As well as provide the authorities with the means to implement wildlife protection laws. 

We are focused on gibbons because their title as the ‘forgotten apes’ rings too true. They lack the popularity and support that species like the Orang utan receive. Up to today, there is still very little conservation efforts for gibbons.

Learn more about our efforts to save gibbons: