The Northern white-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys) is a primate native to Lao PDR, Vietnam, and Southern China. It is classified as “Critically Endangered” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with primary threats including habitat loss and hunting. The global population size of the species is unknown, but likely numbers fewer than 1,000–2,000 individuals. Lao PDR holds the largest remaining population Northern white-cheeked gibbon, and is a priority for the long-term conservation of the species. The forests of Lao PDR represent the best opportunity for the long-term survival of this species, but its status in the country remains poorly known.
With support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, the Lao Biodiversity Association conducted a project with the overall goal to improve understanding of the status, threats, and required conservation actions for the Northern white-cheeked gibbon in key sites in Laos. The three objectives of the project are to:
- Train LBA staff and government staff from Provincial and District Offices of Natural Resources and Environment (PONRE and DONRE) to assess gibbon status and threats.
- Increase knowledge on the status of gibbons in Phou Dendin NPA through targeted field surveys.
- Identify priorities for Northern white-cheeked gibbon conservation interventions.
Phou Dendin National Protected Area (NPA) is located in Phongsaly Province in northernmost Laos, and shares a border to the east with Vietnam. It covers an area of approximately 220,000 ha and is thought to potentially hold a significant population of the Northern white-cheeked Gibbon. Of the 24 National Protected Areas of Laos, Phou Dendin has received the least attention in terms of biodiversity surveys.
In 2014, LBA staff conducted village interviews to collect information on gibbon presence in Phou Dendin NPA. We conducted interview surveys with selected individuals in Ban Lao Fushai, a community near the border of the Phou Dendin NPA. Interview surveys focused on determining threats, trends, and spatial distribution of the gibbon population. Using this information, staff planned and conducted field surveys in February 2015. This preliminary survey in Phou Dendin NPA aimed to assess the area’s potential for global conservation of the Northern white-cheeked gibbon.
A primate expert from Fauna & Flora International provided training for LBA and government staff. During field surveys, a series of listening posts were established at two research sites, and visited each morning for five days. At each listening post, one observer recorded all gibbon calls, including the start and end times time of male or female gibbon calls, bearing, and estimated distance. Weather conditions were also noted at one of the sites.
Gibbon calls were recorded during the survey. A sample calls can be heard in this video:
It is estimated that a total of between 10 to 11 gibbon groups or solitary males were recorded during the survey for the two sites.
Other mammals were incidentally encountered during the field trip from signs or direct observations, including:
- Macaques identified by calls and faeces. A young Assamese macaque was also kept as pet at the local military station.
- Tracks of smooth-coated otter, muntjac, sambar deer, mouse deer, wild pigs, civets, and wild cats.
- Antlers of muntjac and sambar deer at the military station.
- Asian porcupines trapped in one of the villages.
- Black giant squirrel heard and one dead specimen confiscated from poachers.
This project documented a number of environmental threats within the area surveyed. Villagers were observed fishing with explosives along the Nam Paho, demonstrating a lack of regard for wildlife and aquatic laws. Human made-trails were very common, and the presence of Vietnamese poachers in the area was obvious. Gunshots were heard daily at one site, and poacher camps, huts, or campfires were commonly encountered. The survey team also encountered an opium plot and vegetable garden for poacher subsistence. A recently made dirt road now runs from Ban Lao Fushai through to the military station all the way to the Nam Houn, which increases poacher access to the area. Such threats have the potential to impact gibbons as well as a variety of other wildlife species.
Following the completion of gibbon field surveys, LBA staff presented the survey findings to Provincial Office of Natural Resources and Environment in Phongsaly. Government officials recommended that additional biodiversity surveys should be conducted to further document the status and threats of Northern white-cheeked gibbon and other wildlife, and that information should also be shared with villagers to encourage wildlife conservation. PONRE staff also shared their conservation strategy for Phou Dendin NPA, which includes identifying key habitats for wildlife and restricting human uses in those areas; installing signs to educate people about the NPA regulations; developing a road near the NPA border to facilitate patrolling; and training an enforcement patrolling team. Additional funding and capacity building will be required to help government authorities and civil society partners implement this strategy. LBA hopes to be able to continue working with PONRE staff in Phou Dendin NPA to understand and protect this important biodiversity area in Lao PDR.
This project is supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation.