New Delhi, Nov 27 (IANS) While the population of mountain gorillas, the world's largest primates and apes, has gone up in their home in Africa, the scenario in India is alarming for our only ape species, the Hoolock Gibbon.
Poaching for meat and bones, pet trade and habitat loss are taking a toll on this species of gibbon, called Lesser Apes in primatology.
The Hoolock Gibbon is the second−largest gibbon species, smaller only to the Siamang.
The forests of northeastern India, Bangladesh and Myanmar have echoed since times immemorial to songs (they are great vocalists) and alarm calls ("Huku Huku") of these primates, which are divided into two distinct species− the Western Hoolock and the Eastern Hoolock Gibbon.
"The Western Hoolock is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is found in Assam, Bangladesh and in Myanmar west of the Chindwin River," Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) primatologist Mayukh Chatterjee told IANS.
"However, if we consider local extinction to be equally important, then the Eastern Hoolock, found in eastern Assam, parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Myanmar east of the Chindwin, and southwest Yunnan province of China, is equally important."
So, what is the current population of both the species?
"Unfortunately, most population estimates are of years gone past. Now, new holistic estimates based on holistic landscapes are needed.
"Gibbons are canopy dwellers and it is difficult to estimate them. There are new ways of estimation which are coming up. For instance, one method to do estimation is from genetic data taken from gibbon scat (droppings). The need of the hour is to use such methods on a higher scale," he said.
The biggest threat to the Hoolocks is habitat loss, say experts.
"The high canopy of the forest which Hoolocks inhabit is like a highway used by them to go in search of food, mostly fruits as they are frugivores.
"When humans cut trees to make way for tea and teak plantations or 'jhum' (slash−and−burn) cultivation, the highway becomes fragmented. These animals then have two choices: either they can stay in their isolated patches and die out or get down from the canopy to the ground level and travel to other parts of the forest.
"The second option is equally suicidal as these apes are clumsy on the ground and fall prey to humans, dogs and other predators," said Chatterjee.
There are other effects of habitat loss too.
"The Hoolocks become isolated in patches of forest. As a result, in−breeding can occur, restricting the gene pool," he said.
There are other threats too, but they are not so deadly.
"Yes, there is a bushmeat as well as a pet trade. But they won't affect Hoolocks as much as habitat loss," he said.
And are government agencies in India doing enough for Hoolocks?
"Governments have to balance human development with conservation. The result is that there are differing priorities between differing government agencies. This is a global problem, not just an Indian problem. When the needs of people conflict with the need to conserve the environment, often the environment loses," said Ian Robinson, director, Emergency Relief Programme, International Fund for Animal Welfare.
"At the high level, India needs to preserve continuous canopy forest − this will preserve not only Hoolock Gibbons but all the other species in these diverse ecosystems. So this is a biodiversity preservation issue, not just a gibbon issue," Robinson told IANS.
And what about the future of the Hoolock in India?
"Like the rest of Indian wildlife, survival depends on India being able to balance the needs of a burgeoning human population with the need to preserve habitat and biodiversity. It is not an easy challenge, but India is a forward thinking country, with a history of respecting wildlife and the environment. So there is hope," said Robinson.
(Rajat Ghai can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)