UCL Division of Biosciences


International Gibbon Day got off to a swinging start at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology

1 November 2019

International Gibbon Day 2019 on 24th October saw a host of exciting gibbon-related activities, displays and talks led by a team of gibbon researchers at UCL, the Zoological Society of London and Oxford Brookes University.


The expert gibbon team swung through London Zoo and UCL's Grant Museum of Zoology to share their small ape knowledge and their particular passion for the Hainan Gibbon, which today is the rarest of the apes.

The day’s activities included fascinating storytelling about fieldwork studying gibbons in a forest, tales about local gibbon myths and clear explanations of the serious threats facing our small, singing, swinging cousins. The gibbon team hosted almost 160 gibbon enthusiasts from the general public including 30 children, keen to learn about their little gibbon cousins.  The team presented a series of three talks by Carolyn Thompson, UCL PhD student, Helen Chatterjee, Professor of Biology UCL, Biosciences and Susan Cheyne, Vice Chair Section on Small Apes, International Union for Conservation of Nature.  The talks included an introduction to gibbons and their threats, gibbons in folklore across Asia, and a reading of ‘The Little Gibbon Who Lost His Song’, from a bi-lingual children's book about Indonesian forest fires which impact wildlife every year. With fundraising activities for the Borneo Nature Foundation, gibbon drawings, videos and songs, visitors were surrounded by the wonderful world of gibbons.

Carolyn Thompson, UCL PhD student and gibbon researcher, recently returned from Hainan Island which is home to the world's rarest ape. With fewer than 30 individual Hainan gibbons remaining in an isolated 15 km2 forest fragment on an island in the South China Sea, there is urgent need to protect this critically endangered species and raise much needed awareness.

Gibbons are the smallest of the apes known for their unique locomotive ability to swing through the trees and their haunting, species-specific songs. Sprawled across pockets of South Eastern and Eastern Asia, 19 of the 20 species are considered to be on the brink of extinction. 

Hainan gibbons are amazing creatures and true ‘kings of the swingers’, highly adapted to life in the trees. Their hands are like ‘hooks’, which enables them to suspend and hang for extended periods of time. They also have long arms that they use to swing from branch to branch, a unique form of locomotion known as brachiation. They are extremely quick and can reach speeds of 55 km/h (34 mph), clearing distances of up to 12 metres with one swing!


Raising awareness of the plight of the Hainan gibbons is crucial.  This endangered gibbon species whose population today is around 28, has decreased significantly from the 1950s, when more than 2,000 individuals were estimated to remain throughout the island of Hainan. Sadly, Hainan gibbon numbers have plummeted in the second half of the 20th Century.