- Western hoolock gibbons play an important role in seed dispersal for forest regeneration in the forests of northeastern India, western Myanmar, and eastern Bangladesh.
- But the species is among the world’s most threatened primates, and faces a host of threats in Bangladesh ranging from deforestation for agriculture to the illegal wildlife trade.
- These animals “urgently require a comprehensive program that not only focuses on habitat conservation but also on scientifically sound translocations of isolated groups and individuals….Without significant financial support, the survival of Bangladesh’s gibbons remains in jeopardy,” a new op-ed argues.
- This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Western hoolock gibbons (Hoolock hoolock), native to the forests of northeastern India, western Myanmar, and eastern Bangladesh, are among the world’s most threatened primates, listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. Previously, they were listed among the 25 most endangered primates, and Bangladesh’s gibbon population may be the most precarious, with an estimated 300-400 remaining.
These gibbons are scattered across the eastern part of the country, specifically in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the Southeast and the Sylhet Division in the Northeast. Most remaining meta populations are confined to small forest blocks, unsuitable for long-term survival due to genetic isolation. The frontier forests in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which hold the most significant potential for future viable populations in Bangladesh are under severe pressure from slash-and-burn agriculture. This practice results in forest habitat fragmentation, compounded by hunting for subsistence. Additionally, there’s an alarming trend of gibbon infants and juveniles falling victim to the illegal wildlife trade.
Despite these critical threats to the gibbon population in Bangladesh, minimal conservation action has occurred due to two primary reasons:
Firstly, the main habitat blocks are within the politically complex region of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, plagued by conflict between the Bangladesh Government and a longstanding tribal insurgency movement. As a result, the forest governance system and enforcement of protection measures are undermined, leading to unregulated hunting of wildlife, including gibbons, and clearing of forest for traditional shifting cultivation practices. However, it’s crucial to understand that shifting cultivation should not be demonized, nor should we blame the Indigenous groups practicing it for destroying the environment. Instead, it’s the increasing human population in frontier regions, forced to convert the forest and hunt to survive, that has made this practice unsustainable.
Secondly, donor attention for biodiversity conservation in Bangladesh is limited, focusing primarily on the Sundarbans. From a donor perspective, it may appear more sensible to protect the viable population strongholds in Northeast India and western Myanmar.
However, this perspective overlooks the critical need in Bangladesh. Shahriar Caesar Rahman, founding director of the Bangladeshi NGO Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA), has voiced his frustration about donor agencies dismissing Bangladesh as not being a conservation priority. Yet the Chittagong Hill Tracts are part of the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot, a priority area for many funding institutions.
Currently, Bangladesh is the only gibbon-range country without a Conservation Action Plan, and there is no coordinated effort to secure viable populations. Despite this grim outlook, promising developments led by the CCA and Bangladesh Forest Department give us reason for optimism. One of these efforts includes the establishment of a proper rehabilitation facility within Lawachara National Park for gibbons victimized by illegal trade. This center, co-managed by CCA and the forest department is Bangladesh’s first rehab facility for gibbons. It started operating last year, receiving financial and technical support from the IUCN Section on Small Apes Specialist Group (IUCN SSA) and currently shelters two juveniles.
In a situation like Bangladesh, where isolated groups and individuals are trapped in small forest patches, translocation to suitable forest habitat is essential for the population’s viability. CCA’s program, currently under development, focuses on working with tribal communities and the forest department to safeguard remaining habitat in the hill tracts, primarily the Sangu-Matamuhuri Forest Reserve. This initiative aims to create a protected space where the gibbon population can be stabilized and reinforced through scientifically-conducted translocations and rehabilitation and release guided by the IUCN Best Practice Guidelines.
However, without substantial financial support, these issues can’t be addressed at the scale needed. The hill tracts deserve the same attention and priority as other parts of the imperiled Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot. The will to save the western hoolock in Bangladesh exists among leading grassroots organizations such as CCA and within the forest department, with necessary scientific expertise provided by the IUCN SSA.
See related feature: CCA works with an Indigenous community in the hill tracts to protect wildlife and co-author research papers
Funding agencies must recognize the value of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and ensure population viability of western hoolocks within one of the three range countries. Without this, the planned programs that are based on the contextual reality cannot be realized. Bangladesh, one of the world’s most densely populated countries, still has places and habitats for globally important wildlife. In frontier regions, Indigenous minority groups, among the most marginalized in the country, depend upon these ecosystems. Engaging them in conservation is both promising and necessary. CCA has a proven track record of working hands-on with minority groups in conservation reintroduction of critically endangered tortoise and turtle species. These same communities can and must be mobilized in the conservation of gibbons.
To sum it up, the gibbons of Bangladesh urgently require a comprehensive program that not only focuses on habitat conservation but also on scientifically sound translocations of isolated groups and individuals. This program must also prioritize rehabilitating individuals and, if possible, releasing them into areas where they can reinforce the existing population.
Further, there is a pressing need for heightened national-level awareness among the people of Bangladesh. More stringent measures to curb trafficking through law enforcement must be implemented. Effectively engaging communities, particularly tribal communities, in and around the gibbon habitat, can significantly reduce trafficking. This is crucial as juveniles are often traded opportunistically as a byproduct of hunting their parents.
All of these efforts, ranging from national-level action planning to translocation and habitat conservation, demand a level of financing far beyond what is currently available. Without significant financial support, the survival of Bangladesh’s gibbons remains in jeopardy.
Sinan Serhadli works across Southeast and South Asia for the People Resources and Conservation Foundation and collaborates with community groups on conservation and development projects.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with the author of a new book about stemming the loss of biodiversity, “Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration.” Listen here:
See related coverage:
Trafficking and habitat loss spell doom for Bangladesh’s western hoolock gibbons
Lwin, N., Sukumal, N., & Savini, T. (2021). Modelling the conservation status of the threatened hoolock gibbon (genus Hoolock) over its range. Global Ecology and Conservation, 29(e01726), e01726. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2021.e01726
Naher, H., Al-Razi, H., Ahmed, T., Hasan, S., Jaradat, A., & Muzaffar, S. B. (2021). Estimated density, population size and distribution of the endangered western Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock hoolock) in forest remnants in Bangladesh. Diversity, 13(10), 490. https://doi.org/10.3390/d13100490