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How Norwich students will help save the world’s rarest mammal

Hainan gibbons. Picture: Jessica Bryant/Zoological Society of London

Hainan gibbons. Picture: Jessica Bryant/Zoological Society of London

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What do the rarest mammal in the world and a group of Norwich students have in common?

Hainan gibbons. Picture: Jessica Bryant/Zoological Society of LondonHainan gibbons. Picture: Jessica Bryant/Zoological Society of London

Not much, it would appear - but later this year the creative students will be playing a pivotal role in the fight to keep the animal on the planet.

With just 26 left, the Hainan gibbon - from Hainan, a tropical island at the southernmost point of China - is widely recognised as the rarest primate in the world and believed to be the rarest mammal.

And with numbers now dangerously low, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) turned to animation and visual effects students at Norwich University of the Artsw (NUA), asking them to create images and animations for both Hainan locals and visiting tourists to bring their plight to light.

Saint John Walker, visual effects course leader at NUA, said the approach meant they could tell stories of the gibbons “without the barrier of language, or the risk of disturbing the last surviving Hainan gibbon population”.

Hainan gibbons. Picture: Jessica Bryant/Zoological Society of LondonHainan gibbons. Picture: Jessica Bryant/Zoological Society of London

“It’s a direct way to communicate to local communities around the gibbon reserve and to other interest groups about the importance of the species and its habitat, and its cultural significance to the island’s population, but also to produce fascinating visuals that can be shown more widely across China to raise awareness,” he said.

While the gibbons, known for their distinctive song and recognisable from hair reminiscent of Elvis, play a key part in the history and folklore of Hainan, a combination of deforestation and hunting have brought them to brink of extinction - with the three groups living in 15-square kilometre area of forest.

Dr Samuel Turvey, senior research fellow at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and manager of the international Hainan gibbon conservation programme, said: “In order to conserve a species as rare and threatened as the Hainan gibbon, it’s essential to come up with new and innovative approaches designed to change habits and foster greater awareness.”

He said through the work, which will begin later this year, they hope to strengthen the monitoring of gibbons in their reserve, and raise awareness of the unique species.

Visual effects students at Norwich University of the Arts. Picture: Owen RichardsVisual effects students at Norwich University of the Arts. Picture: Owen Richards

A history at the heart of folklore

The primates have been at risk for some time, with visiting naturalists in the 19th century describing them then as rare.

But they were popular among locals - boiling a whole animal for a few days until reduced to a paste was said to produce a potent medicine, while chopsticks made from their arm bones could supposedly test for poison.

Saint John Walker, visual effects course leader at Norwich University of the Arts. Picture: Denisa IliwSaint John Walker, visual effects course leader at Norwich University of the Arts. Picture: Denisa Iliw

Later, the gibbons’ forests were chopped down for timber, and to make way for agriculture.

By the 1980s, they were in dire straits, with just a few survivors remaining - but, as rumour has it, they may have been saved by luck.

As one story goes, shortly after a hunter shot one of the last gibbons, his entire family came down with a disease. Killing the gibbons was then seen as bad luck.

The remaining animals clung on at Bawangling nature reserve, but their breeding pool is limited and the lack of population growth threatens their long-term survival.

Norwich Universtity of the Arts/NUA.
Picture: ANTONY KELLYNorwich Universtity of the Arts/NUA. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

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