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Gibbons are apes, not monkeys. They are relatives of chimpanzees, gorillas, orang utans, and men. There are nine different species of gibbons and probably more than twenty subspecies, so that if the zoos of the world were doing their jobs properly then they would need to keep around twenty different self-sustaining populations just to be on the safe side.

Gibbons are a traditional exhibit in zoos, and when displayed well they can be superb. They are remarkable athletes, masters of a unique mode of locomotion called brachiation that involves swinging from arm to arm like trapeze artists with extraordinary speed and skill. Several zoos, among them London, and Edinburgh, keep gibbons in long aviary-like cages which show their abilities off to good effect. Paignton Zoo on the English south coast has pioneered the use of gibbon islands, and in the mild Devon climate they remain outdoors, sleeping in large nest boxes high in the trees. Britain's best gibbon collection, at Twycross Zoo, uses long (but not very tall) cages with indoor glass-fronted rooms. Twycross keeps seven species, and demonstrates its commitment by keeping numbers of young and non-breeding individuals to help sustain a good zoo population, even though gibbons are demanding of cage space, and are difficult to run together unless they are a family group or an established pair.

The largest of the gibbons is the siamang, a black woolly ape that uses its extended throat-sac to produce haunting warbling calls. Siamang are well represented at Howletts Zoo in excellent, well roped, rustic cages.

All of the gibbons are threatened by the rapid destruction of rainforests in South-East Asia. They are climax species which need vast areas of forest in which to survive, and as human population and commercial logging encroaches on the forests so the importance of good zoo management of these animals increases, with the hope of future reintroduction into the wild. Zoos are still a long way from this goal with most gibbon species, although the efforts of collections like Twycross and Howletts give some hope for the future.

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Last modified: July 29, 2005