Discovery of a breeding pair of Hainan Gibbons raises hopes the critically endangered species can be saved from extinction

A critically endangered primate on the verge of extinction appears to be recovering after conservationists discovered a new breeding pair. 

The Hainan Gibbon is an ape only found on the forested Chinese island of the same name, and in the 1970s the worldwide population was less than ten.

However, half a century of dedicated conservation work has seen the world's rarest primate population slowly rise to more than 30.

A male and female have now been spotted in a new patch of forest and it is thought they are breeding and forming their own family group - the fifth on the island. 

It is easy to identify a breeding pair, as a male is jet black, while females are a striking gold. 

They are also extremely vocal animals, producing loud calls to mark their territory. These calls also double up as a way for males and females to strengthen their bond by singing duets as dawn breaks. 

The new pair was spotted when these calls were heard in a new region of the forest. Patrols later confirmed the new pair.  

This development is seen as being highly significant in the fight against the species' extinction. 

Populations of the long-limbed, tree-dwelling ape were decimated in the 20th century due to habitat loss as their home was cut down to make space for farms. 

Hunting and poaching was also a major driver of their decline. 

As a result of the invasion of their habitat, numbers of the Hainan Gibbon went from around 2,000 in the 1950s to single figures by 1970. 

In 2003, the first full census found only 13 individuals living on the island, and conservationists were faced with the stark reality of the crisis.  

When the dire state of the primate population was revealed, the Hainan Gibbon Conservation Project, run by the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong, was established. 

Since then, numbers have stabilised and a fragile recovery begun. It is hoped that with the new breeding pair, the population will continue to grow. 

However, many other gibbon species are still heading towards oblivion. The Hainan Gibon is the only one out of 19 Gibbon species in the world to be showing a stable increase in number.

Conservationists are encouraged by the signs of recovery, but warn the animal is still at-risk, as verified by its formal classification as 'critically endangered' by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

If the total number of Haunan Gibbons had surpass 50, the IUCN designation will likely be downgraded to 'endangered', according to Mr Lo. 

In 2007, the apes were being forced to live in a six square mile patch of forest devoid of the juicy fruit — figs and lychee — that the apes prefer to eat. 

Thousands of native trees were planted, conservationists patrolled the region and research was jump-started to learn more about the animals' ecology and behaviour.