In 2005, Bosco Chan, a zoologist from Hong Kong, took a break from his work in China’s Bawangling National Nature Reserve to visit a nearby school. The Chinese New Year was approaching, and to celebrate, he handed out a cartoon to the students. It featured two animal species. Every child quickly recognized one of them: the giant panda, the most famous animal in Asia. But the other left them guessing. There were two of these creatures, sitting high above the pandas in a tree. One was black, and the other was buff; they slung their arms around each other like old friends in a bar. Most people could have been forgiven for assuming they were monkeys, but the students should have known better: The animals’ habitat at Bawangling was practically next door.
“In the latest census, we have 1,300 giant pandas,” Bosco sighed when he recounted the story. “The Hainan gibbon is 100 times more rare than the panda.”
I went to Hainan Island in October 2009. I wanted to see the Hainan gibbon, the rarest ape in the world. About 20 survive—a fraction of any wild bonobo, chimpanzee, orangutan, or gorilla population. And yet, almost from the beginning, the gibbons have dwelt unnoticed in the so-called great apes’ shadow. Taxonomists categorized them as “lesser apes,” a title that described primatologists’ indifference as much as it did the gibbons’ smaller stature. Unsurprisingly, the great apes enjoy multimillion-dollar conservation campaigns, while the Hainan gibbon hangs on with the help of only a few dozen low-paid monitors and wardens.
I arrived in Haikou, Hainan’s capital city, after a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Beijing. No sooner had I deplaned than a scrum of cabdrivers descended, fighting for the opportunity to overcharge me. We were about 45 minutes from the hotel, and there was little to see of Haikou at night. The large red characters of illuminated signs were suspended like fireworks in the sky. Palm trees flourished in the roadside space they were permitted, and the air sat heavy on the city, like dog’s breath.
Haikou was several hours away from the gibbons’ habitat at Bawangling, but in the darkness my imagination built up a city on the verge of returning to the jungle—its outer limit a perfect demarcation between buildings and forest, so that you might look out from a window into a boscage that sparkled with wild animals’ amber eyes. I was disappointed, then, to wake up the next day and discover that Haikou was, as one hotel manager put it, “just another big Chinese city.” Home to 800,000 people, the jungle there is entirely concrete. Office buildings and tenement blocks rise side by side, like plants competing for the sunlight. Everywhere, balconies put forth colorful lines of drying clothes.
The island now has two international airports, but for most of Chinese history, Hainan was a provincial backwater. “In ancient times, it was regarded as an island, savage and wild with waste and miasma, communicable subtropical diseases,” a placard reads in the Hainan Museum. A total of 18 tourists are known to have visited the island during the 700 years of the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties. However, in 1988, the Chinese government decided to rouse Hainan from its historical slumber by designating the island a “special economic zone.”
China had hoped to transform its southernmost province into an economic powerhouse—a new Asian tiger to take on Hong Kong and Taiwan. But the island’s laissez-faire economic policies never lured industry or workers. Instead, real estate speculators showed up. There was a period in 1992 when Hainan was China’s fastest-growing economic region, but when the government squeezed credit one year later, the bubble burst. For years, the island languished as a graveyard of unfinished construction. Even today, in the outskirts of Haikou, hulks of abandoned hotels stand as monuments to hubris, their parking lots repurposed as threshing floors by local peasants. It was not until 1999 that Hainan imagined itself as something new: an eco-friendly island paradise.
These days, the Chinese like to call Hainan their Hawaii, but in some ways it’s more like their Jamaica—exclusive seaside resorts with their backs turned to the interior. When I visited the southern resort city of Sanya, I stayed in a five-star Pullman hotel with a private beach and a staff with names like Candy. My hotel in Haikou came with a Ralph Lauren boutique and an Italian restaurant. A 10-minute car ride away I was on the Bo Ai Lu, the main street of a French colonial district where the decaying buildings snow mortar onto the streets.
If the rest of Haikou feels distant, like a place you mostly look at from highways and hotel windows, then the Bo Ai Lu smothers you in its bosom. The neighborhood was built by Chinese expats returning from Southeast Asia, and merchants have colonized every possible space. Their stores take off down the street as though by chain reaction, selling everything imaginable—Halloween costumes, spices, basketballs, paper lanterns, haircuts, and dried squid. Meanwhile, the motorbikes move in shoals. On the Bo Ai Lu, the traffic laws—apparently optional in China to begin with—break down completely, and crossing the road becomes like skipping on stones across Class 6 river rapids.
A pair of Western expats I had met in the hotel had lured me to Bo Ai Lu, in part with the promise of skinned cats. I’m not sure whether I was relieved or disappointed to see no such thing. (I saw no evidence of cat-eating on Hainan, but there were signs of dog-eating: A few days later, on my way to the gibbon range at Bawangling, a truck with a bed full of mutts, crated and stacked like poultry, sped past, its cargo barking and howling the whole way.) There was, anyway, plenty else to keep the eye interested. One side street was taken over entirely by fishmongers. They squatted among baskets of clams, crab, eels, and blue crabs with red bows tied around their claws. Silver fish glistened on the cobbles; some still flicked a fin or gill. Farther down the block, troves of tropical fruit tantalized.
An elementary school was at the center of the neighborhood. Its exterior was covered in small white tiles—a facade that is common on the island and that gives some of its more rundown parts the feel of a ballpark bathroom. When I walked by, a few students leaned over the edge of the second story, made peace signs, and shouted “Ha-lo.” In the courtyard, boys and girls in blue shorts, white shirts, and red neckerchiefs conducted drills.
These students would probably have been even harder pressed than the students of Bosco’s story to identify the gibbon. The only sign of the gibbon I came across in Haikou was in the Hainan Museum: a “black gibbon’s inferior maxilla”—half of a lower jaw, no bigger than a human thumb and 10,000 years old. The museum displayed it as part of a menagerie of fossils, most of which came from animals that had disappeared from the island long ago—elephants, orangutans, pandas, tigers, and rhinos. From this perspective, the Hainan gibbon’s survival looked like quite the feat.
You wouldn’t know it from the display, though. There was nothing to distinguish the fossil from its neighbors, no placard indicating that the gibbon had made it out of the Pleistocene. The gibbon was, the museum seemed to suggest, more an anachronism than an island treasure. It was merely prologue, there to give a sense of what the island was like before human civilization took root, and it was to human civilization that the museum devoted the rest of its space.
It was also to human civilization that I retired that night. In a couple of days, Bosco and I would head into the gibbons’ range at the Bawangling, a few hours inland from Haikou. Bosco said that while we were in the mountains, I should be careful to “do my business” in a dry spot, lest I find myself overly intimate with a leech. In Haikou, I relished human civilization while I could. I ended my day with roast duck and a bath at my hotel.
Click here for a slide-show essay on searching for the Hainan gibbon.