Born to be wild: A quest to save the singing apes of South-East Asia

I will never forget the very first time we heard gibbons sing in the wild. We were in the Cardamom mountains in Cambodia trekking through the jungle, well off the beaten path. We were there with two ex-poachers turned guides making our way through the dense green maze after an early morning boat trip on the river, when the sound first reached our ears. We were suddenly surprised by this high-pitched “whooping”, short, steeply rising notes from up close. Immediately after, we heard a similar sound starting in synchrony. It was impossible to see anything in the dense forest canopy, but closing our eyes, we felt like the whole jungle had just woken up. That the forest was truly alive. We spent the next two days crossing the jungle and encountering a variety of species, but we kept dreaming about spotting a gibbon with our own eyes. On the last morning on our way back to civilization, we heard the same song. And suddenly, we were in the right place at the right time: a male pileated gibbon decided to take a break from singing, and rested on a branch high up in the canopy, but still visible to us. Our feet were cemented into the ground as we stood there in awe, watching the gibbon call out to the jungle. 

Gibbons are indeed renowned amongst primates for their loud and unique vocalisations. They sing for a multitude of reasons: to establish and defend territory, reinforce pair bonds, and communicate with each other within their territory. They usually start their morning with a beautiful concert that is transmitted over long distances. However, unfortunately for gibbons, their extraordinary songs are an easy way for poachers to find them. Today, gibbon numbers are drastically dropping due to poaching for the wildlife pet trade and habitat loss. 

But a few very dedicated people decided to step up and find a way to give captive gibbons their freedom back. Rewilding gibbons might sound easy at first, but as two of the best gibbon experts in Thailand and Malaysia tell us, it is often a herculean task.

Apes as pets

The gibbon is the only ape native to mainland Asia, and there are more than a dozen different gibbon species ranging from Bangladesh to southern China and across Southeast Asia. The gibbons are remarkable in their agility, they can swing from tree to tree reaching the speed of 55 km/h and are able to jump up to 15 metres in distance. Nevertheless, they are also able to walk upright on two feet just like humans. However, unfortunately the demand for cute animals as pets continues fueling wildlife trade, and gibbons are a prominent target. 

Baby gibbons, just like other offspring of our primate relatives are perceived as extremely cute. Seeing them triggers empathy and compassion in our brain, and we feel the need to care for them. This is why young gibbons are regularly sold as pets, or are used in tourism, mainly in Thailand.

Social media is full with such photos of tourists posing with what they perceive as adorable and happy baby gibbons. The reality however is vastly different. (Left photo collage: GRC, right photo: GCS)

Poachers only aim for the juveniles because they’re much easier to tame. However, as members of a gibbon family would even die protecting each other, the hunt for a single individual usually ends up in a massacre.

“To capture a young baby that is holding on to its mom, poachers will sometimes have to kill an entire family first. First the male will be shot, and lastly the mother holding the baby. During the fall, there is a huge risk that even the young gibbon will die. About 6-10 gibbons die to catch one juvenile alive,” tells us Thanaphat Payakkaporn, Secretary General of The Wild Animal Rescue Foundation of Thailand as he shows us around the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in Phuket. “Gibbons were poached to extinction in Phuket in the 80s, as they were considered a popular tourist attraction,” he explains. We can barely believe our eyes when we see pictures of baby gibbons in diapers with tourists, or sitting by the bar. “These gibbons were even taught to smoke a cigarette, drink beer and eat human food, and they solely walk upright on the ground,” Thanaphat adds. 

Than explains the difficult process of rescue and rehabilitation. Many gibbons get to the center in terrible condition, often malnourished, injured and displaying stereotypic behavior as a result of their abuse at human hands. (Photos on the right side: GRP)

In Malaysia, poachers even found certain loopholes when it comes to selling protected wildlife. “It is not illegal to advertise and sell protected animals online. A poacher or trader can only be charged if they are caught in the possession of such an animal,” Mariani Ramli, primatologist and founder of the Gibbon Conservation Society explains. “This is why it is still so easy to advertise the sale of protected species on social media, and it is very trendy to purchase gibbons as pets.”

Coupled with habitat loss, poaching for wildlife trade is pushing all gibbon species numbers to a critical low. Globally, gibbons are one of the most threatened families of primates. Out of the 20 gibbon species out there, five are considered Critically Endangered, 14 Endangered and one Vulnerable according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 

Two heroes of gibbon conservation

Thanaphat Payakkaporn or simply Than was a young boy when his mother found a dying gibbon baby, the owner of which didn’t want to pay to care for it. She was so moved that she started rescuing animals with a small group of people, and they cared for them in their backyards using their own money. “I remember how I was playing with a rescued tiger, how I was surrounded by bears,” Than recalls. A member of the team, a vet who cared for the animals, became the very first wildlife vet of Thailand. Even the Forestry Department sent sick animals to them, as there was no other expert in wildlife care in the country at that time. As word of their work spread, many rescued gibbons found their way to them, reaching over 70 individuals. Eventually with more than 600 animals in their backyard, they needed to look for another solution.

In 1992 the first wildlife law of Thailand was created, therefore the group decided to bring their efforts under an umbrella and establish the Wild Animal Rescue Foundation of Thailand, continuing their mission to rescue and care for gibbons and other wild animals in Thailand. They started the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (GRP) in Phuket especially because of the dire situation of gibbons exploited by the tourism industry on this booming Thai island.

The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in Phuket is located inside a national park. Although it can be visited by tourists, most of the gibbons that are in the process of rehabilitation are kept away from the public, where they can enjoy their peace and slowly learn how to behave like gibbons again.

But beyond rescuing and caring for the captive individuals, GRP set out to rehabilitate and release them back into the wild. They delved into the state-of-the-art studies of researchers and other experts, and followed suggested methods of wildlife release, while also being the very first organisation to release gibbons that grew up in captivity. However, despite all the best intentions, none of the released gibbons were able to adapt to living in the wild. “It took us a good 10 years and a lot of trial and error to successfully rehabilitate and release the first gibbon family. In the meantime, many international experts who visited and witnessed the hardships, gave up,” explains Than. But over time, the team has made significant breakthroughs and by now, they are the leading institution in gibbon rehabilitation and release. They rewilded 62 gibbons into Phuket’s last rainforest and even expanded to northern Thailand. The local team there already released 44 gibbons and 8 babies were born in the wild since.

Although each release is a big success, Than tells us that he is worried. “I know what is out there, I know the dangers, and these gibbons are my friends. It is wonderful to see them in the wild, but of course I am concerned about the threats they face.” 

Gibbons are being released in the north of Thailand as well, to where they are transported by airplane. (Photos: GRP)

The work of GRP is not to the liking of poachers. Several team members got into dangerous situations in the jungle, and one of Than’s friends was even shot by a poacher. But Than still understands where poachers are coming from, and he believes that they have to reach a common ground to change the system. 

Mariani Ramli, better known as Bam, has found her own unique path to gibbon conservation in Malaysia. Being a wildlife ranger, she found herself having to care for a young gibbon rescued by the wildlife department. She was touched by the dependency this small gibbon had on her, and she cared for him deeply, treating him like a human child. However, over time she started to notice that the young gibbon showed depressive behavior. Determined to find out how to care for him, Bam started studying wildlife behavior and visited several gibbon rehabilitation centres around Asia, including the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project. 

Over time, Bam discovered that many gibbons kept as pets die in the hands of humans, due to unsuitable diet and improper care. Although they are dressed in human clothes and walk like human babies, they are not made for the urban world. Ban knew she had to do something, which led to creating the Malaya Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (Malaya GReP) and the Gibbon Conservation Society (GCS) in 2013. Since then, she opened a new rehabilitation site in Sabah, Borneo as well (Borneo GReP).

Bam (upper left corner) and Cris (bottom left corner) from the GCS give us a tour in their new premises. In early 2023, the Malaya GReP project had just moved to its permanent site which will enable more enclosures, more behavioral studies and smoother rehabilitation of the gibbons.

At the time of our visit, the Malaya GReP just moved to a new location. After leasing land for 10 years, the state government gifted them a land that finally belongs to them. Here they house 14 gibbons, and as we walk around with Cris, rehabilitation manager at the station, she tells us the next big plans to expand and make more space available for rescued gibbons. Moreover, a community center is in the planning, and 12 lively dogs rescued from the street also live on this land. 

“All of the gibbons we have here were donated by their owners,” tells us Bam, to our great surprise. Many celebrities also own gibbons or other primates, without knowing how harmful it is for the animal to keep them as pets. They dress them in human clothes and love posing with them on their social media channels. The team of the GCS reaches out to them and puts a lot of effort on raising awareness. “Most people, when they find out about the dangers they cause to their beloved animal by keeping them in captivity, decide to donate it themselves,” Bam adds. 

The team here is just in the process of preparing for their first release. The gibbons rescued here don’t get touched after being rescued, and for most of them the only people they see are the caretakers. Cris tells us with excitement that finally the first baby was born from a couple which was paired in the station. As gibbons can only be released in a family, this news means that relatively soon, a release might be possible. 

In her dedicated work, Bam has to face many hardships. Because of speaking out for a stricter wildlife law, she received many death threats from poachers and wildlife traders over the course of the last years. “Once I even found a tracker under my car,” she recalls. To this day, she gets many attacks on social media, and there were instances where she noticed people following her. But this is only one side of her fight.

For many years, Bam wouldn’t even get the licence to rehabilitate gibbons. For 5 years she fought in court to run her center, and had some of her gibbons ceased as well. “Every morning on the way to the court appointment, I felt sick to my stomach. I was terrified to have these gibbons taken away,” she remembers. At the same time, in a male-dominated field, she is constantly challenged for living an unconventional life as a woman.

Spending time with Bam, her love for the gibbons comes through in her every word. For every negative voice towards what she does there are five very positive ones, and she received international recognition for her dedicated work. 

How to rewild a gibbon that has never seen the wild

Listening to the stories of these remarkable individuals and their teams, the million-dollar question arises: Can a highly intelligent gibbon be released into the wild after growing up in captivity, raised by humans? This question divides conservationists and there are clear cons. Each gibbon that grew up in captivity has developed a strong relation to humans. Some have formed strong attachment, while others are deeply traumatised, but they learnt all their behavior from their caretakers, not from fellow gibbons. 

Therefore, the key task in rehabilitation is to bring their deeply hidden ‘wild nature’ back to the surface. The strict rules about which individual should be released is a western concept for Than. Over the course of the last 30 years, foreign experts came and went, and many gave up when there were complications with release. But Than and his team kept going, and he recalls a lightbulb moment. “The gibbons that arrive to us never learnt how to behave as gibbons. Therefore, we have to first treat them like humans rather than wild gibbons. We treat them like school children,” he tells us.

To encourage problem solving, various food puzzles are given each day to the gibbons. Some enrichment encourages play or curiosity or even social skills. (Photos: GCS)

Behaviors have to be unlearned in both centers. The gibbons are not touched, not fed by hand unless they are very young, and the keepers don’t go into their enclosures. They have to unlearn walking on the ground, therefore various obstacles are placed on the ground of the enclosures, and instead they have to strengthen their arm muscles and learn to swing again. Their diet has to slowly but surely shift from human food to the natural gibbon diet, which consists of a mixture of fruit and leaves. 

A suitable gibbon enclosure (Graphic: Gibbon Conservation Society, An Overview)

And last but not least, they have to learn how to form bonds with individuals from their own species. Gibbons live in small family structures with up to 5 individuals in a family that is led by the dominant male and female. That is why for their release, it is of utmost importance that they are released as a family. Than walks us through the ‘matchmaking’. “After reaching sexual maturity, we try to pair two mature gibbons. We listen and notice that some of them sing and reply to each other in the morning. The next step would be to place them in an enclosure next to each other. If they still show curious behavior, we build a ‘love tunnel’ between them, so that when they choose to, they can meet in the middle, stick their fingers through and touch each other.” Then, the team puts them in a joint enclosure far away from humans, and hope that they get along well. The best possible outcome is that soon enough, there will be a new offspring born. If they don’t get along, the matchmaking continues.

But the story doesn’t end with the release. “We train them in the wild, rather than in captivity,” tells Than. The team builds an open enclosure out at the release site – which they choose based on the abundance of feeding trees and available territory. This enclosure remains there for the first few months until the family gets used to their new habitat. “The first two months, we follow them in the jungle. We are continuously with them, observing them and providing food, protecting them from rival groups,” Than explains. The team visits the family regularly during the next year, and observe how they develop, while also providing supplementary feed.

After release, learning continues in the wild, while the team closely follows the progress of the newly released gibbon family. (Photos: GRP)

From rescue to release, the whole process takes on average 5 years. The methodology that Than and his team developed influenced the IUCN Gibbon rehabilitation and release standard as well, revolutionizing the potential of rewilding primates that were the victims of wildlife trade.

Volunteers at the core

Than and Bam are two individuals who have sacrificed a lot to protect the last remaining singing apes of Thailand and Malaysia. Rehabilitating gibbons takes time and effort, and finances are a continuous challenge. The GRP in Phuket earns a bit of money with organising tours in the center but during the Covid pandemic they almost went bankrupt. Than works there on a voluntary basis and spends a large portion of his own savings to keep the center afloat in difficult times. Similarly at the GCS, a lot depends on volunteers. At the moment, about 20 volunteers support the organisation online, which is why their online presence and educational material about gibbons has turned many people across the world into gibbon fans. At the same time, both organisations are always welcoming on-site volunteers. 

“My heartfelt thank you goes out to all the volunteers who have helped us. There are so many good-hearted volunteers who also put their time and energy into this project. We rely on their contribution and it is thanks to them as well that the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project could come this far,” Than notes.

Learning about the work of these two organisations is exactly why we set out on this journey. Nature conservation often goes against the current, and only those people who do this work with deep passion and dedication can withstand that current and speak up for those animals who don’t have a voice. 

The beautiful songs of gibbons remain unheard in captivity in the world of booming illegal wildlife trade. But as long as there are people who voice their silence, there is hope. 

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