Guarding the gibbons

Taking the gibbons back to the jungle

Twenty-five years ago, gibbons were poached to extinction on Phuket. But today, the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (GRP), a research division of the Wild Animal Rescue Foundation of Thailand (WAR), is working to save these beautiful creatures and their rainforest home.

Most people would be shocked to see a human baby in a smoky Patong bar, yet some still find it acceptable to see a baby gibbon in the same situation. These tiniest of apes, meant to still be clinging to their mothers and enjoying the fresh air of a rainforest, are instead living on the end of a chain, drugged to stay up late in bars or on the streets for the entertainment of tourists.

Fortunately, the numbers of gibbons in the tourism industry have been declining since the GRP, part of the WAR, was established in 1992, shortly after the 1992 Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act came about. According to the GRP, “It has been illegal to take a gibbon from the wild or possess a gibbon in Thailand since 1992, except if the gibbons were bred in captivity, in which case the owner is required to have a license from the Director General of Royal Forest Department”.

“The gibbons we have are mostly from restaurants, bars and hotels”, says Ampika ‘May’ Korcharernkit, volunteer coordinator. “Some gibbons come from independent operators who use them to sell photographs”. Others are confiscated by the police and taken to the GRP, where a fulltime staff of nine is assisted by eight volunteers.

“People give us their gibbons because they don’t want them when they get older and more dangerous”, says Thipparat ‘Ar’ Mingpijan, adoption coordinator. Gibbons reach sexual maturity at around six or seven years of age, develop large canine teeth and become aggressive, leading many owners to kill or abandon them. The GRP also receives macaques and other species that have been abandoned by their owners or turned over because they are becoming too difficult for the owner to handle.

When gibbons arrive at the GRP, they are given a medical exam and sent to quarantine for three months. Those that are sick or disabled remain in quarantine or are transferred to the Wild Animal Rescue and Education Centre, a sister project in Ban Talae Nork, Ranong. For many, the time they spend in quarantine is the first chance to interact with other gibbons. A no-contact policy between the keepers and the gibbons encourages the gibbons to seek attention from their own kind.

Gibbons - more human than monkeys

If all is well after the quarantine period, the gibbons are moved to the GRP waterfall site to begin rehabilitation. This is where some will remain for the rest of their lives, while others that are successfully rehabilitated will move on to the acclimatisation cage, situated 20 meters above the rainforest floor in the Khao Phra Theaw Royal Non-Hunting Area. After 10 days, the cage door is opened and the gibbons are allowed to freely explore the area. Each day, their food is moved farther into the jungle, with the hopes they will feel more comfortable searching for their own food and expand their territory.

At one time, an uninhabited island of Phang Nga Bay Marine National Park was used to train gibbons which would eventually be released back into the rainforest. “We released 20 gibbons on the island and only two remained when we went back to check on them”, says Khun Ar. “We decided not to leave them on an island again and will only put them in the jungle at Khao Phra Theaw”.

The project currently supervises three families of gibbons in the jungle, a total of 12 members. The first of the families to be placed here no longer relies on the GRP for food. “We still worry about poachers”, says Khun Ar, “even though they are released in a protected area and supervised daily”.

The tour desk at Bang Pae waterfall, staffed by volunteers, serves as one of the places where the public can learn more about the GRP. “I always wanted to be a volunteer for a project like this”, says Katrien Simons, who is from Holland. She has been working with GRP for three months and says most volunteers extend their stay. Volunteers work six days a week and rotate between the tour desk, the quarantine site and the waterfall site. A typical day at the waterfall site begins with a 06:30 feeding followed by cleaning cages and conducting health checks on each of the gibbons, with a second feeding in the afternoon.

A volunteer from Belgium, Jeanse Henry has been working for GRP for five months and is excited to be a part of GRP and to help to protect the forest. “I was watching television and I heard about how to become a volunteer”, he says. “I had been in Thailand a few times before and I love it here”. He says there are about 50 visitors a day at the tour desk, where the volunteers give out information about gibbons and sell t-shirts and souvenirs to help raise funds.

Katrien says the best part of volunteering is “seeing that you are doing something good”. When she was choosing a volunteer project, she says she knew she wanted to go to Thailand and work with animals: “To me it doesn’t matter what kind of animal I work with, I like all kinds”.

Volunteers also accompany staff to Patong to educate tourists about gibbons and conservation. “We want people to be more aware of the situation”, says Katrien. Education is not only aimed at tourists. GRP also teaches the local community about conservation and hosts school groups with the hope that the next generation will spread the message of conservation. Only then might Phuket’s gibbons finally be safe in their natural habitat.

Gibbon Rehabilitation Project 
Bang Pae Waterfall, Paklock, Talang,
Phuket, 83110 
Tel: +66 76 260 491 2 
Website: www.gibbonproject.org

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