My flight was delayed arriving into Phuket, which didn’t help my nerves. I had no idea what to expect. I just finished an incredibly amazing holiday with my friends and here I was alone in a strange place. It was dark when I arrived at the project and the other volunteers were all asleep. I was shown to my room where I settled in for the night. I couldn’t help but feel anxious, had I made the right choice to come here?
My new alarm
I woke up early to a sound, that scared the shit of out me to say the least. It sounded similar to some sort of siren, it kept going and getting louder. It seemed so close, just outside my window. I wasn’t sure what to do. I couldn’t hear anybody else, but I couldn’t stay in bed either, so I got myself ready and went to the main building. It was there that I met some of the staff members and they informed me, that what I heard was in-fact the territorial call of the white-handed gibbon. A call I would quickly come to cherish. Even to this day, when I hear this sound, memories come flooding back and I am transported back to my time at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project.
After meeting with the rest of the staff, I had some breakfast and was shown around the main property, which also included a quarantine area. The gibbons in quarantine were the ones I heard earlier making the territorial call, right by my bedroom window!
After the tour, I was so much more excited about this journey I had decided to embark on. My fears and anxiety had past. I was so eager to start learning about these fascinating primates and to get my hands dirty.
I watched an orientation video and was given the roster for my first week. The roster changed weekly and included one day off, where we could relax, go into town and do some sightseeing.
The GRP has been running since 1992, when it became illegal to own a wild gibbon. Unfortunately poaching baby gibbons still occurs today. This is due to the large amounts of money poachers can make by selling them as pets. On Phuket island there are currently no wild gibbons left, except for the gibbons the GRP have released back into the Khao Phra Thaeo National Park. This is the only national park left on Phuket due to deforestation for rubber tree plantations.
Don’t take your picture with a gibbon!
Baby gibbons are sold as pets or are used as tourist attractions. They can be seen in bars to entice tourists to come inside. Or they are clinging onto their carers day and night, as they walk the streets/beaches luring tourists to pay to have their photo taken with the gibbon.
Of course we are all attracted to a cute baby gibbon, I can totally understand the desire to hold the gibbon and have a photo with it. However before you do, consider where this gibbons mother is and why it’s up so late at night. I wonder what stories are told to tourists about the gibbons life and family.
In reality these baby gibbons have lost their family in a horrific experience. Gibbons are monogamous, so will mate for life and are fiercely protective of their offspring. Therefore to get hold of a baby gibbon, poachers must shoot and kill both mother and father. The mother falls to the ground, whilst baby clutches onto her, only 1 in 3 babies actually survive this fall.
A life high up in the tree canopy quickly turns into a life on the streets and bars of Thailand.
How do gibbons end up at the project?
The gibbons who find their way to GRP have either been confiscated by the police or given up by their owners who can no longer handle or care for them anymore. When gibbons reach maturity (6-7 years of age) their hormones change, they grow large canines and will start becoming territorial and aggressive. Too hard to handle, they are handed over to the GRP.
Some unfortunately arrive with their canines filed down or removed. A few have missing or deformed limbs, having lived in small cages or having been abused and attacked by their carers. The gibbons that were used to lure tourists often were drugged by their carer to keep them awake during the night. Many are even given sedatives to prevent them biting. This is when they catch diseases such as Hep A and B, HIV and Herpes. The gibbons who have contracted these diseases will never be allowed to be released back in the wild for safety reasons.
Once a gibbon arrives, what happens?
When a gibbon arrives at the project, rehabilitation begins in quarantine. Each gibbon stays in quarantine for three months and is given a full medical examination, testing for any diseases they may have contracted. Those that are infected will live their life in quarantine. Gibbons who are disease free are moved to the rehabilitation site to hopefully one day be released back into the wild. The journey is very long, hard and often frustrating for both gibbons and staff alike. Gibbons can live to 35 years of age in the wild, often longer in captivity, which is a big responsibility for the staff.
Many gibbons arrive never having had the opportunity to swing from branch to branch. Some don’t know how to drink with their hands, having previously only used bottles and plastic straws. They must learn how to act like a wild gibbon again. Often they have been kept in small bird cages, when transferred to the larger cages, they sit in a corner, overwhelmed. For some this is the first time they have encountered another gibbon in many years, or heard another gibbon sing.
When staff believe two gibbons could be a good match, they are moved closer together. Introductions take a lot of time and hard work, some have been successful, some haven’t. Only when two gibbons have had a baby together will they be considered for release. No gibbon can be released solo as they will not survive.
Other native wildlife
Occasionally the project receives other native wildlife. While I was there, a slow loris was surrendered to the GRP. A slow loris is a nocturnal primate found in southeast Asia. This slow loris was in poor condition, very weak and malnourished. We spent many days and nights caring for him, until he was ready for release. I was so excited that our patience and dedication for this guy paid off and he was able to live free again.
Not all gibbons can be released
Each and every gibbon touched my heart in one way or another. I came to love their different personalities and was heartbroken learning about the suffering they endured before they came to the project. There were three that had a huge affect on me; Tam, Bo, and Joy. Although they were disease free, these three were not candidates for release. Many cannot be released even if they are living in the rehabilitation site for different reasons.
Tam was brutally beaten by her previous owner to the point of needing limbs amputated. She was then introduced to another gibbon, before her time at the GRP, without proper introduction and was bitten badly. Tam now has one leg, and one arm which only has two fingers. After all she went through, she was one of the most patient and forgiving gibbons I met.
Bo was paired with a female, they had an offspring together and were released. However it turned out Bo was just too reliant on humans. He walked himself back to the rehabilitation site several times, until staff decided to let him stay. He certainly did love any extra attention and would do anything for a back scratch. At the time I was there, we were in the process of introducing Bo and Tam together for companionship.
Joy couldn’t be released because she gets very agitated with humans and turns aggressive quickly, specially during feeding time. This posed a threat to the human population living close by. I was told no-one else was able to get close to Joy the way I had, we definitely had a special bond.
It really affected me seeing these gibbons and knowing that they were in this situation due to human ignorance and greed. This is not how life was intended for them. Although they have suffered immensely, they still had some trust left in us. I just hope the small amount of time I spent in their lives made their days just that bit better. They definitely enriched my life more than I could ever have expected.
To find out what day to day life is like for volunteers, read my next post.