It was dark when I arrived at the project and the other volunteers were all asleep. 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. I was shown to my room and 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 sounded similar to some sort of siren, it kept going and getting louder. It seemed so close, just outside my window. Unsure what I heard, I went to the main building to find out. The sound I heard was the territorial call of the white-handed gibbon. A call I would quickly come to cherish.
I was introduced to all the staff, met some volunteers and was shown around the quarantine area. The gibbons in quarantine were the ones I heard earlier making the territorial call, right by my bedroom window!
Walking around the quarantine area and meeting some of the gibbons made me so excited about this journey. My fears and anxiety had past. I was so eager to start learning about these fascinating primates and to get my hands dirty.
My roster changed weekly and included one day off a week, where I could relax, go into town and do some sightseeing.
Don’t take your picture with a gibbon!
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. There are currently no wild gibbons left on Phuket Island. Except for the gibbons the GRP have released back into the Khao Phra Thaeo National Park. Due to deforestation for rubber tree plantations, this is the only national park left on Phuket.
A life high up in the tree canopy quickly turns into a life on the streets and bars of Thailand. Baby gibbons caught in the wild are sold as pets and are used as tourist attractions. Used as photo props, or to entice tourists into local bars. If you are in Asia and see a baby gibbon with his handler on the streets, asking for money to have your photo taken with the gibbon, please refuse and spread the word!
For every baby found on the street, a family of gibbons have been shot and killed. However only 1 in 3 baby gibbons actually survives the fall when his mother has been shot. If you see a gibbon on the street, please be a responsible tourist and report it to the police. Please don’t buy the gibbon!
How do gibbons end up at the project?
Gibbons are either surrendered, confiscated or rescued. Once they have arrived they begin their long journey at the project to hopefully be released. Unfortunately many will never live in the wild, free again, due to the effects of their past.
When gibbons reach maturity (6-7 years of age) their hormones change, they grow large canines and will start becoming territorial and aggressive. Some arrive with their canines filed down or removed, or have missing or deformed limbs from abuse.
Drugging the gibbons is common practice, to help them stay awake after dark or to keep them docile when working on the streets. This is when they catch diseases such as Hep A and B, HIV and Herpes. Those with diseases will unfortunately never have the opportunity to be released into the wild for safety reasons.
Once a gibbon arrives, what happens?
When a gibbon arrives at the project, rehabilitation begins in quarantine. A full medical examination is given, testing for any diseases. 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 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 can be very 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. A slow loris, which is a nocturnal primate, arrived. He was in poor condition, very weak and malnourished. We spent many days and nights caring for him, until he was ready for release. 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 due to her aggressive tendency’s specially during feeding time. This posed a threat to the human population living close by. 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. 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.