The weeks leading up to the release of the Payu gibbon family were very exciting. I knew I had to stay and be apart of it all. At the start of May I had accompanied other volunteers and staff to move the Payu family of 4 from the training cage, where they had been living for the past 3 months, to the acclimatisation cage. In preparation for their release in June.
The training cage
The training cage is about a half an hour walk from the Rehabilitation site. This cage is used for a family of gibbons to get them used to less human interaction and allow them to adapt to the forests sights, sounds and smells. A feeding system had been made to ensure no human contact. Feeding is from the top of the cage, as the majority of their time should be spent in the upper canopy of the forest, away from predators. Gibbons should never be seen walking along the ground, as it’s too risky in the wild. Whilst in the rehabilitation site, we always encourage brachiating, which is the use of their arms to swing from branch to branch. Gibbons seen on the ground for long periods of time (which was not the case for this family) would not be ready for release.
The acclimatisation cage
The day the gibbons were moved to the acclimatisation cage was a very long and strenuous day. It took quite a bit of time to coax the gibbons into their transport cages. They are very smart animals and were wary of what we were trying to do, but the staff were able to do so successfully. We then transported them from the training cage to the acclimatisation cage through the dense vegetation of the forest. It was hot and humid and the ground was slippery since it had been raining all day.
Along the way we were privileged enough to spot one of the gibbons from the first group, released in 2002. He was very curious about the gibbons we were transporting.
Eventually we arrived at the location where the acclimatisation cage had been set up and released the gibbons into it. The acclimatisation cage was then suspended 20 meters above the forest floor, via a pully system. The door is usually kept closed for a minimum of 10 days to allow the gibbons to get used to the area and adapt to their new surroundings. Food and water are of course provided for them. This was a special experience for me as its rare to be able to take part in releasing wild animals back into the wild.
At the end of May I found out “Animal Planet” was coming to the project to film the release. This was so exciting for me, as I watched this channel daily back home. The governor of Phuket was also coming to the ceremony, I was given the important role of taking care of him. My duties were to show him around the rehabilitation site before the ceremony begun, explain the project and answer any of his questions. I felt very privileged to have been given this responsibility.
Leading up to the release day, everyone was nervous. We were all hoping the release would go smoothly and be successful. The day prior to the release was spent setting up the seating, tables, posters, etc, for the ceremony, which was to take place the morning of the release.
The 7th of June 2007 was the day we had all been waiting for. The ceremony was all in Thai, which made it hard for us volunteers to understand, but it was fabulous to see so many local people and school children interested in gibbon welfare. The children made art work to be sold to help raise funds for the project, they took part in a skit and there were several speeches and plenty of music and dancing too.
By 2pm we were all ready to make the journey into the forest. We had a few important people from the ceremony join us, it was such an exciting time for all involved.
The journey to the cage, took some time, due to the heat and difficult terrain. We took several breaks along the way and were all extremely sweaty! Eventually the time came when we were all positioned far enough away to not distract or frighten the gibbons and the camera crew were all set up.
The door was then opened and we all watched eager to see the gibbons free. They were curious but hesitant to leave the safety of their cage. The mum was the bravest, she left the cage with her baby tightly clenching onto her. The father and juvenile stayed in the cage, tempted but not as courageous.
We were so emotional seeing this mother have her freedom, the ability to leave the confines of a cage and swing around the forest, the way nature intended. She loved the freedom and continued swinging around so naturally, like she had never left the forest.
Our joy and excitement was unfortunately short lived. Another released gibbon family was closing in, their territory was larger than originally thought. Since the father and juvenile didn’t come out, the mother and baby wouldn’t have survived an attack without their help. The staff made the decision to get mother and baby back into the acclimatisation cage. Luckily she saw these gibbons approaching and retreated straight back into the cage, as it was her safe place.
We were all full of adrenaline, shock and disappointment, but their safety was paramount. It was a bitter sweet moment for sure. The staff didn’t seem dejected from the experience, they just looked forward. They knew they had to come up with another plan. The gibbons were kept locked safely in the acclimatisation cage, high in the canopy, as we left the forest with mixed feelings. It was unfortunate the other gibbon territory had expanded so much, but it was lucky that no fights or injuries occurred. Over the next few days, staff spent most of their time in the forest marking out the territories of the other family groups more accurately. They needed to make absolute sure there was a safe area this family could be released.
Coming to an end
Since I had already decided to leave the project on June 18th, I knew sadly that I wasn’t going to be able to be a part of the next planned release in August.
On the 16th June, I had my last working day. I was so sad saying goodbye to the gibbons I had bonded with over the last 3 months. I’m such an emotional person, so I couldn’t stop the tears! However I had another adventure to look forward to, I was leaving for Europe in only a matter of days.
The day before my departure I enjoyed the day at the beach in Patong before heading to a bar for a few drinks and a dance with the staff and some of the volunteers at the time.
I left Phuket on the 18th June and spent the next couple of months traveling – I visited Madrid, Egypt, London, Barcelona, Ibiza and Portugal.
On my journey home, I decided to stop by the GRP and see everyone, one last time. I was so excited to return, to see the gibbons that had touched my heart. During my European trip I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I had hoped to stay for a few weeks but my trip had to be cut short due to a debilitating tooth infection. The pain was so intense I was unable to eat. I had no energy, which made working in the rehabilitation site practically impossible. No amount of pain relief helped. Next step was to remove the tooth, but I remember my dad telling me vividly that this was not an option! So after only a week I returned home to Melbourne where I was able to recover and keep my tooth…phew!
After completing my time at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project I was asked whether I would be interested in writing an article for an upcoming book on women who have demonstrated a serious commitment to improving the lives of non-humans animals. I jumped at the chance to tell my story, my experiences and to help spread the word about gibbons and their fight for survival. I am among many other inspiring women who have also told their stories within this book.