Wildlife and animal rights

International Gibbon Day: smaller apes are ‘endangered, yet overlooked’

Today (Tuesday) is International Gibbon Day and events are being organised around the world to foster awareness about the endangered primates and raise money for gibbon conservation.

Gibbons live in tropical and subtropical rainforests from eastern Bangladesh and northeastern India to southern China and Indonesia.

Today, Changing Times is focusing on the plight of gibbons in Malaysia, and the work of Mariani Ramli. 

There are twenty recognised gibbon species. On the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, four are listed as critically endangered, 14 as endangered, and one as vulnerable. One has yet to be assessed.

The major threats to gibbons include loss of habitat and hunting pressure, often for the wildlife trade. 

 

Lar gibbons.

Mariani Ramli loves gibbons. Her eyes light up when she talks about them.

“Gibbons are so, so special,” she said. “They are the kings of brachiation [swinging by their arms through the trees]. They go fast through the jungle. And they are the only monogamous primates.

“Male and female gibbons live together as a family for their whole lives.”

Ramli is currently caring for six gibbons and two dusky leaf monkeys, also known as spectacled langurs, in a jungle area of Pahang.

She has applied directly to the Ministry for National Resources and Environment for a permit to set up the country’s first rehabilitation centre for gibbons, and is waiting to hear if she will get it.

Ramli also set up the Gibbon Protection Society Malaysia (GPSM), and is holding a major Gibbon Day event at the Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur on November 1 to raise awareness about gibbons and the illegal trade in primates.

Malaysia, Ramli says, is the only country that is home to gibbons, but does not have a specific protection strategy for the primates, or a special rehabilitation centre. “They are the forgotten apes in Malaysia,” she said.

Ramli, who also goes by the nickname Bam Arrogancia, started caring for primates, and especially gibbons, when she was working with the Malaysian wildlife department. She wanted to know more about releasing them back into the wild so started to do research. There wasn’t really any reference material available in Malaysia about gibbon rehabilitation, she says.

“Gibbons are a protected species in Malaysia, but there is no specific action plan for gibbon conservation here, whereas there are in Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, and India, and in few more countries within ​Southeast Asia.”

There are specific conservation programmes in Malaysia for tigers, elephants, bears, and tapirs, Ramli says, but not for gibbons.

Malaysia, Ramli says, is home to the largest gibbon, the siamang (Symphalangus syndactylus), and the smallest, the agile gibbon (Hylobates agilis). There are four species and one subspecies and the commonest gibbons in the country are the siamang and the lar gibbon (Hylobates lar), also known as the white-handed gibbon.

An agile gibbon.

Gibbons, who are also referred to as “smaller apes”, are not only losing their habitat because of deforestation; they are also being trafficked as pets.

“The pet trade is booming in Southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia and Thailand,” Ramli said. “The gibbons’ family bonding is so strong that, if one of them is threatened, the others will come to its defence.

“To get a baby gibbon, the poachers kill the parents and the siblings.”

The first gibbon Ramli looked after was a baby called Ellek, who was about seven months old when rescuers found him next to the body of his dead mother in 2012. He needed constant care.

Ramli was Ellek’s surrogate mother for about a year, teaching him skills he would need in the wild, but he then contracted a serious bacterial infection. He didn’t survive.

Ramli even tried to give the gibbon CPR, but couldn’t save him, and was devastated.

“I was traumatised and I felt useless,” she said. “I lost confidence in myself, but when I saw that other gibbons were in need of help, and no-one wanted to assist them, I couldn’t just ignore them.

“That’s what made me decide to learn more so that I could help them better.”

Ellek died after he was infected with chromobacterium violaceum, and suffered a very high fever.

“This was very rare in gibbons in Malaysia,” Ramli said. “It’s a bacterium that is found in the soil and in stagnant water.”

Nine gibbons and one sun bear died after being infected with the bacterium in Malaysia’s national zoo between October 1965 and October 1968.

‘Statistics are lacking’

It is not known how many gibbons remain in the wild in Malaysia, Ramli says. “The last survey was in the 1980s, when data for peninsular Malaysia suggested there were 29,000 siamangs, 46,000 lar gibbons, and 4,000 agile gibbons.”

The siamang, lar and agile gibbons are all listed as endangered.

The gibbons’ diet largely consists of fruit, but they also eat leaves, flowers, seeds, tree bark, and plant shoots as well as insects, spiders, and bird eggs. They have very individual tastes, like humans, Ramli says.

Unlike orangutans, gibbons don’t build nests.

Gibbons, Ramli says, are not like the macaques or the langur monkeys, who go into urban areas.

“They are shy animals; they will stay in the jungle. And they won’t go down to the ground. They are highly arboreal, and there are bacteria on the soil that can harm them.

“They are particularly vulnerable because, if the forest where they live is fragmented, they cannot cross to another area so they get isolated in small patches.”

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Rehabilitation

It was when Ramli tried to release a juvenile gibbon named Daru back into the jungle that she realised that a specialised rehabilitation centre was badly needed.

“After taking care of Daru for a year, I wanted to release him, so I went with him into the jungle for almost a month. I taught him how to climb trees and how to eat young leaf.

“One day he went off into the jungle and didn’t come back for two days. When he came back he had fungus on his body and he was hungry. I realised that my method was wrong.”

With so little information available in Malaysia, Ramli went to a gibbon project in Phuket, Thailand, to learn more about rehabilitation.

“Primates who have been held in captivity by humans need to be rehabilitated before being released back into the jungle,” she said.

“We need to teach them survival skills; how to forage for food and how to become wild again. Otherwise they won’t survive.”

Often, captive gibbons are given lots of junk food, so they have to learn to eat what is healthy for them.

During the rehabilitation​ process, gibbons are given “enrichment”​ such as bamboo ​tools​ and food puzzles. “They are taught how to drink water using their hands, which is a really important survival skill,” Ramli said. “The food puzzle stimulates their brain and trains them to forage in the jungle.​”

Attempting to rehabilitate the primates in a centre where there are other animals simply doesn’t work, Ramli says.

“If there are tigers, the tigers will roar and the gibbons will be stressed. Then the gibbons get used to the tigers roaring and not harming them. When they are released into the jungle, they are no longer afraid of tigers, and this is very dangerous for them. Also, diseases may spread from one animal to another.”

The kind of rehabilitation needed depends on the individual gibbon, Ramli says.

“Some gibbons have had such a bad experience that they have become crazy and are self-rocking, self-harming, and pulling out their hair. They start biting themselves. They have been so abused by their former owner that they don’t have the motivation to live anymore. They try to kill themselves.”

When she started to care for Daru, Ramli says, he was thin and malnourished. He had been kept in a small cage and was provoked with a stick. He was only fed once or twice a week.

She cites cases of owners dressing up baby gibbons and treating them as if they were humans.

“The worst thing is, when a gibbon has been with its owner for a few years, it starts to get bigger and needs more space. But they get put into small cages, and get very stressed.

“Some owners just abandon the primates in the bushes outside their house, or just have them euthanised.

“The pet traders even give people the drug they need to euthanise the animal themselves.”

Gibbon trading

Ramli says that people running pet shops sell gibbons in under-the-counter deals, and they are also advertised on social media. “I have seen forty or fifty primates advertised on social media this year already.”

Many of the buyers in Malaysia are celebrities and other rich people, who proudly post photos with their pet gibbon on Instagram. “The price range is from one thousand to eight thousand ringgits for one baby gibbon.” (About US$236 to $US1,900.)

The younger the babies, the happier the traders are, Ramli says. “The young babies are easier to tame.”

Traders even give buyers a warranty stating that, if a baby gibbon dies within one week of the sale, the buyer will be given another baby gibbon.

“The babies are vulnerable and often die; they are stressed and traumatised from the death of their parents. And they suffer from bloating. The owners don’t even notice.”

A gibbon suffering from bloating.

Primates get bloated easily when they are given the wrong food, Ramli says. “And they get cold. Their fur is very sparse, so they need their mother’s warmth.”

The babies should be getting their mother’s milk, but are getting milk in cartons from the supermarket. They are put in cheap nappies, and get rashes.

There is a loophole in the wildlife conservation Act, Ramli says, whereby someone cannot be arrested for advertising wildlife for sale. They are only punished if they are caught red-handed selling an animal illegally.

“There is no stated punishment for advertising. And they don’t deliver the animals themselves. They send them by bus, for instance.”

 

How does Ramli help a gibbon who has been abused as a pet? “They need love, and then they start to trust,” she said. “And they need to socialise with other gibbons, to learn gibbon language.”

One of the interesting facts about gibbons is that they sing.

“It’s a long song,” Ramli said. “They are marking their territory, and also attracting their mate. Some of the songs sung by males and females are the same, but some are different.”

As the animal’s population decreases, it’s much harder now to hear the song of the gibbon, Ramli says.

Ramli, who is Malaysia’s only primate specialist for small apes who is recognised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), set up the GPSM in December last year.

The NGO is not only working in conservation; it is also raising public awareness about the importance of gibbons in the ecosystem and helping the authorities to combat wildlife trade. It is also networking with researchers working on primate health and conservation.

THE GPSM is fundraising to cover the costs of its November 1 event.

The main objective of the event, Ramli says, is to raise awareness amongst Malaysian teenagers about the trade in gibbons.

“The demand for illegal pet gibbons online is increasing dramatically and we need to connect with the younger influential generation, to help them make a stand against this illegal pet trade.

“We also aim to collaborate with Sunway University to develop a social media education programme in which students can speak out against the illegal primate trade and help expose the people involved in this corrupt industry. We need to get more people to help us stop this very cruel industry.”

Ramli also wants Malaysians to see that gibbons are important.

“Gibbons are just as important to the ecosystem as orangutans. There are a few tree species whose seeds are only dispersed by gibbons.”

Humans needs to be rehabilitated more than wildlife do, Ramli says. “They need to be taught what wildlife can give to them.”

David Chivers, who has studied gibbons for decades, and is Reader Emeritus in Primate Biology and Conservation at the University of Cambridge, also points to the “obscene killing”, in some countries, of female gibbons to procure infants for the pet trade.

Chivers says the main threat to gibbons is the clearing of forests, mainly for oil palm plantations. However, he adds, “at least a family group can live in 25 hectares of forest, although you need at least 100 hectares for a community of groups”.

Gibbons, Chivers says, can survive well in selectively logged forest, since the secondary growth contains numerous food species.

He insists, however, that forest land must be managed sustainably for the benefit of humans and wildlife, and there needs to be “undisturbed totally protected habitat” for primates.

New species 

At the beginning of this year, a new species of gibbon – the Skywalker hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing) – was identified.The primate is a native of the forests of the Gaoligong Mountains, which straddle the border between southwestern China and northern Myanmar.

It is estimated that there are about two hundred Skywalker gibbons living in China, and also some in Myanmar.

The hoolock gibbons are also known as white-browed gibbons because of their conspicuous facial markings and they are the second largest gibbon after the siamang.

‘Misunderstood and overlooked’

In a commentary article for the environmental website Mongabay, published in June this year, one of the researchers who described the new species, Peng-Fei Fan, from the Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangdong, China, and Thad Q. Bartlett from the University of Texas in the United States, said that, despite the flurry of attention over the newly identified species, gibbons were still very much misunderstood.

Research on the small apes lags well behind many other primate groups, particularly the great apes, the researchers say.

“They are frequently misidentified as monkeys, and few people are familiar with the taxonomic diversity represented by this primate family. This situation needs to change if we hope to save these remarkable small apes from extinction.”

In an article in the American Journal of Primatology, entitled “Overlooked small apes need more attention!”, the researchers reviewed the perilous position of the small apes, highlighting population declines and loss of habitat.

They said that, in the shadow of the great apes, threats to Asia’s small apes – the gibbons – were too often overlooked.

“Gibbons are among the most endangered species on earth and their survival depends on increased research and conservation support from both range countries and the international community,” the authors said.

Ramli hopes that the gibbon will one day become one of Malaysia’s ambassadors, and receive the kind of attention and help that is given to its larger and more well-known relative, the orangutan.

 

More about gibbons

Information from the Gibbon Specialist Group, otherwise known as the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group’s Section on Small Apes (SSA).

There are four gibbon genera: Hoolock, Hylobates, Symphalangus, and Nomascus.

Gibbons are much smaller than their other ape relatives. Depending on the species, the weight of an adult ranges between 5 and 10 kg. They are found throughout the Indo-Malayan region, mainly in tropical, evergreen rainforests.

To travel through the rainforest canopy, gibbons use a form of locomotion called brachiation, relying on their forelimbs for propulsion to swing from branch to branch.

Aside from coloration, gibbon species can be distinguished by their vocalisations; mated couples in many species sing duets to display the strength of their pair bond and mark their territories.

A family group of gibbons generally consists of a monogamous adult pair and their offspring. 

 

The GPSM Facebook page

A semiang gibbon. Photo by Gabi Skollar.

A lar gibbon.