Initiated by one or two confident vocalists, the chorus is quickly joined by the project’s other supporting artists and escalates in pitch and volume before it reaches a crescendo and echoes out into the surrounding forest.
These vocal displays reveal the singer’s species, sex and identity to other gibbons – and those versed in ape lingo – and can be heard as far as two miles away through dense forest canopy, making gibbons the loudest of all land mammals.
Soon, a new voice will join the GRP chorus as the project welcomed a baby gibbon into the world in the early hours of July 16. The female white-handed gibbon, named Dokmai, is the sixth member of the project’s Tonmai family. Each member of the family is named after an element of the jungle: there’s the mother Tonmai, meaning tree, the father Rakmai (root), mischievous sisters Baimai (leaf) and Yodmai (canopy), their brother Kingmai (branch) and now Dokmai (flower).
The names are a reflection and celebration of the gibbons’ vital role in protecting the forest. Known as “forest planters”, gibbons carry seeds from fruits they eat and drop them through defecation across the jungle. A single gibbon can distribute around 100,000 seeds a year, growing some 10,000 trees.
The Tonmai family was rescued in June last year from an abandoned zoo in Phuket after a tip-off from a local ranger. GRP workers found the malnourished family of five packed into a small, rusty cage on the forest floor and, with no sign of a key, were forced to cut the cage open to release them.
“After a month of feeding them here, they were super strong,” says Thanaphat Payakkaporn, secretary general of the Wild Animal Rescue Foundation of Thailand (WARF), under which the GRP operates. “A healthy family like this has a strong chance of being released back into the wild, maybe in as soon as six months. But we’re also considering matching Dokmai with a male once she reaches sexual maturity. There are too many males in the jungle at the moment!”
Thanaphat’s love for these threatened animals is in his blood, and his knowledge of them unparalleled. His mother, Pornpen Payakkaporn, co-founded WARF in 1992 after years of rescuing exotic pets across Thailand at a grassroots level. As secretary general, Thanaphat continues her work not as a paid job but as what he describes “a full-time hobby and passion”.
While the GRP has a history of rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing other wildlife – tigers, leopards and civets in other parts of Thailand – their focus in Phuket remains on white-handed gibbons who were poached to extinction on the island in the early ’80s.
Hunters captured the babies in order to sell on as exotic pets or to touts who paraded the frightened creatures on beaches and in bars, seeking payment in return for photos. Entire families, between 10-15 gibbons, were shot dead for that one prized baby who was often mistreated then promptly abandoned once they reached sexual maturity, aged 5-6, and became aggressive, grew long, sharp canines and began their loud calls. This unimaginably cruel practice saw wild gibbon numbers spiral on the island.
Since 1992, the GRP has successfully reintroduced the white-handed gibbon back to the Phuket forest, and there are currently 32 at the release site in the Khao Pra Thaew Non-Hunting area. But taking a gibbon from rescue to release can be an incredibly time-intensive, trial-and-error process. Not all cases are as simple as that of the Tonmai family, who could be swinging free between the trees in a matter of months; some gibbons require as much as 10 years of rehabilitation and others may not be fit for release at all.
“I always say that the GRP is gibbon school but out there in the jungle is gibbon university!” laughs Thanaphat. “We teach basic skills first: how to sing, how to find food, how to brachiate [swing between branches] etc. And we find them a partner. They have a better chance of survival if they’re released as a family unit. But matchmaking is always difficult. We usually have to try with two or three partners before they settle.”
Cupid’s arrow doesn’t always strike first time, and there are a host of other issues to contend with to ensure a formerly captive gibbon can survive in the wild: adapting their diets from human food; treating injuries, diseases, addictions and trauma; and adjusting their sleep schedules.
As the gibbons progress, they’re moved into (spacious) cages deeper and deeper in the forest and human contact is increasingly limited. Visitors to the GRP are able to see five of the project’s 29 gibbons. Housed in the lower row of cages, each one faces obstacles to their release. Gibby, for example, is a golden-cheeked gibbon, a species not native to Phuket; Tam’s missing hand and foot, from injuries inflicted by her former owner, hinder her ability to brachiate; and Bo was released six times but always made his way back to the GRP, preferring life there.
“We’ll never give up on these gibbons though,” explains Thanaphat. “As a research division, we speak to experts around the world. We’re still learning.”
Those that are released aren’t tagged as the GRP seeks to give the gibbons a normal, natural life without the need to recapture. Instead, the team take weekly early morning hikes to monitor the families from the forest floor while they sing, swing, snooze and scavenge 30 foot up in the canopy. Gibbons are fiercely territorial which makes the task of locating them each week a relatively straightforward one.
The GRP helps with ‘supplemental feeding’ after release, using a basket that’s pulled up into the trees, until the gibbons have explored their territory and learnt to forage for themselves, which can take a further two years.
“Releasing the first group was easy. We just picked a spot where there was enough food. But it’s becoming difficult to create enough distance between each family now,” says Thanaphat. “When we’re finding an area, we look at the geography, the food sources, whether there’s an easy escape route if another group is coming. We look at the technique of their swing and which trees fit that. We’ve studied all 500 species [of plant and animal] in the jungle.”
The sheer scope and impact of the work the GRP does is staggering. Thanaphat’s diligent team of just nine run the world’s longest-standing and most successful gibbon rehabilitation project without a single baht of government funding, not even from the entry fee to Khao Pra Thaew National Park, where the GRP is located. Their work is fuelled by kind volunteers and generous donations.
But their efforts do not go unnoticed. In recent times, the GRP has observed a pattern of behaviour in the gibbons. Older released gibbons have been returning from the wild to the project site, not for food, not for shelter, but simply to spend time with the staff. These same gibbons have then returned to the forest and passed away shortly after. The team are looking into this recent phenomenon, but it seems that what this highly intelligent and emotional animal is doing is nothing more than saying “thank you.”
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project is located at 104/3 Moo 3, Pa Khlok, Thalang, 83110. Open daily from 9am- 4:30pm. To report a captive animal, call the Department of National Parks hotline on 1362 and email email@example.com. To sponsor a gibbon or enquire about volunteering, visit www.gibbonproject.org. Follow the progress of the gibbons at www.facebook.com/GibbonRehabilitationProject