This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.
Text and Photos by iLCP Fellow Paul Hilton
As the clouds languidly clear over a rainforest in West Java, Indonesia, the haunting serenity of the scene before me is suddenly pierced by the unmistakable clamor of gibbon song. It’s a sound that would bring a smile to the most hardened of souls, and it certainly lifts the spirits of myself and the team, who are on assignment for Wildlife Asia, documenting the release of a family of Silvery (Javan) gibbons.
With their calls permeating the mist of the verdant valley, other gibbons echo back from the dense wilderness; a place our subjects once again inhabit.
After years in captivity, Mel, Pooh, and Asri are about to be given their freedom, and it’s not a minute before time. Mel and Pooh were both taken from the wild as infants, and kept as household pets. Rescued by the Javan Gibbon Centre (JGC), they have been housed here since 2008, undergoing extensive rehabilitation. It isn’t surprising that the pair are extremely wary of people. Such was the level of distrust, they even displayed aggression towards each other initially, before overcoming their hostility and forming a trusting partnership. These days, Mel and Pooh are not only deeply affectionate towards one another, they are also the proud, and protective parents of baby Asri.
In a highly unusual move, but one that symbolizes a commitment to the protection of the species, Indonesian President Jokowi was tasked with naming little Asri. The gesture was designed to show the people of Java that the few surviving species of megafauna should be seen as a source of honour, and that they can co-exist with human beings.
Among the world’s most threatened species, gibbons were once found throughout most of Asia’s tropical forests, but are instead now routinely traded across Indonesia. Traded daily in the country’s plentiful animal markets, gibbons are destined for lives in small zoos, private collections or the average home. They are bought as babies, but as they grow, gibbons become dangerous and unmanageable, so are then often kept inside small cages for the rest of their lives.
According to wildlife smuggling network, Traffic, few people in Indonesia have been prosecuted for keeping gibbons as pets, or for trading them.
However, that seems to be changing, with greater awareness that all species of Indonesian gibbon are under threat of extinction. This was recently highlighted with the 2015 arrest of a Kuwaiti woman by authorities at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. She was nabbed trying to smuggle two young Silvery gibbons out of the country. Bound for Kuwait, the woman had strapped the gibbons to the backs of her thighs, concealed by her long, black Islamic dress. Both primates had been made to wear diapers ahead of what would have been a 12 – 14 hour flight.
Illustrating Indonesia’s growing intolerance for crimes like this, the Kuwaiti national was charged with smuggling, and endangerment of a protected species, and if found guilty, she faces up to five years in jail, and a fine of more than USD 7,000.
Sadly, one of the gibbons in this case died in transit to the rescue centre, from possible dehydration and trauma. The other, however, is thriving. Now named Irma, and about 18 months old, she will eventually be paired with a mate, and if all goes according to plan, will be released back into the wild when she is seven or eight years old. During her rehabilitation at the centre she will be reacquainted with her natural diet, consisting of fruit, seeds, leaves, and flowers.
Success stories like these are only made possible though by the work of entities like JGC and the Silvery Gibbon Project. With the rescue centre established in 2002, the project released its first pair of gibbons back into the wild in 2013. The vision is to create a new population at the Puntang Mountain Reserve, West Java, where 13 gibbons currently reside in five family groups. “[It’s] a small number,” says Clare Campbell, Director of Wildlife Asia and the Silvery Gibbon Project, “but when you’re creating a new population of critically endangered species, it’s very significant. The area has a holding capacity of approximately 100 families based on a territory size of 30 to 40 hectares.”
For the centre, this is a joyous day, as the cage housing Mel, Pooh, and Asri is finally opened. The animals though, are understandably hesitant. Baby Asri sticks her head out first, then straight back in, while the male, Mel appears braver, slowly moving out of the cage, before retreating back into his confines. It’s going to be a lengthy process for the gibbons to gain the confidence they need to reclaim their liberty, giving me time to talk to Noviar Andayani, founder of the Javan Gibbon Foundation. “The Javan gibbon is one of the most important species for the people of Java,” she says, “ The successful conservation of this species on such a densely populated island is a symbol of hope for the people of Indonesia; a sign that they can still live in harmony with nature”.
Several fits and starts later, Pooh makes a break for it, but uncertainty kicks in after so many years in captivity, and she retreats back into the relative security of their temporary housing.
Staff know it’s only a matter of time before they will farewell their primate charges for good. “The reintroduction of these gibbons is an achievement we are very proud of,” says Anton Ario, manager of JGC. “From a welfare perspective, it means that these gibbons, once held captive, get the chance to taste freedom once more, but the creation of a new, well protected population is also extremely important for the conservation of the species.”
Then, without warning, Pooh leads the way. Once the whole family is out, little Asri climbs to the top of the cage, and launches herself into a full, spread-eagle dive, off into the green. With their baby blazing the trail, Mel and Pooh come to life, swinging down onto the landing site. And with that, all three apes vanish into the green, in search of free lives, as the so-called “circus folk of the jungle.”
With the sounds of gibbon song as the backing track to this picture, Clare is pensive as she admits, “I’m hopeful for the future of gibbons, now that we are bringing them the attention they deserve. But, at the same time, I’m frightened. If we can’t control the illegal trade, or the destruction of their habitat, then these reintroduction efforts become futile.”
It’s a sobering reality, that even in the face of such determination and focus on the part of some, demand for endangered primates may just put paid to all of it. It’s often said that nothing changes, if nothing changes, and in the case of the Silvery gibbon, it’s more true now than ever.
Irma and many other gibbons like her urgently need support for their rehabilitation and release back to the wild. You can donate to Wildlife Asia or even adopt one of the JGC gibbons and get them back to the forest
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