Mo was only six months old when he arrived at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (or GRP) located in the old tropical forest around Bang Pae waterfall, Phuket. Little Mo was in bad shape, pining for his mom.
Sadly, she was dead, along with his brothers and sisters, all killed by hunters. GRP staff and volunteers have been taking care of Mo ever since and, with their help, he is getting stronger.
When he is old and strong enough, he will have the opportunity to live in the jungle again, this time with his own wife and the family they make. Phuket.Com looks at the sad tale of the gibbons and the steady work done by the GRP over the past 15 years to try to reverse the tide.
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Sad Tale of Greed and Slaughter
Mo’s story is sadly all too typical of the gibbons that end up at the GRP. Hunters capture the animals to sell to people who keep them as pets or touts who parade them around popular tourist areas, urging tourists to have their photos taken with the gibbons - for a fee. “In Thailand we lose 3,000 gibbons a year to hunters,” Thipparat Mingpijan, assistant director of the GRP, told Phuket.com. “On average, the hunter kills at least three gibbon families to get one baby alive. The older gibbons are killed while trying to protect their babies, while some babies fall from high trees and die. It is such a sad story.”
Gibbons are an essential part of the health of the jungle. Living in the trees and grazing on fruits and seeds, they drop seeds here and there as they travel through, helping the various tree species to spread and multiply. The GRP was set up in 1992 as a non-government organization (NGO) with the aim of taking captive gibbons and retraining them so that they have a chance of returning to the wild.
A High-Maintenance Animal
The white-handed gibbon used to be the most common gibbon found in Thailand. Now there are not many left in jungle. But the cuteness of young gibbons, their big eyes and childlike behaviour, are attractive to people – it’s difficult not to say “Awww, isn’t he gorgeous” when you meet your first young gibbon. This is what the touts count on for their income. But as the gibbons grow older, stronger, more aggressive and less cute, their “owners” no longer have a use for them. Either they hand them over to the GRP or they simply abandon them. Some of those abandoned are found by other people who take them to the GRP.
The project has more than 60 gibbons under its care at the moment. Newcomers are initially kept in a quarantine unit, where they are observed and tested to see whether they are diseased. Once cleared, they are moved into roomy cages for observation and to allow them to adjust to nature. Finally, before being released, they are moved deep into the jungle, far from people.
There are eight Thai staff and five foreign volunteers working at the center the day we visit. “Working with the GRP means you learn from experience because few people in the world know much about gibbons, so there are no guidelines. I have been working here for nine years and I still learn something new every day,” says Khun Thipparat. “Gibbons are very much like humans. You can’t really predict what will they do. They have emotions, too.” Because this is the only facility of its kind in Thailand, the GRP receives gibbons from every part of the Kingdom. The first animal was released into the wild in 1994 but this attempt was a failure; the GRP simply did not have enough knowledge or experience.
It was not until eight years later that the first success came, but even now the chances of a rehabilitated gibbon surviving in the wild after release is only about 50:50. Some of the gibbons are captured by hunters right after their release. Some simply disappear without trace, while others plainly cannot cope and have to be taken back to the GRP. This record may not appear impressive, but according to GRP staff, the Phuket facility is the only one in the world that has successfully rehabilitated and released gibbons.
“On June 7 we will release one more family of four - father, mother and two youngsters. We hope it’ll be a success. We will keep a close eye on them for a few months to see if they can adjust to their new life,” says Khun Thipparat.
Not a Petting Zoo
“Many tourists come to the GRP and are disappointed that they cannot touch the gibbons. They have heard about us and for some reason seem to think that we run the center as a zoo. They expect to visit and at least give the poor gibbons a small hug. But it is not quite like that,” Khun Thipparat smiles.
Visitors can see some of the more recently arrived gibbons, but only through bars and from a distance of at least two metres. Feeding or touching the gibbons is barred. Visitors may take photographs, but not with flash. There is an interesting presentation about the GRP’s work and details of each gibbon are posted in both Thai and English. The GRP spends an average of 200,000 baht a month running the project. Almost half of that amount is spent on food and medicine, so there is also a small shop selling souvenirs.
“Most volunteers don’t like working in the shop because it is boring, especially on rainy days when we have few visitors,” Khun Thipparat grinned. “They like the action work such as feeding the gibbons, fixing fences or doing research by following families already released into the jungle. “But manning the shop is the most important task, as it is our main source of income. Without it, we could not run the project – and we could not help any gibbons.”
Gibbon Rehabilitation Project
To learn more about GRP, visit www.gibbonproject.org - Entry to the GRP itself is free, but it is located within the boundaries of the Khao Phra Theaw National Park, which charges an entry fee of 200 baht per person. The GRP does not receive any part of that fee.
If you are interested in helping us please contact us at the numbers below or use our e-mail here: firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations are welcome!
- Address: Bang Pae Waterfall, Pa Khlock, Talang, Phuket 83110
- Tel: +66 (0)7 626 0491-2