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Gibbons: The Swinging Singers Of Forests

Gibbons: The Swinging Singers Of Forests

Monica Szczupider finds herself in the company of gibbons, 'lesser apes' that are native to Asia, in an unexpected place. Acknowledging the gibbon sanctuary paradigm at Summerville in the United States, she articulates the need to direct conservation efforts towards the survival of these unique primates

Photo: International Primate Protection League.

The Indian subcontinent is rich in biodiversity, especially when it comes to its megafauna. Of all the denizens – the rhinos, the hyenas, the tigers and even the charismatic elephants – it is the primates that maintain a special niche in the curious minds of Homo sapiens. Perhaps this is because we humans belong to the same order that they do. Or maybe it is because we know, even just by looking at a photograph, that there is a lot more going on in the minds of these beings than we have yet fathomed. Clearly, our hairy brethren are emotionally and intellectually complex. And never is this more obvious than when a human spends time in the company of another ape.

Apes vs Monkeys:

To be clear, apes and monkeys are different: both belong to the primate order, but not to the same family group. To put it simply, most monkeys have tails, while apes do not.  In addition to this fairly straightforward distinction, there are some more subtle differences. For instance, researchers believe that, by passing one simple test, some species of apes have joined the ranks of the cerebral elite: they recognize themselves in a mirror. If this means what we think it implies, then apes possess self-awareness (so far, monkeys have not passed the mirror test). With a larger brain-to-body ratio than monkeys, it is not a stretch to assume that perhaps apes are more intellectually dynamic than their tailed cousins.

However, we have to make one more delineation here: there are great apes, and there are lesser apes. The adjectival distinction, while seeming pejorative to the latter, has to do with size, not content of character. Great apes include chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans and humans, and all weigh around 100 pounds or more (far more, in a gorilla’s case). The lesser apes are the 19 species of gibbons (the largest of which, the siamang, can top out at about 30 pounds) found in the world. Gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos all make their homes in Africa. The rest of the apes are found scattered from southern China in the east, through parts of southeast Asia, and even as far west as India.

Photo: International Primate Protection League.

The Jungles of India:

Imagine it is morning in the verdant forests of Northeast India. It is startlingly quiet. A fog has settled in, painting the foliage in various shades of green. All of a sudden, a haunting, high-pitched sound envelops the dawn. High in the canopy of this ancient and complex ecosystem lives the country’s lone ape species: the hoolock gibbon. These apes (all gibbons, in fact) are the most impressive non-flying mammals you can ever expect to encounter. Their acrobatic feats are breathtaking. As the jungles resonate with their high-pitched calls, you will definitely hear them before you see them.

Gibbon conservation in the United States:

“Unlike other apes, gibbons live in monogamous pairs,” says Shirley McGreal, Founder and Executive Director of International Primate Protection League (IPPL), based in Summerville, South Carolina (US). “This has the advantage of allowing them not to be constantly struggling for a place in the pecking order [hierarchical system] of a troop.”

Being monogamous has it advantages. That high-pitched call is a verse in a series of complex vocalizations known as “singing.” Partners can keep tabs on each other this way, for instance, while one is out foraging for food and the other is minding Junior. Their calls further serve to announce their presence as an established couple and to deter intruders. If there were more gibbons in a group (multi-male / multi-female), they’d have to travel farther to defend all their resources.

One early spring morning, I found myself standing at the end of a long driveway in a residential area in the quaint, sleepy town of Summerville. Before me was a heavy duty powered gate that separated me from IPPL’s deceivingly large property. Amidst the Spanish moss that hangs from the oaks and the native faunal roster of deer, turtles, hawks, and raccoons, this is the last place one would expect to find non-human primates. Yet, just on the other side of the gate, there was a sanctuary of 36 gibbons. I closed my eyes, as their singing transported me to a tropical highland jungle in Asia.

IPPL’s aim is to promote and support conservation endeavors that protect all species of primates. In addition, the organisation's southern US headquarters doubles as a sanctuary for rescued white-handed gibbons. Whether from biomedical research laboratories, entertainment venues, or private pet ownership, all of the gibbons at IPPL come from captive settings. Many have endured some level of trauma. In Summerville, they are given a second chance.

“Although IPPL’s gibbons cannot be released to the wild, they are serving as ambassadors for all gibbons,” says McGreal. “All gibbon species are threatened by destruction of their forest homes. Mother gibbons are shot to capture their babies for the illegal international trade. Sadly, the lovely calls of the gibbons are used by poachers to find the trees they are sleeping in.”

Photo: International Primate Protection League.

Gibbons at Risk:

Like almost all wildlife, gibbons are rapidly losing their habitat – this is true in India, as well as the rest of Asia. Unlike the great apes, gibbons do not have the likes of Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey to carry them through. It’s unfair, but they simply don't get as much attention as their more human-like great ape counterparts. While gibbons are genetically more distant to humans than the great apes, it’s they are more closely related to us than they are to monkeys.

“Unfortunately for gibbons, their conservation and protection does not get as much attention as it should,” muses McGreal. “Each ‘great ape’ species has a celebrity scientist who attracts the media, while people who have studied gibbons for decades are unheard of! [This] leaves the poor gibbons out in the cold.”

It’s also important to remember that gibbons, for all their differences as “lesser apes” (an unfortunate-sounding label from humans who incessantly compartmentalize everything), are in some ways more like us than great apes. For one, gibbons are monogamous. While monogamy is not the ubiquitous social dynamic for humans, it is the predominant one. Not even chimpanzees or bonobos, the most genetically similar creatures to Homo sapiens, practice monogamy.

“The gibbons live in pairs, each pair occupies a territory,” McGreal explains further. “Their songs tell nearby gibbons, ‘This land is your land, this land is my land.’ They don’t fight. When a youngster reaches the age of 6-8 years, he or she gradually moves away from their parental group and joins up with a partner of the opposite sex. This is how new gibbon families are formed over generations.”

Furthermore, gibbons are the only non-human ape species which, when not brachiating (or some other form of arboreal locomotion) through the treetops, move like humans: upright and bipedally. You won’t often find a gibbon out of the trees and on the ground, but when you do, they will be on two limbs instead of four. (While the great apes have the ability to walk on two legs, they prefer quadrupedal locomotion.) The reason is largely an anatomical one: gibbons have long arms that, along with a compact body, let them brachiate very efficiently – like a pendulum. But those arms get in the way of quadrupedal terrestrial movement.

Amongst all the apes, gibbons may in fact be the most unique. Unfortunately, in the world of conservation, the gibbons are seen as the little sibling of the star pupil (the “great” apes). But for India, the hoolock gibbon is the last of its kind found within the borders of this country.

“We in the United States and Canada have no wild primates at all,” says McGreal. “India is truly blessed to have the hoolock gibbon and we hope these forest singers and swingers will be cherished and protected as a national treasure.”

Monica Szczupider, a travel writer and conservationist primarily based in  US and Mumbai,  is currently working at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Centre in rural Cameroon (West Africa). She is interested in ethnoprimatology, which examines the crossroad where human and nonhuman primates meet, and how they can live alongside one another in harmony.

Author: Monica Szczupider.


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