Rehabilitation of Infant Gibbons
Rehabilitation of Infant Gibbons caught up in the Illegal Wildlife Trade
Their mothers have been shot for meat and the babies sold on as pets or tourist attractions. These infants when rescued need a family of their own kind and trees. But this can be tricky as every little gibbon is different. Like human children, you have to work with them at the individual level, their confidence levels, their fears, what drives them to play, swing.
The goal is to get them living with other gibbons, behaving like wild gibbons and totally indifferent to humans. To do this and stop them becoming attached, imprinted to humans, is key if they have any chance as an adult to return to the forest. When they reach out for social contact, it needs to be to another little gibbon. When they communicate, it needs to be in gibbon language.
How do we find out about gibbons to rescue?
In Vietnam, the battle to stop the illegal hunting of endangered wildlife and trade is strong. The Forestry Police (kiem lam) protect the forest, and the Environmental Police with support from NGO’s such as ENV (Education for Nature Vietnam) monitor the trade networks.
Most information comes from people like you, who are aware and care. With our education outreach in Ho Chi Minh City, children put their hands up in class and say “my friend’s grandmother has a pet gibbon”. These brave young children are leading the way in helping protect the amazing wildlife in Vietnam.
Or we are alerted by the growing network of specialist primate rescue centres in Asia, such as Cuc Phuong in the North of Vietnam, if they hear of gibbons in the South in need of help they let us know. Increasingly information comes when people share their images of pet gibbons on Facebook or try and sell gibbons and other wildlife on the internet.
Picture of Duane on Facebook
Rehabilitation at the individual level
The five young gibbons rescued this last year all have different characters, personalities and require slightly different strategies to help them.
Hoi & Vang
Hoi and Vang were transferred from Bu Gia Map National Park in February 2016. Hoi a young male was 14 months old, he had been kept in isolation in a space less than one metres square. Vang a little female being much younger at 7 months was on milk drinks, but lacking her mother’s constant contact sucked her arm for comfort. Both were underweight with deficiencies.
Photo of Vang before rescue in ice box.
Picture of Hoi just after rescue in a hammock
The physical damage soon healed but the mental damage was more serious. For Hoi he just wanted contact. Normally for youngsters our protocol is to try and introduce them to a surrogate gibbon mother. Gibbons are good at adopting non-related youngsters. When we slowly introduced an adult female to Hoi, he was thrilled, so much so he charged at her and immediately tried to suckle. Not surprisingly this frightened the adult female and she reacted defensively. While Vang, much smaller and lacking confidence would curl up on the floor, hoping with all her heart she would not be seen. Vang lacking social contact from her mother was closing down, even displaying an extreme response we had never seen before, at night when the monsoon wind and rains would come she would fit, when you are so frightened by something and have to deal with it on your own. Vang should still have been tucked up in her mother’s arms as the monsoon winds blew, in a world without hunting. Sadly, Vang was lacking confidence and she was afraid of everyone, even Hoi. But Hoi was slowly becoming the most familiar thing in her life, and Hoi as a kind boisterous young gibbon would just try any way possible to engage Vang, always gently at first. Gently tempting her into a world of play.
Vang and Hoi, doing what they love, eating and play!
We are pleased to say that Hoi achieved his goal and he became best buddies with Vang. Vang has grown in confidence and now is able to play manically with Hoi, as any little gibbon should. The key now that they have each other is to slowly move them away from our primate care staff and with each other they can start to learn how to play in the trees.
Next to their nursery enclosure we have a semi-forested enclosure, with tunnels leading out into the trees. This is perfect as they can go and play in the day and then at night come back for milk drinks and be safe while still so young.
When given access to the trees, as expected Hoi charged out with his playful curious confidence, leaving Vang swinging in her hammock wondering why the world was changing shape. Hoi would come charging back in to try and persuade her to follow. It took time but finally she did. Vang is gaining confidence in the trees daily.
The most astounding thing is how good they are becoming in the trees, but when back in the cage Vang resorts back to swinging in the hammock. You would never believe it is the same gibbon. The trees give her confidence to grow while in the cage she swings manically and worries about what is coming.
Access to trees is vital in the rehabilitation of infant gibbons, to gain confidence and to distance themselves from their care givers, before the damage of imprinting to humans occurs.
Tinh tin was rescued from a mansion in Ho Chi Minh City, kept since an infant gibbon as a pet. A very brave little girl put her hand up in an education outreach class and said I know of a pet gibbon. When we rescued him, he was living in a small cage in a back corridor with no direct natural light. Inside the cage was nothing for him, all he could do was sit and peer out. He was very malnourished, and still is a picky eater. He is on supplements to help his appetite, there is more to life than banana Tinh Tin. But the overwhelming character that comes from Tinh Tin is that he is such a happy kind soul. Even so malnourished his face is so gentle and handsome and he has won over our carers, who daily change the branching in his cage to help get him off the ground. Mr Thanh our main gibbon keeper, he does not do the fiddly hand rearing but he rebuilds worlds for gibbons so they go wild. Mr Thanh’s mission now is to get Tinh Tin eating and swinging like a gibbon, making sure Tinh Tin, a gibbon that asks for nothing, has what he needs. Collecting faecal samples to ensure the intestinal worms are gone, rebuilding cages in a day to make sure it’s ready for Tinh Tin.
He unnaturally wanted to sit on the floor as that was all he knew, but slowly we have got him off the ground higher and higher. Equally with daily exercise he has become stronger and stronger and now enjoys brachiation. Tinh Tin has passed all his health checks and he in slowly being introduced to Hoi and Vang. Hoi wants to play but Tinh Tin needs to take things a little slow as he has had so little social play in his life- it’s all very new. But he is doing so well and does reach out to play with Hoi and Vang.
A young gibbon swaddled like a baby had been shown on Facebook. Friends of Cuc Phoung alerted Cuc Phoung management and the Authorities, with concern the gibbon was very weak and needed immediate rescue. Dr Viet and our head keeper Ngoan head off on the long journey to Kon Tum in the Central Highlands to rescue this little gibbon. They found a mystery, a tiny gibbon, black in colour suggesting greater age than his size, with limited use of his arms and legs. The one strong behaviour that remained was that if hand fed he liked his food. Good, he still wanted to live in this world. Often when you rescue primates that have suffered terrible cruelty they lose the will to live, overwhelmed by the loss of their true family and frightened of this noisy alien world of humans. The little gibbon named “Duane” was in a terrible way. From his arms and legs swaddled he did not know how to swing and could not extend his legs fully. The most serious issue was his inability to reach out with his hands and feed. Infant gibbons as young as three months can be seen holding mum and reaching out for food and leaves, a time for learning. As Duane was swaddled during this period of development he missed out and now much later on with full freedom of movement of his arms and legs does not get that you need to reach out and pick up food. Only now six months’ post rescue is he starting to feed himself. Well done Duane!
The wonderful thing about Duane is hi zest for life, he is very contented and spends a lot of time entertaining himself with play. This strong happy nature will be the key to his rehabilitation, he wants to be a gibbon and have fun.
Loc is our most recent arrival, born in the Central Highlands around Kon Tim, where her mother was hunted, most likely for meat and the little baby clinging on to her was taken into the illegal pet trade. Luckily for her she was rescued by a construction worker in Kon Tim, his home was in Ho Chi Minh City and he cared for Loc until he found a place for her to go – Dao Tien. How great that awareness is reaching all levels of society and all different people are aware that gibbons do not belong in the house, they are endangered primates and belong in the forest with their own family.
Loc is a feisty little female, and although very small has a strong will to survive. With feeds round the clock and a transfer on to stronger milk she has gained strength, and making it clear she wants to be a gibbon. When she hears the other gibbons on Dao Tien sing, she naturally joins in. Loc at the moment is being hand reared but as each day passes she becomes stronger and we pull away, its key she does not become too attached to humans. She lives next to Duane, also rescued from Kon Tim, we hope he will be her first gibbon friend. In time, we have two possible adult females who we hope will take on the role of big sister or surrogate mum to Duane and Loc. This will give them the best chance for future return to the wild.
For each individual, we always start with the belief they can make it back to the forest. For example, Duane, has had a terrible start, but he does not squeak at humans. This is a key behaviour that often means gibbons are too close to humans and cannot go back to the forest. So even little gibbons who go through so much trouble - can still make it home to the forest.