The Act of Gibbon: Saving Malaysia’s Primates

What made a city girl working in luxury give it all up to save gibbons in the depths of the jungles of Pahang?

By | January 14, 2021

Chantiq, a highly intelligent gibbon rescue with a lot of past trauma, constantly observing your every move. Photo credit: Stephanie Theresa/Gibbon Conservation Society

“This is where I die,” I thought to myself, maintaining composure as the most ferocious female gibbon in the enclosure, Chantiq, had grabbed my ponytail with her long arms through her cage in a split second. She had been eyeing me for days, and today … success. We had been warned repeatedly to always maintain our distance from their cages but a misstep on my part—trying to move too quickly followed by a brief moment of looking down—was all it took.

Pulling me closer to the cage, Chantiq ripped my hair from my scalp as she screeched and jumped at her successful attempt. Huge chunks of hair fell to my sides. I finally cried out to the nearest volunteer for help, thinking, “Oh god, I’m going to be bald.” Not that there was anything wrong with being bald; I just didn’t have the facial structure to pull it off. They say your life flashes before you in the final minutes before death, but here I was … rationalising being inclusively correct.

These are strange times indeed. 

The ugly truth

I’m being dramatic of course, but even though it all happened in a hot second, it certainly felt like the longest minute of my life. 

Was I angry? Without a doubt. 

Why was I here even?

At this point, I had quit my très cool job at a French luxury beauty brand in the big city during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in the hopes of doing meaningful work while the rest of the world crashed and burned. Now seemed as good a time as any.

But how exactly does one Eat, Pray, Love in the time of Corona?

The adult gibbon enclosure. Photograph: Afiza Rahman/Gibbon Conservation Society

I had always romanticised having a Jane Goodall moment, and with border travel prohibited, it made sense to find this in my own backyard. Carbon dating this to when the world was still whipping up one frothy cup of Dalgona after another, I found myself with a written permission to cross states in hand and on the wide open road to a new adventure. A tiny village sitting against the backdrop of the idyllic Titiwangsa mountains was going to be home for the next month as I would “selflessly” help to heal Mother Nature through the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (GReP), a local project focused on rehabilitating victims of the illegal wildlife pet trade—specifically white-handed gibbons—founded in 2013 by Mariani “Bam” Ramli, a former wildlife ranger for Perhilitan, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia. 

The GReP project house was quite literally in the middle of nowhere, with eight guard dogs barking every time we had to drag the makeshift metal wire mesh gate that was held together by a mere karabiner. A dusty kitchen—thanks to all the fresh sand brought in by the dogs despite daily cleaning—with every corner filled with boxes of fresh fruits, donated items, hardware tools and materials, was where all our daily huddles would happen. 

Outside, a path led to the juvenile gibbon enclosures right next to a daunting extension bridge sans handrails over a rapid river that seemed to stretch on forever. Once across the river, you arrive at the adult enclosure, and here we were warned by the team to approach with caution: “don’t make eye contact, do not talk loudly, maintain your distance from the cages, and avoid any contact with the gibbons”. While we certainly developed personal favourites from observing their antics over the weeks, our every move and action was done with an underlying respect for these wild creatures. 

A narrow bridge leading to the adult gibbon enclosure. Photograph: Audra Roslani

The intern house where we lived was even more bare bones. I woke up daily at 6am to fight for the one squat toilet shared between three other volunteers whom I had never met before. We had no Internet access, we shared rooms and could hear every movement and alarm from the other rooms thanks to walls that didn’t touch the ceiling. Interrupted sleep was a nightly occurrence thanks to house cats that would break into the room every five minutes. But we were told, “The cats are the guardians of the house, from snakes and such.” Casual. Sleep or snakes, you very quickly learn what you’re willing to compromise on. 

My days consisted of wearing the same sweaty Lululemons from morning to night. I had considered safari rompers, but when working around gibbons, one must always be dressed in black as per the rules—not quite my Attenborough-in-the-’60s moment as fantasized. There was no space for style when cleaning primate faeces and preparing gibbon meals, drilling and building enclosures from scratch, only to be greeted with freezing-cold showers every night before winding down on my broken bed. 

You can imagine why I was not amused that at this very moment—this was how I was being thanked by Chantiq? Yet, my rational human mind knew that I couldn’t be mad at her. I was shaken undoubtedly, but how could I be angry at a wild animal who was here at the collective failures of human beings?

Animal behaviour

At a glance, the gibbons at GReP have either been abandoned or surrendered by illegal and irresponsible pet owners, rescued from poachers or from being turned into a meal by indigenous tribes, among other things. But as you read through each case that has been documented, it brings to light gruesome details that, while difficult to stomach, needs to be understood in order to get each and every one of them on their separate path to recovery. 

Dexter, during his rescue from a house in KL. Photograph: Jacob Emerson/@jjemerson_wildlife

On one page, one baby had sustained serious injuries from falling and being crushed under the weight of her dead mother after being shot by poachers.

Another was kept in a small, dirty cage next to her natural predators. 

A third was fed two pieces of kangkung a day.

The last story was shared verbally: A gibbon was made to perform sexual acts by a pet owner.

The list went on and on, all equally horrific. 

I was told that gibbons share 97% of human DNA, but found it interesting that while physically the rescues were much healthier today than when they first arrived years before, unlike their human counterparts, they were not able to overcome their deep-rooted traumas from being victims of the illegal pet trade. This would manifest in stereotypic behaviours such as rocking back and forth, or jumping and shaking their cages violently the minute humans approached, albeit at a much improved state thanks to the rehabilitation programme. 

An estimated 10 to 20 gibbons have to be killed in order for a single baby gibbon to be poached, and are openly sold via social media channels. Photograph: Gibbon Conservation Society

This was a result of a thriving illegal market of exotic pets in Malaysia, with demand growing rapidly through the use of various social media platforms. Pictures of adorable baby gibbons as pets posted by celebrities and the affluent are not uncommon, as owning what’s rare and difficult to attain is still seen as some sort of symbol of wealth and class. The demand continues to rise as these extremely cute babies crave affection and love, but eventually reach an age where their “wild-ness” kicks in. 

Gibbons are the only primates besides humans that sing—and despite how beautifully they do, these loud territorial songs would undoubtedly be a source of annoyance for any apartment or city dweller. They also develop canine teeth as adults that can puncture deep into human flesh if provoked, and their inability to brachiate could cause them to start lashing out. Now, all of a sudden, these wild creatures that were never meant to be domesticated in the first place, don’t seem so adorable anymore. 

With some of them eventually dying due to improper care, others are hard-released to fend for themselves in jungles. Having never lived independently before, they are most probably unable to fend for themselves. The worst case scenario? Put to sleep by “euthanasia packages” offered by illegal traders.

Is it any wonder why our gibbons are now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) list of endangered animals? An estimated 10 to 20 gibbons have to be killed in order for a single baby gibbon to be poached, so do the math. Malaysia, home to the smallest and largest gibbon species in the world from the Hylobates agilis to the Symphalangus syndactylus, could very soon be no more.

Ground zero

So why was I here? How did I end up here? In this jungle, in this job … in this life?

It was the perennial existential crisis of your 30s. As a career girl, I had prided myself on having an impressive résumé filled with names of all the cool brands that I had always wanted to work for as a teen … surely, 18-year-old Audra would be so proud to see where she ended up 18 years later? So, why was I feeling so empty? 

All my life, I was told by my academic father to work hard: Put in the hours, and then I assumed, life would just fall into place. And work hard, I did. I became part of this giant hamster wheel, throwing and attending some of KL’s glitziest events, working with some of the biggest Malaysian celebrities on glossy magazine and video shoots, burning the midnight oil, while attempting to balance all of that with an equally robust social life.

From the outside, it seemed like I had it all. 

But I was starting to question my place here on earth, further exacerbated by the pandemic. What was the point of it all?

Besides primate husbandry, any extra time would be used to build new enclosures from scratch or on maintenance work around the facilities. Photograph: Audra Roslani

Conservation work had always been, in my mind, the most selfless and rewarding endeavour but now here, I was thinking more and more about ending my “gibbons in the mist” journey prematurely as the days went by. Being older and used to certain creature comforts, what was I thinking? I had been living my best “Audra in Kuala Lumpur” life, yet here I was in my eight-ringgit Adidas kampung (I swear by these), all while deadlifting buckets of water up humid jungle trails at the mercy of leeches.

I was tired physically and mentally, and desperate for a hot shower. My mind often wandered to the first thing I would do once I was back in civilisation. The answer would always be a two-hour full-body massage. Only two more weeks till freedom, I would think. 

How did Bam and her team of wonder women do this, day in, day out? No weekends, and no days off?

Be mind, rewind

Bam, the revolutionaire, was an inspiration to all of us at GReP. At the age of 27, she sold her motorbike and other material belongings to start this initiative. Since then, she has been on the receiving end of death threats from poachers and illegal traders, all while doing her best to protect and rehabilitate Malaysia’s gibbon population. Each day is a constant uphill battle in raising awareness and searching for funds while looking after her growing family of gibbon rescues. 

None of this would be possible without the help of her team of tough-as-nails women: project manager Farhanah Bamadhaj and intern manager Afiza Rahman, who have given up the comforts of living in civilisation for a minimum wage and hardly any days off. 

I am 10 years older than Bam was when she had started GReP, and this really put things in perspective. Alleviating the work of the women who worked here tirelessly and selflessly so they could focus on the bigger picture in protecting nature was the “why” that pushed me to power through on the days where hitting the snooze button for the nth time seemed a losing battle. 

The amazing women behind GReP with the first batch of local volunteers, after building a new enclosure for an incoming rescue. Photograph: Audra Roslani

Without realising it, my mind had done a mental shift. I was no longer thinking about how tired I was, but instead about how tired they must be and what else could be done. As the first batch of local volunteers, the collective had developed a mentality of asking ourselves, “What are three other things I could do in this task to help make the lives of our team mates easier in the next shift?” It was thinking ahead, and not directly for our personal benefit. This encouraged a thoughtfulness in everything we did, a pay-it-forward mentality, which resulted in a bond and renewed faith that inadvertently hydrated the fatigued soul. We were happy and grateful to have had this unique moment in time, a camaraderie nourished by nature. 

I realised that while it was humans destroying mother nature that brought us here in the first place, it was also humans that were going to make it better again. We each played a role in tipping the scales of good vs evil, and strengthening the bonds of our weakest links. In a “me-first” age of endless self-care spiels, it dawned on me that “living my best life” meant having the privilege of helping others and that this was bigger than me. 

This is a story about humanity. 

For seven days, I sat in silence alone observing the gibbon’s behaviour and collecting data that would be used to gauge its eventual readiness to be re-released into the wild. Photograph: Afiza Rahman/Gibbon Conservation Society

Sound healing

During my last week and as part of the programme requirement, I had to sit in absolute silence alone on my foldable camo chair and notebook for an hour—every day for seven days, with a view of all the adult enclosures around me as I observed the behaviour of my favourite gibbon, Daly. This minute-by-minute data would later be measured against the activity budget of a wild gibbon as one of the considerations for his re-release back into the wild. It pleased me to know that all of the adult gibbons here had made excellent progress under the care of GReP, with only one or two criteria left to fulfil before their rehabilitation would be complete. 

For the first six days, everything was relatively uneventful; a lot of brachiating, resting and fruit eating. I was rather disappointed that I had not witnessed any major action but I eventually found solace in the quiet. Here, each minute felt long, but each hour felt short. I could sit there observing them forever, alone with my thoughts and a renewed sense of calm.

But then it happened. On my last day, during the final 17 minutes of my observation as I tried to swat a mosquito away, I heard it. A soft whooping sound at first, the gentle beginnings of a song. I looked up and Daly was crouched high up on his perch in the corner nearest to the girls’ cage, and was slowly escalating his territorial song. The gibbons typically would wait for us to leave the enclosure before singing once satisfied with their morning meals, so this was a rare event for me, but one I had been desperately hoping for since day one. 

I felt tears welling up, as the girls stopped what they were doing and started replying to his song, now an orchestra of upwards spirals and whistles from inhaling in between each loud note that could be heard from as far away as across the river, building into a crescendo that reverberated deep into my being. 

GReP’s primo operatic tenor and heartbreaker, Daly. Photograph: Gibbon Conservation Society

This went on, before eventually settling on a duet between Daly and Chantiq. Being surrounded by their sounds this close had an euphoric effect on me. I could feel my eardrums play trampoline to each musical note that bounced off them, and each sound erasing an unnecessary memory to be replaced with this one that would remain for a lifetime. 

Slowly, the whoops got softer … and soon, the applause of crickets came back into play, as though someone had remembered to turn up the dial. Was that all real? Had I just witnessed that? I waited five minutes more, hoping for an encore, but nothing. I packed up my chair, wiped away the wetness on my cheeks, exhaled deeply and a smile volunteered itself. 

Here I foolishly thought I was saving nature, but … and as it has always proven time and time again, nature had brought me back down to earth by showing me that life’s purpose was in being able to witness Her beauty in all its shapes, forms, and manifestations. 

And what a privilege that truly is. 

Audra Roslani, with baby Chinta. Photograph: Stephanie Theresa/Gibbon Conservation Society

An Urgent Plea

Six gibbons, including Daly and Chantiq mentioned in this article, have been confiscated by Perhilitan, Malaysia’s Wildlife Department, amid a pending court case. Their current state is unknown at press time, but one thing is certain: This new trauma will undoubtedly reverse years of good rehabilitation work done by the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project. Transparency is needed—a visual status of whether they are still alive and healthy, and they need your help to please sign the petition here

GReP’s rehab programme is accredited by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which ensures proper steps and care taken before the gibbons are released back into the wild. This process is a long and arduous one, and the six gibbons have gone through several years of rehab with GReP, with only one or two criteria left to fulfil. This is a plea to Perhilitan to please send them back so that they may finish the rest of the programme and be released back into the wild. 

Perhilitan and smaller specialised wildlife rescue centres such as GReP can and should work together for the collective objective of rehabilitating Malaysia’s national treasures, our endangered wildlife.  

If you’d like to support the good work being done at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project especially with funds running low during the Covid-19 pandemic, do consider making a donation to Gibbon Conservation Society, Maybank Account Number: 562339408187 or [email protected]. Alternatively, sign up to be a volunteer and spread the word. Let’s help to voice their silence.

Audra Roslani

Audra Roslani

Audra Roslani is a creative consultant and aspiring conservationist. A former assistant editor at Harper’s Bazaar Malaysia, she lives by the aphorism ‘gnothi seauton’ and the belief that beauty, in its simplest and most honest form, is the answer to being human.