Endangered gibbons translocated to safety in India

Tuesday, 29 November, 2011

A rescue operation to save an isolated group of endangered Hoolock gibbons began on Sunday in the remote village of Dello in northeast India. Stranded in small clusters of trees, the gibbons are some of the last apes found in India. The first two individuals were successfully translocated and released into a safe habitat in Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary, yesterday.

A team of veterinarians and biologists from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW www.ifaw.org) Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) are assisting the state Forest Department in the operation that aims to ensure better survival prospects for 18 stranded gibbon families. The rescue project is also supported by Noyen-Melendez Family Trust, Serenity Trust, and philanthropists Himraj Dang, Subhadra and Kannan Jayaraman.

Hoolock gibbons are the only apes found in India, with their distribution restricted to the country’s northeast region. Two species have been identified here – eastern Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock leuconedys) and western Hoolock gibbons (Hoolock hoolock). Categorised as endangered by the IUCN Red List, they are protected under Schedule I of the Indian Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.

Habitat fragmentation is one of the serious concerns to the conservation of the Hoolock gibbons, also threatened by poaching and illegal trade. There are populations of both these species of lesser apes struggling to survive in discontinuous patches leaving them highly vulnerable to local extinction.

“Gibbons are highly specialised canopy-dwellers using their long arms for movement along tree branches. Their physical attributes are not suited to walk and they can fall easy prey on ground, so it is very rare to see them descend from the canopy under natural circumstances,” said Dr. Ian Robinson, IFAW Emergency Relief Director.

In Dello however, the stranded gibbons have been seen to descend on the ground making desperate attempts in search of food.

"Dello is a small village once hosting a good tree cover and undoubtedly supporting a healthy population of the eastern Hoolock gibbons. Of late, extensive felling of private forests has restricted the remnant population comprising 18 families in small clusters of trees surrounded by swathes of farmlands. The present situation offers no opportunity for the apes to forage optimally,” said Ipra Mekola, Arunachal Pradesh State Wildlife Advisory Member.

After deliberating on ways to save the gibbons, the team of experts decided that moving them to a better habitat was the only feasible option.

Following the IUCN Primate Reintroduction guidelines, a site was selected in the Mehao WLS which falls within the species’ natural distribution range. Even as efforts were being made to perfect the capture-and-relocate operation, IFAW-WTI primatologist Dr Kuladeep Roy spent time studying the behavior and habits of the gibbons to identify the first family for the move.

“The family of gibbons we selected was the most vulnerable of the 18 families. This comprised an adult male, a female and a young until last week. The female has been missing for five days now. We have been looking for her and she is not in this cluster,” said WTI Coordinator Sunil Kyarong, who along with Dr Roy, veterinarians Dr NVK Ashraf, Dr Abhijit Bhawal and biologist Soumya Das Gupta formed the IFAW-WTI team.

Despite the missing female, the move of the remaining two members was successfully carried out as scheduled.

“A month or so ago, a female and her young were killed in attack by dogs. We fear that the missing female may be dead too, as gibbons have very close-knit family bonds lasting their lifetime, and wouldn’t leave the family to wander off alone,” Dr Kuladeep Roy added. 

The capture process involved extensive preparation including confining the gibbons to their roosting Ficus tree, by lopping branches off nearby trees. On ground, a tarpaulin sheet barrier (with 10 m radius) surrounding the roosting tree prevented them from running away. Safety nets were placed covering 25 metres around the tree in case of an accidental fall.

For the capture, five of the team members climbed on to the tree and chased the gibbons down, while others waited hiding behind the tarpaulin barrier.

The male was first safely captured in the morning on Sunday, followed by the young. The adult male was sedated for a thorough examination and collection of clinical material for future disease prevalence studies. Both gibbons were released in Mehao WLS in the morning yesterday.

“The IFAW-WTI team will monitor the released gibbons for the next six months. This is our first ever attempt to translocate gibbons in India,” said Dr NVK Ashraf, Chief Veterinarian, WTI, adding that IFAW has previous experience in rescue and translocation of orangutans in Borneo, Indonesia and of 13 endangered gibbons and siamangs to a sanctuary in Sumatra, Indonesia in 2008.

About IFAW (The International Fund for Animal Welfare)

Founded in 1969, IFAW saves animals in crisis around the world. With projects in more than 40 countries, IFAW rescues individual animals, works to prevent cruelty to animals, and advocates for the protection of wildlife and habitats. For more information, visit www.ifaw.org. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


About WTI (Wildlife Trust of India)

WTI works to conserve nature, especially endangered species and threatened habitats, in partnership with communities and governments. It runs over 40 projects across India covering diverse issues including rescue and rehabilitation, habitat protection, trade control, awareness campaigns, community-based conservation, scientific surveys and species recovery programmes, to secure the natural heritage of India. For more information, visit www.wti.org.in, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter @wti_org_in.

IFAW-WTI partnership
Sharing concern for a number of species including elephants, rhinos, bears and tigers, IFAW and WTI formed a partnership in 2000 to strengthen the cause of wildlife conservation and animal welfare in the Indian sub-continent. IFAW and WTI combine excellence in conservation science with best practices in animal welfare to address wildlife emergencies and promote long-term animal protection.

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