Spotlight India: With teamwork, stranded gibbons find a safe new home

IFAW-WTI veterinarians check over each gibbon during the move. c. IFAW-WTIThough I’ve seen captive hoolock gibbons swinging through branches in the past, it's quite a visual treat to see a family of gibbons swooping through the forest canopy in the wild and I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to see them swinging over and over again.  I was fortunately given that opportunity this week while documenting the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) gibbon translocation in the Northeast Indian state of Roing. 

The effort is an important conservation and animal rescue initiative to save endangered eastern hoolock gibbons living in fragmented habitat that is no longer viable for the 18 families of stranded gibbons.  The translocation team assembled early in the morning at the village of Dello in Roing. The plan that day was to rescue two families of  hoolock gibbons  stranded in small clusters of trees surrounded by human settlement and farmland. The village of Dello once had a good tree cover which supported a healthy population of the eastern Hoolock gibbons. But now, extensive felling of trees has restricted the gibbon’s habitat making it difficult for the gibbons to survive.

IFAW-WTI has been working on moving these gibbons to a safer area of Mehao. The project has already successfully translocated two gibbon families (five individuals) from Dello to Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh in the last two months. This was then the third attempt in which we moved two families comprising six individuals. Undoubtedly, this operation was better than the previous ones as it took only three days to capture two families and release them in a safe habitat of Mehao (the last translocation took six days for one family).

On the morning of February 11, one male was safely captured, followed by the female and the sub adult. All the gibbons were sedated for a thorough examination before they were released in Mehao WLS the next morning.

A gibbon baby feeding on milk from its mother. c. IFAW-WTIFor the next capture, on the morning of the 12th, five of the team members climbed on to the roosting tree and tried to coax the gibbons down. This resulted in the female with its dependent juvenile to jump down to the ground safely where it was caught with special nets  by the rest of the team. The male didn't follow and it climbed a tall dry tree and had no intentions of coming  down. We waited the whole afternoon expecting for the male to come down for food, but he spent the night on the tree.

The following morning, a team member was pulled up the roosting tree using climbing gear to try to coax the gibbon down once again. The gibbon then leapt to a smaller tree and eventually jumped down to the ground and where it was captured.  The whole family including the male, female with the juvenile was released in Mehao that same day.

They say gibbons along with the great apes are the closest relatives to humans. I felt it so when I saw them expressing the joy of reunion of the family. Before the release the gibbons were timidly sitting inside the crate, but just after the release they reunited and embraced each other even though they were separated only for about 24 hours. They moved gracefully on the branches and disappeared. It was so rewarding to see the family being moved to a safe place.

We often come across interesting moments while working in the field and some of them move us more than others. I was moved by such a moment which I was able to capture with  my camera. While I was going through my photos, some shots caught my attention. It was of the baby gibbon suckling its mother’s breast. When the vets were checking the health of the female gibbon after she was captured, she would not let her baby go. For few minutes she kept her baby on her chest, cuddling him, stroking him and feeding him before she succumbed to the sedative. I was moved to see the baby grasping her mother's fur and having milk. In recent times I’ve had the opportunity to see many animal reunions and translocations, but this was a very unique experience. The whole experience has had an enormous impact on me. It's made me realize just how caring gibbons are; how it is so tragic that they now face extinction and how, despite all our best efforts and all we achieved, there is still much more to be done.

Stay tuned for more updates on our gibbon rescue in India.

-- SB

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