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Waking up with the gibbons in Cat Tien Park

July 15, 2013

At 4:45am the stars are still vivid in the sky and the jungle is alive with the sounds of millions of insects and birds buzzing, clicking, chirping and making all sorts of other indescribable noises. No doubt there are more sinister things out there lurking around at this hour that keep silent as well. The gibbons, though, are not awake yet, but I am and aim of get to their patch of the forest before they do. I am doing the Wild Gibbon Trek in Cat Tien National Park. Me, our guide and two Swedish people set out at this thoroughly ungodly hour, venturing only a little way into the jungle, though in the pitch darkness with only the guide’s torchlight, it is scary enough.

Female gibbons. Image from Wikipedia as my camera is not that good.

Female gibbons. Image from Wikipedia as my camera is not that good.

We set up hammocks under the park’s famous, majestic 600 hundred year old tree. We lie in the hammocks for a while, listening to the incredible sound of the jungle’s day shift waking up and the night shift going to sleep, and then we hear them – at first it is a quiet descending whistle – a bird I initially think, but the guide beckons us out of the hammocks and we follow him through the trees in the half light of the morning. Then the gibbons burst into full song. It reverberates through the trees, comprehensively dwarfing ever other sound. I have never heard anything like it in my life, it is both terrifying and amazing at the same time. The closest thing can compare it to, being a pale kid from suburban England, is a load of arcade machines all going off at once, but a thousand decibels higher than even the most noisy arcade in Blackpool. Then we see them swinging nimbly through the delicate branches way up above us in the forest canopy, the golden yellow females and the black males, just fleeting glimpses, like ninjas escaping from a steal, and then they are gone again, into the thick foliage.

The amazing 600 year old tree

The amazing 600 year old tree

Gibbons live in small family groups and sing like this to tell others that this is their territory. But they don’t have an alpha male who lords over a harem of females like other primates. Gibbons are actually more or less monogamous. I say more or less because, I was surprised to learn, the females sometimes have a fling with randomly roaming males, an idea it seems the human species is only just getting it’s head round. This kinky discovery was made by Marina Kenyon who helped to develop the Dao Tien Endangered Primate Endangered Species Centre at Cat Tien. I was shown round the centre by Education Officer Stephanie and volunteer Tim. Stephanie did a great job in educating me about the depressing illegal wildlife trade and the fantastic work the centre is doing to rehabilitate rescued gibbons, loris and other species. Their aim is to release the rescued monkeys back into the wild, or the semi-wild environment they have created on an island in the national park.

These primates were captured in the wild, mostly when they were young (often the poachers kill the mother to steal her baby) and sold as pets or used as tourist attractions. Stephanie pointed out one poor female gibbon who had been kept in a small cage in a petrol station for eighteen years. Not only was there obvious psychological problems but her digestive system was messed up from being fed a diet of junk food. She is now around twenty five years old (gibbons live around thirty years) and though she may never be able to be released into the wild, she is doing well and was swinging around the bars of her large cage. Even though she, like most of the gibbons in early rehabilitation, are kept in a cage of their own close to the others, she must be glad to hear that raucous singing once again.

The centre has many success stories, including the they-should-sell-the-rights-

A black shanked douc

A black shanked douc

to-Disney story of the birth of a baby to two of the first douc monkeys to be released after going through rehabilitation. But it’s an ongoing fight as the illegal wildlife trade is still going strong. In particular, the plight of the pygmy loris is very depressing. Thanks, in part, to the popularity of some inane YouTube videos, the pygmy loris is currently one of those fashionable niche pets. But these little creatures are not suited to being pets at all. No animal that has been captured from the wild (and even some bred in captivity) is ever going to be a suitable pet, but pygmy loris are actually quite aggressive. To boot they actually have a poisonous bite. So, the criminals who capture and sell these animals have come up with the

The pygmy loris

The pygmy loris

barbaric solution of cutting their teeth out. This means the loris are totally defenceless and so basically grab onto anything they can stay there, very stressed out. In the YouTube videos they look docile, but they’re just shit-scared. The loris pet trade in doing particularly well in the USA and Russia. I think I can imagine just the type of stupid, rich, spoilt American or Russian who would go for this – the kind who has got bored of the chihuahua they bought because Paris Hilton had one. But who knows,whoever hey are, they are no doubt ignorant of the terrible ordeal their new pet has been through and will continue to go through.

But there is hope, the centre is doing some great outreach work with the local Vietnamese population, educating kids and adults about the suffering of the primates and trying to deter people from becoming poachers. I hope that everyone who comes to Vietnam will consider visiting the beautiful park and the centre, and even getting up to go and see and hear the world’s most amazing acrobats in their natural habitat.

You can find out more about the work of the centre on the Go East website. There is also information about the Wild Gibbon Trek in the relevant Lonely Planet guides.

And if you can’t visit Vietnam, you can always go to Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre in Dorset – Monkey World helped to set up Go East.

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