We humans could learn a thing or two from our fellow primates, the gibbons, when it comes to loyalty and commitment – gibbons are the only primates that are monogamous. Oh, and they sing too – the most elaborate and complex songs among all land mammals.

There are five species of gibbons, also known as small apes, found in Malaysia. The white-handed gibbon, dark-handed or agile gibbon, and the siamang are found in Peninsular Malaysia while Muller’s gibbon and Abbott’s grey gibbon live in Sabah and Sarawak.

Malaysia is also home to the biggest (siamang) and smallest (black-handed) gibbon species.

And, yes, all five species are endangered and are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

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A dusky leaf monkey at the GPSM primate rehabilitation centre, which helps rescued primates adapt back to the wild by equipping them with survival skills.

Nov 1 was International Gibbon Day, and to mark the occasion, the Gibbon Protection Society Malaysia (GPSM) held an awareness event at Sunway University, Selangor, to highlight the primate’s plight.

“All the species in Malaysia are currently endangered under IUCN but we don’t know whether they are critically endangered because there is a lack of data,” says Mariani Ramli, founder of GPSM, which was established in 2016.

“For example, black-handed gibbons were estimated to number 4,000 but that was back in the 1980s.”

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Mariani with a rescued white-handed gibbon. Photo: GPSM

Gibbon expert Dr Susan Lappan, currently based in Malaysia as a Fulbright visiting scholar, says the last systematic survey of primates across Malaysia that included gibbons was done in 1981.

“So even if we look at the IUCN species status review for the gibbons in Malaysia, all of the info is from Sumatra or Thailand. Some of the earlier primate research was done in Malaysia by mainly foreign researchers but then they left the country, and we don’t know why the mantel didn’t get passed to Malaysian researchers,” says Lappan, a primate behavioural ecology and conservation researcher who has been studying gibbons for 17 years in Indonesia (specifically, Sumatra and Java) and Malaysia.

Together with primate expert Dr Nadine Ruppert from Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Biological Sciences, GPSM and the Malaysian Primate Society are conducting long term studies within Peninsular Malaysia on the distribution of gibbons and their population size.

“We will look into how many of them are still living in certain forest fragments and whether their habitats and habitat connectivity is still suitable for long term survival,” says Ruppert, who was also at the International Gibbon Day event.

Threatened by the pet trade

The major threats to the gibbon population come from habitat loss or fragmentation, fires, illegal logging, poaching, and the pet trade.

In Malaysia, the biggest concern arises from the illegal trade in wild gibbons as pets. Most people probably don’t even know that it is illegal to keep gibbons as pets and are drawn to rearing the primates because their mannerisms closely resemble those of humans.

However, in order to obtain one baby gibbon for sale, Mariani says it is estimated that 11 other gibbons are killed.

“They are the only primates that are monogamous and have strong family bonds.

“If one of them is threatened, the whole family will come to its rescue. Hunters and poachers usually take the babies because they are easier to tame. So when the parents and siblings try to protect it, they kill them,” says Mariani.

She adds that out of 20 infants that get caught, about half will die during transportation, and of those 10, probably only one will survive as a pet.

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Such ads seen on social media are a big part of the illegal pet trade involving gibbons.

“When given the wrong milk, baby gibbons will get diarrhoea and suffer from bloating.

They will also develop rashes from wearing unsuitable diapers, leading to bleeding and death,” she says.

“Gibbons also need a home range of 2km to 3km.

“Can you imagine if you put a gibbon inside a house? They will feel so confined and restless and play around energetically, and the owners will then blame the gibbons and punish them,” she points out.

GPSM is also concerned that some local celebrities show off their pet gibbons on social media, encouraging their followers to own one as well.

“The online trade of gibbons is booming in South-East Asia now, especially in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand,” says Mariani.

This year, GPSM has come across about 50 online postings advertising the sale of young gibbons, with the price of a baby ranging from RM800 to RM5,000. Currently, people are not penalised for advertising such sales online; the penalty only applies to physically owning a gibbon.

Under Malaysia’s Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, anyone who hunts or keeps baby gibbons without a special permit can be fined up to RM200,000 and/or jailed up to 10 years.

Creating awareness is key

“Personally, I feel that no law will completely prevent a crime but we hope instead to raise more awareness among the public,” says Mariani.

“GPSM’s approach is through education and awareness. We realise that students and teenagers are very active on social media.

“Once they realise that this is wrong, hopefully they will educate the owners or report any incident to Perhilitan (Wildlife and National Parks Department).”

She says that many countries in South-East Asia have gibbon conservation programmes but not Malaysia.

“We have applied for a rehabilitation permit for a primate school (tentatively known as the Malaysian Primate Conservation Centre) to train confiscated gibbons to live in the wild again.

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Rescued gibbons are taught how to survive back in the wild at the primate rehab school. Photo: GPSM

“We train them in survival skills and have mini-gyms for them to build their muscles and be able to survive in the wild,” she says.

The school is situated on a piece of land measuring just under 1ha (2 acres) in Raub, Pahang, which was donated by Puan Sri Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil to GPSM. Shariffa Sabrina is president of Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia, or Peka. Six gibbons and two langurs are already undergoing rehabilitation there while GPSM waits for the permit to come through.

GPSM’s pilot rehabilitation project first started six years ago with a small piece of land in Lenggeng, Negri Sembilan.

“Malaysia has 25 species, the second highest primate diversity in South-East Asia, after Indonesia.

“Our main concern as researchers is to involve the community and use our findings to help protect the primate species,” says Ruppert, who is Universiti Sains Malaysia’s senior lecturer in primate research and conservation.

It goes back to protecting the ecosystem and environment that forms the wildlife’s habitat.

“We create awareness about how to protect the forest, which is the main habitat of primates. We reach out to school children and students about what everybody can actually do.

“Start with small steps, like not wasting water, reducing your trash, and basically think about what you can do to protect the environment as a whole,” she says.

Click here to find out five facts about gibbons.

For more on the Gibbon Protection Society Malaysia, go to gpsmngo.org. The Malaysian Primate Society, which is affiliated with Universiti Sains Malaysia and the International Primatological Society, acts as a coordinator and facilitator of primate-related studies and conservation efforts in Malaysia; visit its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pg/malaysianprimatologicalsociety.