Preventing a tame gibbon from being released by an Angkor visitor into the territory of the first gibbon pair highlights the importance of proper wildlife release protocols and strong community relationships!
An update from Wildlife Alliance Grant Manager / Community Conservation Technical Advisor, Elisabeth Gish
All photos are courtesy of @casadetake
With all of the recent otter and bird releases, it’s been a while since we featured gibbons in an update from the Angkor Wildlife Release Project. My boss, Nick, travels to field sites around the country every week while my work mostly keeps me deskbound in Phnom Penh. But in June I was able to visit the first gibbon pair released in Angkor! So this update is about their family’s story, visiting them with my own family, and why it is important that only appropriate animals are released and that correct protocols are followed.
Angkor’s first released gibbon pair and first wild-born generation
The first gibbon pair released in Angkor, Baray (male) and Saranick (female), were born in captivity at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre to parents rescued from the illegal trade. Most primates rescued from the pet trade in Cambodia are humanized. Sadly, this means they cannot be safely released because they lack the skills needed to survive in the wild and they tend to be less fearful of humans, so they may become either overly-friendly or aggressive towards people. However, natural behavior is encouraged at Phnom Tamao by providing large enclosures where gibbons can live in pairs and raise their own young. Thus, unlike their rescued parents who were raised by humans, Baray and Saranick were raised by their own mothers and exhibited behaviors that made them ideal release candidates. They were transferred to Angkor in 2013 and spent 6 months acclimatizing to their new surroundings in an enclosure. When released, they became the first pileated gibbons to enjoy freedom in Angkor’s ancient forests since the species was extirpated from the area due to hunting during Cambodia’s genocide and civil war.
Today, Saranick and Baray still live in the forest surrounding their release site with their two younger offspring, Chung-ruth (which means ‘cricket’ in Khmer) who is almost 5-years old and 2-year old Kontes-long (‘water beetle’). While comfortable with Wildlife Alliance’s animal keepers who they see every day, as you can see from the zoom lens photos below, Baray and Saranick are quite wary of people they don’t know – like my family! This is good because it means they are unlikely to seek out people or become humanized and should stay in the safe area of forest selected for their release site, which is away from heavily visited areas of the Angkor Archeological Park such as Angkor Wat. After the keepers filled their feed basket with rambutan and other fruits, we watched from a respectful distance as each gibbon descended to snatch some fruit and then quickly retreated to higher branches to eat. The pair’s eldest offspring, Ping-Peeung (spider) who is the first gibbon wild-born in Angkor to released parents, has reached adulthood and no longer lives with the family.
Baray, watchful father (credit: @casadetake)
Saranick, watching from afar (credit: @casadetake)
Gibbon family dynamics
Unlike more social monkey species such as macaques, which live in large groups, pileated gibbons are territorial apes. They tend to live in pairs that defend a sizeable area of about 30 hectares, and grown offspring move away when they reach adulthood. That is why Ping-Peeung, born in 2014, is no longer with their family group. When Ping-Peeung reached 5 years of age, her parents began to chase her away from the family’s feed basket. Now that Chung-ruth is approaching adulthood, our staff have noticed that Baray might be starting to display similar behavior. During our short visit, Baray jumped towards Chung-ruth several times to steal his seat on a branch and/or hug him in what seemed at times playful, but definitely dominant, behavior.
With Ping-peeung, hanging a second basket in another tree resolved the family tensions for a while. But in December 2020 she was finally driven out, left her family’s territory and entered a village nearby. Some local people quickly alerted our keepers that they had found one of our gibbon’s sleeping under the rafters of a house. We captured Ping-Peeung and brought her to a different release site to introduce her to a young male, Bakheng, who had been brought up from Phnom Tamao (see this blog post for the full story). The two spent about a year bonding together and acclimatizing before they were released. This is a good example of how we carefully plan and execute our releases to give each animal the best chance of survival and intervene to manage them as necessary.