All is quiet as we pull off the main road and down a dirt driveway towards a non-descript shanty house in the Malaysian jungle far from the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. The structure isn’t visible from the main road and more importantly, neither is what is tucked away behind the residence.
I get out of the truck and I’m guided down a small pathway over a small rickety footbridge. I focus on balancing myself over the shoulder-width swaying cable bridge surrounded by dense forest. The silence evaporates and their beautiful songs start to awaken the quiet jungle and delight my ears. Gibbons are famous for their songs, they sing to attract potential mates but research has shown they also sing to scare off potential predators, I’m hoping they don’t consider me either.
Malaysia is home to 5 species of gibbons, all of them are endangered and on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. Gibbons are considered “lesser apes”, but don’t them that and they are often confused with monkeys because of their similar size. Gibbon are apes in the family of Hylobatidae and the easiest way to tell them apart from monkeys is the absence of a tail.
Like many primates, their biggest threat is a loss of habitat from deforestation, but they are also threatened by illegal wildlife traders capturing and selling gibbons to people who want them as pets.
Across the bridge is the temporary home of the GPSM (Gibbon Protection Society Malaysia) founded by 33-year-old Malaysian Mariani Ramli, she goes by Bam. Bam earned a degree in Animal Biology from the University Kebangsaan Malaysia and is currently pursuing her master’s in Wildlife Conservation and Health, focusing on gibbon rehabilitation and the primate pet trade. She is also a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Species Survival Commission Section of Small Apes, a group of experts dedicated to gibbon conservation.
Bam worked with the government for 11 years as a wildlife ranger, six of those years specifically with gibbons. She was fired from her position in 2016 and is currently battling the government in court over wrongful termination. In addition to that court case, she is also tangled up in a drawn out 6-year custody battle for her gibbons while seeking a permit for her rehabilitation center, the only one of its kind in Malaysia.
Currently, her rehabilitation center operates illegally as she awaits the court’s decision. Bam and her volunteers are raising 4 young gibbons rescued from the pet trade at her home. She hand-feeds them bottled milk and even slept with them in her bed when they were babies. Her daily routine consists of, as she says, “I drive my children to school” as the gibbons pile into her minivan on their way to her jungle school. A short distance away from her home she takes them to her rehabilitation center so they can learn to live in the wild. They learn how to swing, climb, and feed in the wild. She says her biggest reward is when she sees them starting to climb high in the trees and singing again.
Bam points out that gibbons aren’t not meant to be pets, she says “they need to be in the wild, swinging from trees, amongst other gibbons.” She only keeps them at her home for short periods of time while she slowly rehabilitates them and teaches them how to be back in the wild and away from human connection. She says it’s challenging emotionally for her to get so close and then let them go, but she’s knows it’s what’s best for them.
She cringes at Malaysian celebrities posting pictures of their gibbons as pets on social media and goes on to explain “to trap one baby gibbon, poachers often have to slaughter a family of upwards to 10” because they will fight to the death to save their family. Bam herself has also received multiple death threats from poachers and wildlife traders.
She has hopes to open the first rehabilitation center for gibbons in Malaysia by IUCN standards, she even showed me the full design with two way viewing glass so the gibbons can’t see humans but humans can view and learn about the. She hopes people learn to appreciate and respect the Malaysian native that, oh by the way, studies show share approximately 96percent of the same genome make up of people.
The self-proclaimed “surrogate mother of the gibbons”, Bam loves her children and works tirelessly to help them but she needs the support of the government if her and her team of volunteers is going to stand a chance and make an impact.
For now, the gibbons sing their beautiful songs to world that isn’t listening. Bam and her team of volunteers hopes to change that and to be their voice, this is their story.
The GPSM (Gibbon Protection Society Malaysia) runs on a combination of private donations and Bam’s own money, if you’d like to help, please donate here.