Monday, 14 January 2013

The Gibbon Guy

I am in Central Kalimantan to meet Chanee, the Gibbon Guy.  He greets me at the airport in Palangka Raya, a slim man in his early thirties with a boyish face and a mop of brown hair neatly brushed and a fringe half covering his big blue eyes.  He doesn't look like someone who's spent the last fourteen years living in the jungle with gibbons for company.  He's French.  His real name is Aurelien Brule, which is a bit of a mouthful for anyone other than the French to pronounce, so when he visited Thailand to see gibbons in the wild for the first time, the Thai called him Chanee, their word for gibbon. The name has stuck ever since.

Chanee is taking me to his camp, a gibbon conservation and sanctuary near the Pararawen National Park in North Barito, Central Kalimantan. The journey there is an eight hour drive by road followed by an hour boat ride on the Barito river.  The camp, called Kalaweit, after the local word for gibbon, is an 8 hectare of forest land acquired by his foundation, which is attached to a conservation organization based in France, and which he set up back in 1998, after a year long effort to get the permit from the forestry department.  Back then he was only 18 years old, Jakarta was burning, a regime was changing, nobody paid him much attention, but Aurelien only had one thing in his mind.  To save and protect the gibbons.  After calling on the forestry department every day for a year, the Indonesian government finally gave him the permission to set up his gibbon foundation, the first of its kind.

It was evening when we reached the camp and the wooden boat we travelled on finally ceased emitting its deafening noise.  I was able to take in the dark outlines of the trees beneath a black sky sprinkled with a million stars and the constant humming sound of the night insects.  A small dirt path take us to a wooden building where our supper await us on a long table in the verandah lit by lamps powered by a generator that provides electricity for three hours in the evening.  Our bedroom sleeps two or three people on mattresses laid on the floor.  We have taken Chanee' s advice and brought mosquito nets.  The mosquitos here can give you malaria.


I practice my French with Chanee but soon find it easier to communicate in Bahasa with him, which he speaks with the fluency of one who has spent the last fourteen years mingling with just about about anyone, from the Betawi family who took him on when he was homeless while waiting for his permit to be issued, to the local boys who now work for him in the camp, feeding and looking after the gibbons.

We go to bed early as there's not much to do when the lights are out.  I toss and turn in my sleeping bag as I listen to the noises of the night.  I didn't realize the forest can be so noisy.  Some time before dawn I'm woken up by the strangest mixture of sounds, howls, yelps, hoots, whoops and a bunch of ear piercing wails like a siren or an alarm that go on and on, each time getting louder and more cacophonous.  The gibbons are awake.  All 131 one of them in cages within the camp forest.

Gibbons have fascinated Chanee all his life.  When he was 12, while other boys played football or watch TV, he spent his afternoon studying gibbons at a local zoo.  Everyday for five years.  When he was sixteen he published a book all about gibbons, which gave him some recognition and attracted a French celebrity who wanted to make his dreams come true.  And that dream was to see gibbons in the wild.

I told him he must have been a gibbon in his previous life.  I've never met anyone so focused on what he wanted to do he actually dropped out of university to live in a place a million miles away from home.  But his home is where the gibbons are.  Currently there are around a hundred thousand in Indonesia but that number is dwindling as they are rapidly losing their home, which is the forest.

Unlike other apes that can live and forage on the ground or be fed by humans, gibbons need tall trees to survive.  On the ground, they are vulnerable to human diseases.  They are also vulnerable to each other.  Gibbons are very territorial and a family, consisting of a monogamous pair and their offspring need a lot of space to themselves.  Their loud, melodious and distinctive cries are warnings to other gibbons to stay away.  A solitary gibbon is likely to be attacked and killed.

But their biggest enemy are humans, who kill the adults, steal the baby and sell them to people as playthings, who then abuse and then abandon them when they mature and become dangerous to keep.  Most of the gibbons in Kalaweit camp came in poor conditions, with human diseases and traumatised behaviour.  Chanee makes sure they are well fed, returned to health and found a mate.

Rehabilitating them into the forest however, is often not a choice.  Deforestation is already depriving them of their natural habitat.  The only thing that Chanee can give them is a safe sanctuary where they can still swing and jump about with their long arms and be as wild as they can get.
(Desi Anwar:  First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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