When The Gibbons Took Flight From Above – Khao Yai National Park

Khao Yai National Park – A UNESCO World Heritage Site Near Bangkok

Khao Yai National Park - A UNESCO World Heritage Site near Bangkok.

When we first visited Khao Yai National Park few years back, we decided that this will be the “de facto” destination to escape the scorching heat during the traditional Thai New Year (SongKran). Its dense foliage and towering canopies provided for a much needed refuge from the merciless heat.

A UNESCO World Heritage site and Thailand’s oldest protected reserve, Khao Yai National Park is a 3 hours drive from Bangkok. Over the years, the park has developed into one of the most important research sites for large mammals and birds. It is also Thailand’s third largest evergreen tropical rainforest where locals head out for a good hiking adventure spotting wildlife every now and then.

This time, we were trudging through the thickness of the jungle on moisture laden grounds due to a massive downpour the previous night. Kids in tow, the thigh high white fabric leech protection socks purchased last minute at Khao Yai National Park entrance were the only armour we have had in defense against what seemingly looked like a “leech apocalypse” trail hike ahead of us.

The economically friendly leech socks proved its worth and with lots of bravado, we hiked through the jungle. We took on slippery hilly terrains, climbing over fallen trees, negotiating grounds with weeds and dangling vines, spotting fresh bear paw prints up on a tree bark and colliding paths with exotic plants and mushrooms.

When The Gibbons Took Flight From Above

When the gibbon took flight from above us- Khao Yai National Park
A white handed gibbon taking flight from above us at “Mo Sing To” trail at Khao Yai National Park

It begun with an abrupt crackling sound then a series of “whoosh” and “swoosh” which we initially mistook for a massive hornbill that could be taking flight from above. Under the sunlight, the silhouette of the creature was difficult to discern at first glance. As it inched closer from above, it became imminent that we were face to face with a pair wild white handed gibbons.

Both cloaked in buff creamy white fur and black faces encircled with a ring of white hair, the white handed wild gibbons are renowned for their swift acrobatic techniques- crossing rivers and vast openings in jungles. Classified as endangered primate species in the gibbon family, they are capable of flying up to 40m in mid-air, and leaping through long distances and are considered among the swiftest of all primates.

With habitats in the upper tree canopy, they were never thought to descend anywhere near to the forest floor. With lots of luck, We had a good 10-12 minutes marveling at their impressive acrobatic feats as they brachiate from tree after tree. So fast and steady in their momentum that they barely touched a branch as they swung to the next.

Masters of agility and possessing an innate sense of balance, these forest trapeze artistes are prone to occasional bone fractures once in a while. Either caused by an accidental lost of grip or a branch snapping off when they swung from great heights. Gibbons are important contributors to the forest ecosystem. As fruit eaters, they stimulate plants growth by replenishing habitats in the form of seed dispersals through their feces.

Protecting Gibbons Protects The Forests In Return But Not Without Complexities

Khao Yai National Park teams up with a group of researches to study the behavioral patterns of the white handed gibbons with the aim of gaining visibility to the overarching health and dynamics of Thailand’s forests.

The initiative led to tree mapping of the gibbons’ key habitat in Khao Yai – Mo Sing To. Using ForestGeo technology, comprising of a global network data of forests research sites and scientists, researchers were able to monitor growth of trees and animal species. The park mapped out the forest plot by placing specific markers on the forest floors while identifying every tree type and species with a tag. This allowed the research team to follow a family of gibbons where their behaviors, diet, activities and mating patterns could be systematically tracked and recorded.

According to Thai National Parks there are about 15,000 – 20,000 white handed gibbons and as few as 10 in China, if any.

Particularly across Asia, the white handed gibbons face the constant threat of extinction as a result of poaching to facilitate exotic pet trades. Extensive forest clearance for commercial developments such as agriculture, palm oil cultivation, road constructions, tourism and new village settlements exacerbate the threat. According to the The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (GRP), a research division of The Wild Animal Rescue Foundation of Thailand (WARF), the gibbons’ natural habitats are being destroyed at an alarming rate of 32 acres per minute!

The construction of roads and new village settlements in protected areas, very unfortunately turned out to provide occasional easy access for poachers to target the gibbons. Adult gibbons are usually killed before poachers held the young gibbons captive for pet trades.

Local NGOs and a handful of funded initiatives in Thailand work to rescue captured and sick gibbons in Thailand. Their rehabilitation facilities enable captive raised, injured and/or sick primates to be gradually re-introduced back into the wild. However, the road to success is often a long winding road as it requires intricate plannings, resources and close monitoring in every step of the process, all of which requires adequate fundings.

Re-Introducing Rehabilitated Gibbons Back To Their Forest Homes Are A Long Winding Road To Success

White handed gibbons are generally monogamous. Like humans, they pair up with a potential mate and raise their off-springs together until they are mature and ready to move on to build families of their own.

Reintroducing rehabilitated gibbons back into the forests require them to be paired and preferably, to produce offsprings before they are even considered for release. This is to enable optimum survival of the species and provide incentives for the adult gibbons to stay put instead of wandering off and abandoning their new forest homes.

Producing offsprings successfully is an important marker of the gibbons’ mental state of health. Traumatized adult gibbons as a result of malnutrition and/or abuses during their captivity days as infants, leading to lost of reproduction abilities are not uncommon.

The physical health of the gibbons is yet another important factor. They need to be physically fit to move through the forest canopies and to forage for food. Healthy adult gibbons are more capable of raising their young during those formative years to ensure the continued survival in their offsprings.

There are also many other conditions to consider when it comes to the locations where the rehabilitated gibbons can be released. Their new homes must fulfill the conditions as natural habitats for gibbons such as spacious forest plots with dense canopies and sufficient food sources for the primates to forage. It should also be free from human settlements and protected by strict law that prohibit poaching, forest clearances and commercial developments.

Consistent monitoring and a year of food provisions are required to support the gibbons while they try to adapt in their new forest homes.

A rare sighting from above as the white handed gibbon move from tree to tree

White handed gibbons that currently reside within or along the boundaries of national parks and protected reserves anywhere else in the world are offered some form of protection. However, unless these protected areas are highly supervised and laws are strictly enforced to protect their habitats and safety, we might be seeing the last of these beautiful primates where their survivals, most often than not are key indicators of forest health and sustainability.

Education, Awareness And Taking Actions Will Pave The Road Towards Sustainability

Nestled within close proximity to Khao Yai National Park, The Howling Gibbon Outdoor Education Centre offers a safe and nurturing environment for residential based outdoor education.

Led by an experienced team of educators and outdoor specialists, The Howling Gibbon Outdoor Education Center offers a variety of programs to empower children across all age groups to learn and explore outside classroom settings, grow through challenges and adventures and to take action for positive change to our environment.

Field Studies – Extending classroom learnings in outdoor settings, the program empowers children across different age groups to develop deeper understanding of the world around them through field studies and environmental education courses spanning across different disciplines like biology, geography, environmental studies and tourism.

A group of students identifying river invertebrates in Khao Yai! They found river crabs, dragonfly eggs, mayfly nymphs, pagoda snails and damselfly nymphs! (Photo Courtesy Of The Howling Gibbon Outdoor Education Center)
Bushcraft is a way of learning new skills and to be able to cooperate as a team solving problems together. (Photo Courtesy Of The Howling Gibbon Outdoor Education Center)

Outdoor Adventure – From kayaking, jungle trekking, rafts building, campfire crafts in the form of organized and supervised team building activities, the program helps young people to garner new skills and to grow through challenges and adventures together as a team.

A well planned outdoor education center stretches beyond organizing activities for children. They inspire the younger generation through education, awareness and taking the lead to implement positive actions, paving the way for long term sustainability. (Photo Courtesy Of The Howling Gibbon Outdoor Education Center)

Service Learning – In collaboration with local charities and organizations, community projects like tree plantings, caring for rescued elephants, supporting conservation efforts, renovating schools and community buildings spur young people towards action and making a difference through positive change in the process.

While existing NGOs and funded projects to save and protect are important; education, awareness and taking real actions will go a long way to prevent the extinction of endangered species and paving the road for long term sustainability.

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