Pileated gibbons populations have been in decline since the 1980s. That is from logging and the illegal pet trade. Captive-raised gibbons don’t fare well in the wild. Someone in Phnom Penh keeps pet gibbons. They let them roam the neighborhood. One of them showed up at our reporter’s door for a visit. This article introduces the pileated gibbons of Cambodia.
The Pileated gibbons of Southeast Asia
The pileated gibbon is also called a capped or crown gibbon. They are lesser (small) apes with rounded heads, shaggy coats, a long torso, and long limbs. Pileated gibbons are native to eastern Thailand, western Cambodia, and southwest Laos.
In the wild, they prefer tropical deciduous forests that are moist and humid. They hang out in tall trees, usually in the mid to upper canopy.
Both males and females are the same size. Full-grown gibbons weigh around 6.5 to 10 kilos and stand between 44 to 45 cm tall.
Sexual dimorphism shows in their coloration. Males have short black coats with white hands, feet, and brow band. Females come in a range of colors from pale yellow to silver-grey. Both genders have a white circular streak around the crown and sides of their heads. This gives them the name “pileated,” which means “capped.”
Pileated gibbons live in pairs or family groups. Groups usually include an adult male, a female, and their offspring. Gibbons are monogamous, with life-long partnerships.
They live in the mid-canopy and swing from branch to branch with their long forearms. Doing so, they can reach speeds up to 35 mph (56 km/h). Although agile in trees, they can’t swim and avoid water.
On the ground, the walk upright on two legs, throwing their hands over their heads for balance. Scientists study them to try to learn what in evolution made humans walk upright.
The New England Primate Conservancy broke down their daily lifestyle habits.
- Resting: 37% of the day
- Feeding: 26%
- Grooming: 5%
- Calling / singing: 4%
- Playing: 3%
Illegal gibbon trade
Poachers catch gibbons by shooting the mother out of the trees. When she falls, they take the infant from her body. If the infant survives the fall, it takes a long, scary journey to a market in the city.
In 2017, researchers found markets across Southeast Asia advertising gibbons for sale. Oxford Brookes Professor Vincent Nijman said no one gets punished. Those who “come across a baby gibbon and have the option to capture it, they are motivated to do it. It represents money…”
Gibbons in Cambodia
Once, the forests of northern Cambodia were teeming with life. But over the past 45 years, the gibbon population declined by over 50%.
Logging, agro-industrial projects, and hydroelectric dams have decimated their territory. With less living space, poachers had an easier time capturing gibbons for the pet trade. Researchers estimate around 35,000 pileated gibbons still living in those northern forests.
The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre is around 25 miles south of Phnom Penh. Established in 1995, it is a government facility spread over 6,000 acres of protected forest.
There, Wildlife Alliance specialists care for 1,400 animals from over 100 species. These include Asian elephants, tigers, otters, and Pileated gibbons. All are either rescues from the illegal wildlife trade or victims of habitat loss. Without a place at this center, many would not be alive.
Gibbon rescue story
Storm is an infant pileated gibbon. She arrived at the Phnom Tamao Center in 2018. Her owner brought her to the center after she fell ill. Upon learning she was an endangered species, the owner gave her up.
Vets nursed Storm back to health. But she will never be able to go back to the wild. She has already imprinted on humans and shows human behaviors. For example, she mimics crying gestures, holds eye contact and smiles. In the wild, the latter two behaviors could get her killed.
Phnom Penh’s roaming gibbons
Planet Asia reporter Roddy Pepper is in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. One day he was having a smoke on his balcony. Suddenly, a creature sprinted across the power lines, waving its arms in the air. Roddy thought he was seeing things. A few days later, the strange creature returned.
“I heard it screaming, so I went out and looked over the edge of the balcony. He was one floor below, singing his song. I shouted out to him and he scrambled right up to me.” Thinking it was wild, Roddy didn’t let it get too close.
A few days, later, he found a thread on a Cambodia expat forum. Others had also spotted gibbons in the area, and taken pictures:
As the story goes, a local tycoon owns gibbons in the area. He lets them out sometimes to roam the neighborhood. They know the area and know how to return home each night.
A gibbon on Roddy Pepper’s balcony
When the gibbon appeared on Roddy Pepper’s balcony a second time, it was a more relaxing encounter. Roddy knew they were domesticated. “He showed no fear. But every time I got too close, he would run towards me. Then I’d run into the house and close the door.”
The gibbon was relaxed and did not seem bothered by Roddy’s presence. Thus, Roddy was able to get close enough to take photos and video.
Gibbon sings his song
Most non-human primates have primitive vocal abilities. Gibbons are an exception. They can combine a series of call notes into complex songs.
These are high-decibel messages meant to travel large distances through dense tropical vegetation. These messages serve to scare off outsider gibbons, advertise their pair bond or attract a mate.
Now that you’ve learned about gibbons, it’s time for a concert. This recording brought to you from Roddy Pepper’s Phnom Penh balcony.