The Gibbon: An Amazing Ape!

As I walk through the gates of the the Santa Clarita Gibbon Conservation Center (GCC), I catch a blur of rapid movement in the distance. Heading towards the action, I can just barely make out the long arms and fast moving body of a captive gibbon, swinging speedily from branch to branch within its enclosure.  I had done a bit of research on gibbons before our scheduled tour and learned that gibbons, like the chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan, are apes, not monkeys. If ever faced with the question: ape or monkey, you can resolve the query by taking a peak at a primate’s hind quarters. If there is no tail present, then the primate is likely an ape.  With 20 species divided into for genera, gibbons are the most diverse group of any apes. Although all apes are threatened, some of the gibbon species are presently on the brink of extinction.  Facilities like the GCC provide safe and caring environments for some of the rarest group of apes in the Western Hemisphere.

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U Mynt Swe, Eastern Hillock Gibbon. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Currently, the GCC is home to 41 gibbons spanning five different species.  Located in the Santa Clarita Valley, temperatures at the GCC can reach into the hundreds. During our visit, the morning is cool and foggy, and the gibbons who have finished breakfast are eager to interact with us.  Our small group of four is greeted by a cheerful woman who warmly welcomes us. She introduces herself as Gabi Skollar, director of the Gibbon Conservation Center. A native Hungarian, Gabi tells me that she has dedicated the last twelve years of her life to caring for captive gibbons at the GCC. She lives in a tiny transportable home within the encampment; and while her house is smaller than some people’s washrooms, it has been well cared for and is surrounded by a multitude of rocks and succulents that she has collected over the years. Staying onsite allows Gabi to give the gibbons around the clock attention whenever they need it while offering her the unique experience of living among the gibbons.

Our tour continues through the facilities, where Gabi informs us that gibbons are well known for being the “song birds”of the apes. According to her, gibbons sing up to three times a day. Before the information could really sink in, I catch the soprano melody of the first singing gibbon calling out to 40 others. Varied in pitch and tone, gibbon’s songs are unlike anything my ears have ever heard.  Within minutes of entering the GCC, the air is flooded with a choir of low hums and high-pitched chants that build into a symphonic masterpiece, striking the chords of my heart.  Holding back tears, I stand still and allow their music to envelope me. A gibbon’s song is loud and impressive, and, as Gabi articulates, a single song can be heard at a distance of up to two miles away. Gibbons use these songs to mark territories, ward off predators, and to call out to the start of a new day.  Each species of Gibbon has its own unique vocalization, and while partnered males and females of the same species often sing duets, their harmonies are quite different from one another.

Click to View a Video of Gibbon’s Early Morning Song

Marlow the Siamang Gibbon (left) and U Mynt Swe the Eastern Hillock Gibbon (right). Photo credit: Sandor Havasi

Marlow the Siamang Gibbon (left) and U Mynt Swe the Eastern Hillock Gibbon (right). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

For mates, Marlow, a Siamang gibbon, and U Mynt Swe, an Eastern Hoolock gibbon, their species division changes the pitch, tone, and style of their singing. Gabi explains that as two distinct species, Marlow and U Mynt Swe cannot copy one another’s song, and are incapable of vocalizing in the same language, so one can only postulate about whether they understand what the other is saying. this news drums up a pang of sadness within me. I turn to Marlow, who is munching enthusiastically on a large kale leaf, not yet ready to join the other singers. As she finishes her meal, I notice a large, round pocket inflating in her throat.  She locks eyes with U Mynt Swe, who has been singing for the last two minutes, and compliments his high-pitched crooning with her own deep, throaty song.  It is a spine-tingling experience to observe a gibbon’s throat expanding and filling with air before producing a deep humming resonance that sounds a bit like the hum that comes from blowing air into a large empty bottle. Siamang gibbons like Marlow, are the loudest land mammals on earth.  Both male and the female Siamong gibbons have gular sacks, a throat pocket which allows them the greatest range in their song of any gibbon. Other gular sacked gibbons include the Northern White-Cheeked gibbons, whose throat pockets are reserved for the male population only. As we move on to visit the other gibbon species, we discover that when Marlow is tired, she inflates her gular sack and uses it like a pillow. What a wonderfully convenient addition to her anatomical form!

Howard, a Baby Plieated Gibbon. Photo Provided By: Gibbon Conservation Center

Howard, a Baby Plieated Gibbon. Photo Provided By: Gibbon Conservation Center

Though they are bipedal mammals (bipedal means that one has the ability to walk on two feet), gibbons spend the majority of their lives high up in the trees. The anatomical structure of their shoulders and their highly extendable arms help make them some of the world’s best acrobats, and it is not uncommon to see them spinning wildly among the branches.  In their natural habitats, wild gibbons propel themselves through the dense forests of Southern Asia through a process known as brachiating. Brachiating, or the swinging movement from branch to branch, requires elongated arms, curved fingers, and strong, rotating wrists. At GCC, gibbons also brachiate energetically throughout the many branches spread across their spacious enclosures.  Elevated in the trees of the Asia’s many jungles, wild gibbons can move at speeds of up to 35 mph and can be found as high as 200 feet above ground.

All in the Family: Javan Gibbons

While exploring GCC, I cannot help but notice that gibbons act a lot like humans. From their movements and posture to their facial expressions and behavior, the resemblance at times is uncanny. This shouldn’t really surprise me, as the Chimpanzee, another ape, has recently been revealed as the closest mammal (genetically speaking) to humans. As we approach the Javan gibbon enclosure, Gabi tells me a story that further affirms my position. After raising five children together, the staff at GCC noticed that mates, Shelby (male) and Chole (female), were spending time on opposite sides of their enclosure, with little to no interaction between them. Having grown apart, GCC staff believed it best to separate Shelby and Chloe and offer them the opportunity to find new mates. Though gibbons are monogamous, meaning they live with one partner at a time, they are not limited to one partner in a lifetime. Hoping to find Shelby a new and exciting partner, staff members introduced him to Khusus, a Javan gibbon just a few paces away from the place that Shelby and Chole once called home. Khusus, who had a son from a previous paring, is actually Chloe’s cousin, so when Shelby revealed his interests in Chloe’s cousin, he kept things pretty close to home. Ever the gentleman, Shelby adopted Khusus’ son, and together, the couple had two children of their own.  Following the birth of their second offspring, GCC staff detected that the energy levels of Khusus and an ageing Shelby were quite dissimilar. Shelby was removed from their shared enclosure and given time to allow his progressive arthritis and diabetes to be regulated.  He is now being cared for near the Center’s main office, where his conditions are monitored, while Khusus is raising their children.  To me, their story seems like the kind of thing you would find on a television soap opera.

Gibbons are amongst the scarcest primates in the wild and many of their species are on the verge of extinction. With only 25 individuals left, the Hainan gibbon is one of the rarest mammals in the entire world.  Currently, the biggest threats to gibbons in the wild include deforestation, escalating change in the climate worldwide, and poaching for pet trade, food, and medicinal purposes in Vietnam and China.

Northern White-Cheeked Gibbon. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Northern White-Cheeked Gibbon. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

How the Gibbon Conservation Center Makes a Difference

According to Gabi, the GCC uses their knowledge and experience to improve the lives of captive gibbons by assisting and advising zoos and rescue centers in better captive management. They offer consultation, caregiver training, and enclosure design and construction services free of charge, to zoos, and gibbon rescue centers throughout the world.

Each year, they provide educational tours for veterinarians, anthropology students, graduate students, K-12 school children, scout troops, and animal lovers of all ages. Additionally, the GCC encourages noninvasive behavioral studies to increase public knowledge and understanding of gibbons, both captive and wild. The GCC also works with its international partners to maintain healthy stable bloodlines for five endangered gibbon species. The northern white-cheeked gibbons are down to less than 1,000 in the wild. Thankfully, they are a part of the GCC’s successful captive breeding program, so the work is being done to help rehabilitate dwindling populations.

What You Can Do

Understanding these magical creatures whose habitat is threatened by deforestation and human activity is imperative. Learn more about gibbons by visiting www.gibboncenter.org and if you are ever in the Southern California region, set up a tour.

Tours & Events

PUBLIC TOURS: The Gibbon Conservation Center is open to the public every Saturday and Sunday morning from 9:30 a.m. to noon (except for rainy days and holidays). No reservations are required. A tour is given at 10:00 in the morning. Admission: $15 (adults); $12 (Teens and Students); $10 (seniors); $5 (children 6-12); $0 (Children under 5). Checks, cash, and credit cards are accepted. No need to Book for the Public Tours! Just come and enjoy! See you at 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

PRIVATE TOURS: Private tours can be arranged for any day of the week, in advance, for a minimum charge of $120 (covering 8 people). For information and scheduling, contact us directly. See contact information below.

Contact Information for the Santa Clarita Gibbon Conservation Center

Physical address: 19100 Esguerra Road, Santa Clarita, CA 91390

Mailing address: PO Box 800249, Santa Clarita, CA 91380

Direct line: 661-296-2737

E-mail address: Info@gibboncenter.org

Our Group in Front of Gabi's Beautiful Home (from left to right: Jeannette Ban, Hwee Tin Ban, Marilyn Fordney, Gabi Skollar, Lola West (rear)). Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi.

Our Group in Front of Gabi’s Beautiful Home (from left to right: Jeannette Ban, Hwee Tin Ban, Marilyn Fordney, Gabi Skollar, Lola West (rear)). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

 

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