Ape returns to the wild - with lady love

June 8th, 2008 - 12:53 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sanjeeb Baruah
Guwahati, June 8 (IANS) A male hoolock gibbon wandered from the wild into a national park in Assam in search of a mate - and has now returned with her to his natural habitat. The first recorded case of a wild gibbon falling in love with a captive mate at the Kaziranga reserve has delighted wildlife experts.

Conservationists bade farewell in late May to the lone female gibbon they hand-raised at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) next to the Panbari forest in Kaziranga.

Now Siloni, who is the first gibbon to be rehabilitated in India, has joined her partner in the wild to start a family.

Hoolock gibbons are the species of the ape family found in India and are critically endangered, with only an estimated 4,500-5,000 left in the forests of northeast India where they live. Gibbons are protected by Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, the highest measure for protection of wildlife in the country.

“Siloni first met her partner, a good-looking male gibbon, after he sneaked into the centre to meet her,” says wildlife veterinarian Anjan Talukdar, who had been her surrogate parent.

The romance started some four months ago.

“He had been visiting the centre almost daily and we didn’t mind it. We knew this courtship (with the wild mate) would help some day when we finally release her,” says Talukdar.

Gibbons are careful in choosing partners. They are monogamous. Experts say in some cases they stay single after the death of a partner.

A gibbon family usually consists of two adults and one or two infants and an average group has two such families.

“This was a special union since one of them was in captivity. Gibbons are very picky about their partner, even when they are in the wild,” says Prabal Sarkar, a primatologist.

Siloni was less then a year old when she was rescued in February 2003 from Silonijan in Assam’s Golaghat district. Since then, she had been at the centre, some 300 km from Guwahati.

Her new home is a project to help distressed animals of the region. It was initiated by the NGOs the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in partnership with the state’s forest department.

“That fellow (the male gibbon) must have been waiting for a female for a long time,” says Jose Thanni of WTI.

“Their first touches through the mesh and meals together must have been a Tarzan-like experience for the male.

“But they are free at last,” said Thanni.

Gibbons, one of the smaller apes, have many distinct characteristics, which separate them from other apes such as chimpanzees and orangutans. They lack ear lobes and are territorial. Also they do not build nests.

They attain maturity in 8 to 10 years. A pair produces an average of five to six offspring in their reproductive life of 10 to 20 years.

“They mostly call out their distinctive hoots in the mornings. It serves to mark their territories and attract mates too,” said Sarkar. “They are arboreal and canopy dwellers and move mostly by brachiation (using their four long limbs almost equally), which is a special characteristic feature of hoolock gibbons.”

Their diet consists mainly of fruit, leaves and insects. Gibbons play an important role in the ecosystem. They help in forest regeneration by dispersing seeds of fruit trees, alert other animals of predators, and drop fruit when moving from tree to tree, which become the food source for other animals.

Gibbons are forest dependent species; hence their presence is an indicator of the health of the forest. Habitat loss is a major threat to their survival.

Some tribes in the northeast hunt gibbons for food, medicine, ornamentation, skin and bone. They are also trapped to be kept as pets and for sports. All these activities have threatened their existence, says Sarkar.

(Sanjeeb Baruah can be contacted at sanjeeb.b@ians.in)

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