If Jeremy and I were a pair of newly discovered northern buffed-cheek gibbons, I’d wear silky blond fur and he’d have a full-body coat of black and sport thick, off-white sideburns. To start our day, we’d climb to the highest rooftop in our neighborhood. Then, as loudly as we could, we’d sing a call-and-response to each other that would echo for miles. Hearing our beautiful chorus, you might think we were declaring our undying love. But you’d be dangerously wrong. Our loud, aggressive song marks our turf, and we’re warning you to keep out.
Found in the jungles of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and southern China, these rare, territorial gibbons face increasing human threats, including a loss of habitat due to extensive deforestation. There are few left in the world. In a remote corner of northeastern Cambodia, we heard a northern buffed-cheek gibbon duet – eerie, mournful and beautiful – and then spent a morning following five of these graceful apes. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We headed to the jungle of the Veun Sai-Siem Pang Conservation Area to take photographs for Conservation International (CI). After ten hours in a public minivan, one car trip over bumpy roads, a river crossing by longboat and an adrenaline-filled ride on the back of motorbikes, we arrived at CI’s research station.
The research station houses local support staff, international scientists and Cambodian forest rangers who are working to study gibbons and other threatened species in the area and to stop illegal hunting and logging. Far off the grid and outfitted with basic necessities, the station has no refrigerator or air conditioning. Electricity is provided by a generator for a few hours each night.
During our two-night stay, we slept outside in knock-off US Army hammocks with attached mosquito nets. Actually, we didn't get much sleep. The jungle screeched with noise. Crickets provided a constant buzz, geckos barked an "uh-Oh, uh-Oh" sound that echoed through the trees, and branches snapped as animals scampered through the undergrowth.
The scientists we worked with, Jackson Frechette and Santiago Cassalett, don't seem to mind the station's lack of modern amenities or their wild, occasionally poisonous jungle neighbors. In fact, they loved it and were extremely enthusiastic about their work.
Jackson, a PhD candidate from the University of Florida, is focusing his research on how gibbons act as “seed dispersal agents” in the jungle. Translation? He’s studying poop. By collecting data on the fruit gibbons eat and what happens to the undigested seeds they poop onto the forest floor, Jackson hopes to determine if gibbons are impacting forest growth. He spends nearly every day tracking gibbons and yes, sifting through their poop. He was happy to let us tag along.
At 4:30 am, we joined Jackson and his team to trek more than an hour into the jungle. Despite the pitch black night, Jackson set a fast pace to ensure we wouldn’t miss the gibbons’ song. For researchers, this song serves as a critical locator beacon. Without it, they’d have little chance of finding the gibbons, who remain silent for the rest of the day.
We hurried to keep up, wading through mud and stumbling over tree roots. We also silently worried about stepping on a snake – Jackson and Santi had seen a deadly green pit viper the day before. But, this didn’t slow them down, so we tried not to think about it. Around 5:40 am, we heard the gibbons’ unique song, which lasted for nearly 10 minutes. Then the jungle went quiet.
Scrambling through thick undergrowth and thorny vines, Jackson and Santi moved quickly, pausing only to listen. Eventually, we heard what sounded like a sudden gust of wind through the trees and stopped. With my head craned as far back as it could go, I spotted a large, blond-colored female gibbon with a tiny baby clinging to her stomach. In trees nearby, her two juvenile sons snacked on leaves. Her mate wandered ahead. When the female leaped high over our heads, Jeremy and I both gasped. She was stunning.
We followed the troop as they swung from tree branch to tree branch, stopping along the way to snack on fruit and leaves.
Jackson and Santi took notes on the gibbons’ behavior every 10 minutes or so, marked locations in hand-held GPS units, and dug through fresh piles of poop to find and count seeds. Then, they superglued long strands of fishing line to each slimy, digested data point. The next day, they’d return to see how far dung beetles and other insects had moved the seeds on the forest floor.
This troop of gibbons has been habitated to humans, and they completely ignored us. In fact, I turned a corner and saw the large adult male sitting on a low branch within 20 feet of me. Despite my sudden appearance, he continued to nonchalantly survey his surroundings. Eventually, he reached out his disproportionately long arms and swung away.
In awe, we watched the gibbons for hours, and we felt incredibly lucky to spend so much time with them. We’d hate to see these majestic creatures disappear.