I am in Central Kalimantan to meet Chanee, the Gibbon Guy. He’s a slim man in his early thirties with a boyish face and a neatly brushed mop of brown hair, and he doesn’t look like someone who has spent the last 14 years living in the jungle with gibbons. He’s French. His real name is Aurelien Brule, which is a bit of a mouthful for anyone other than the French, so when he visited Thailand to see gibbons in the wild for the first time, the Thai called him Chanee, their word for gibbon. The name has stuck ever since.
Chanee is taking me to his camp, a gibbon sanctuary near the Pararawen National Park in Central Kalimantan. The camp is called Kalaweit, after the local word for gibbon. Back when he was only 18 years old, Jakarta was burning, a regime was changing, nobody paid him much attention, but Aurelien only had one thing in his mind: to save and protect the gibbons. After calling the Forestry Ministry every day for a year, the Indonesian government finally gave him permission to set up his gibbon foundation, the first of its kind.
It is evening when we reach the camp. I am able to take in the dark outlines of the trees beneath a black sky sprinkled with a million stars and the constant humming sound of the night insects. A small dirt path takes us to a wooden building where our supper awaits us, lit by lamps powered by a generator providing electricity for three hours in the evening. Our bedroom sleeps two or three people on mattresses. We have taken Chanee’s advice and brought mosquito nets. The mosquitoes here can give you malaria.
I practice my French with Chanee but it’s easier to talk in Bahasa, which he speaks fluently after fourteen years of mingling with everyone, from the Betawi family who took him on when he was homeless while waiting for his permit, to the local boys who now feed and look after the gibbons.
After dark, I toss and turn in my sleeping bag as I listen to the night noises. Some time before dawn I’m woken up by the strangest mixture of sounds, howls, yelps, hoots, whoops and a bunch of ear piercing wails like a siren or an alarm that go on and on, each time getting louder and more cacophonous. The gibbons are awake. All 131 of them in cages within the camp forest.
Gibbons have fascinated Chanee all his life. When he was 12, while other boys played football, he spent his afternoon studying gibbons at a local zoo. When he was 16 he published a book all about gibbons, which gave him some recognition and attracted a French celebrity who wanted his dreams to come true: to see gibbons in the wild.
I told him he must have been a gibbon in his previous life. I’ve never met anyone so focused on what he wanted to do that he actually dropped out of university to live in a place a million miles away from home. But his home is where the gibbons are. Currently there are around a hundred thousand in Indonesia but that number is dwindling as they are rapidly losing their home.
Unlike other apes that can live and forage on the ground or be fed by humans, gibbons need tall trees to survive. Otherwise, they are vulnerable to human diseases and to each other. Gibbons are very territorial and a family, consisting of a monogamous pair and their offspring, needs a lot of space to itself. A solitary gibbon is likely to be attacked and killed.
But their biggest enemies are humans, who kill the adults, steal the babies and sell them to people as playthings, who then abuse and then abandon them when they mature and become dangerous. Most of the gibbons in Kalaweit camp came in poor conditions, with human diseases and traumatized behavior. Chanee makes sure they are well fed, returned to health and that they find a mate.
Rehabilitating them into the forest however, is often not a choice. Deforestation is already depriving them of their natural habitat. The only thing that Chanee can give them is a safe sanctuary where they can still swing about with their long arms and be as wild as possible.
Desi Anwar is a senior anchor at Metro TV. She can be contacted at desianwar.com and dailyavocado.net.