The Wild

Lonely Hearts Club: The Hoolock Gibbon Story

How the handsome primate got stuck on the wrong side of the tracks

By Sustain Team

Ecologically speaking, human beings have taken far more than we have given to our planet. Sure, our quality of life has improved in the last few centuries, but the same cannot be said of our housemates or habitats: Forests are being cleared en masse, trash dumped in the ocean, and industrial agriculture is bleaching our ecosystems of diversity every day. This is the Big Picture, the future of which we are reminded by news channels, erratic weather patterns, and water crises that seem to intensify every year.

But few of us consider how our creature comforts effect animals on a day-to-day basis. Take the hoolock gibbon for example, a sub-species of ape found in the northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, and parts of Assam. It is one of seven primate species found in the Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary, and has been recorded in area since at least the 1800s, swinging from tree to tree, snacking on wild fruit, and dispersing seeds in the process.

When the reserve was created in 1881, it spanned an area of 206 hectares (a little over 500 acres) and extended into the state of Nagaland: A lush, contiguous evergreen forest that gave canopy-dwellers like the western hoolock gibbon plenty of room to roam and forage freely.

Six years later, in 1887, the British laid down a railway track through the area, connecting Assam with the rest of India, and splitting the sanctuary in half. The infrastructure opened up trade and communication lines to the region, making travel simpler for the humans, and the lives of animals like the gibbon considerably more difficult. Photo: Udayan Borthakur

In order to build the railway tracks, a large number of trees were cleared, creating a gap in the forest canopy. Without their beloved trees, the gibbons could not cross over to the other side. They were cut off from food sources and potential mates, forced to survive on what was available. Photo: Abhilash Kar

As civilisation mushroomed, sections of the Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary were de-reserved to accommodate villages, tea plantations, and roadways. Evergreen forest was cleared for manicured tea estates where animals were largely unwelcome, and occasionally hunted. Photo: Udayan Borthakur

As civilisation mushroomed, sections of the Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary were de-reserved to accommodate villages, tea plantations, and roadways. Evergreen forest was cleared for manicured tea estates where animals were largely unwelcome, and occasionally hunted. Photo: Udayan Borthakur

Not that the shy hoolock gibbon would venture near a place without a tree canopy. Hoolock gibbons are strictly arboreal, often spending weeks, sometimes months without descending to the forest floor. They eat fruit, insects, occasionally small birds, and pass time foraging, grooming, and looking after their young. There are 19 gibbon species in the world, two of which can be found in India: the western hoolock gibbon pictured in this photo story, and the eastern hoolock gibbon, which inhabits small pockets of forest in eastern Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Male and female western hoolock gibbons are similar in size, but dramatically different in colour. Males are black in colour, while females have pale, brown-blonde fur. Both are characterised by distinctive white markings on the face, which they develop as they age. Photo: Diganta Gogoi

Male and female western hoolock gibbons are similar in size, but dramatically different in colour. Males are black in colour, while females have pale, brown-blonde fur. Both are characterised by distinctive white markings on the face, which they develop as they age. Photo: Diganta Gogoi

Gibbons are a joy to watch in the wild, swinging from tree to tree with confidence, skill, and lightness, often covering vast distances with a single leap. This movement of arboreal locomotion is called brachiating, and western hoolock gibbons are spectacularly good at it. They have arms that are twice the length of their legs, and can reach speeds of over 50 kmph. Photo: Diganta Gogoi

Unfortunately for these gibbons, their habitats have become more and more fragmented, leaving them in pockets of forest that are isolated from each other. Instead of travelling to find mates, young adults are in-breeding, leading to weak offspring. “For these populations to maintain genetic viability, it is crucial that they access to each other,” explains Udayan Borthakur, a conservation geneticist and photographer. “It is essential for a healthy population of the species.” Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Thankfully, the gibbons have crusaders like Borthakur and his colleagues working for their survival. He is one of several conservationists at Aaranyak, an organisation dedicated to preserving the biodiversity of Northeast India, especially the primates of Assam. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Thankfully, the gibbons have crusaders like Borthakur and his colleagues working for their survival. He is one of several conservationists at Aaranyak, an organisation dedicated to preserving the biodiversity of Northeast India, especially the primates of Assam. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Among the organisation’s projects is planting trees along the railway tracks in Hollongapar, to create a corridor for the western hoolock gibbons to cross the tracks. The initiative began around 2003, with hundreds of indigenous fruit saplings, and pleas to locals and railway employees not to cut them down. Eventually, the trees on either side of the tracks grew enough to entwine their branches, creating a forest canopy above the railway line, and in July this year, newspapers across the country reported sightings of the first few western hoolock gibbons swinging across the railways tracks. One small swing for the handsome ape, and a giant leap for the species at large. Photo: Abhilash Kar

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