Imagine it’s about 4.30am and still pitch dark. Having gone to bed some time around 11pm the previous night, you have entered deep sleep when you are awoken by the sound of singing. But this is no ordinary singing. Notes that journalists have described as a soprano singing in an opera reverberate around the forests and hills and can be heard more than a kilometre away.
As you sit up in your bed in the dark, you can make out the shape of the notes: “hoo”, alternating with “wa”, “wowww” or “waooo”. The complex vocalization continues for anywhere between 10 – 30 minutes. If you step out of your room to find the source of these complex patterns of vocalisation that, to your ears, sounds very much like a song, you might not see anything. But the song continues to haunt you as the last bout ends just around dawn and the sun rises over a lush tropical forest in central Java.
What you’ve just heard is the Javan silvery gibbon (Hylobates moloch) and like most gibbons, the silvery gibbon spends much of its time high up in the forest canopies. Gibbons can be found in tropical and subtropical rainforests across Asia, from India, Bangladesh and China to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia (Sumatra, Borneo and Java). They are called “lesser apes” to distinguish them from the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, as well as humans), though like the great apes, they are tailless and can walk bipedally with their arms outstretched.
Gibbons have round faces and their fur is usually black, brown or a dark grey colour. They have distinctively long arms and wrists that allow “biaxial movement” – this means that when gibbons are brachiating from branch to branch, their wrists can dislocate naturally to enable remarkable locomotion. With this unusual and useful anatomical feature, gibbons can travel at speeds of up to 55km/h, covering a distance of 15m with each swing, making them the fastest and most agile of the tree dwelling mammals we know.
Most of the species are arboreal and diurnal, which means that the bulk of their singing – to declare territory, to declare pair-bonds – are finished by the time the sun rises after which they feed, defend their territory, mate and take care of their infants.
The silvery gibbon, endemic to the island of Java, is ranked among the most threatened primates and is listed as “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) List with less than 2,000 gibbons documented in the wild. Like many other species on the endangered list, habitat loss, the illegal trade in wildlife and unchecked human population growth are the main reasons for the decline in the Javan gibbon population.
Though experts have differing views on the subject, gibbons generally display pair-bonding, which means they are socially monogamous and tend to mate with one partner for life, with usually two offspring to a pair. This means that gibbons are also notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, though breeding pairs do currently exist in Indonesian wildlife rescue centres.
In February this year, I met Arif Setiawan, a graduate from the forestry department of Universitas Gadja Mada, who began thinking about ecology and the impact of habitat loss on Java’s primates in 2007, when he was still a student.
Over a traditional Javanese meal at a restaurant situated near the base of Mount Merapi in Central Java, we talked about how his interests in forestry and ecology led him to a nearly decade-long fascination with the Javan gibbon.
“Hearing the gibbon call before dawn is mesmerizing. But unlike the great apes, I didn’t find as much research on them. Spending time in the field was very inspiring. If you live and work in the forest with the villagers and see that biodiversity everyday, you feel the interconnection. It changes you. I didn’t learn that in university, I experienced it in the field,” he explained.
Having trained under Indonesian conservation heavyweights like Jatna Supriatna, Arif and a small group of friends were keen to do more for the owa jawa (its Indonesian name) and established the Primate Study Club in Yogyakarta.
The offshoot of the Club’s field research was the Coffee & Primate Conservation Project (CPCP), which began focusing on the Javan gibbon. The bulk of the gibbon population lives in 15 locales, largely concentrated in west Java. 3 are national parks and five are “strict nature reserves”, which means that the remaining 7 locales are “unprotected”. Half of the remaining population of Javan gibbons live in the wild in these dangerously unprotected forest areas that are experiencing gradual fragmentation and degradation.[i]
Arif and his team decided to focus on Sokokembang village in Petungkriono, Pekalongan Regency in central Java and with funding support from the Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Rufford Small Grants for Nature Conservation, Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo and Ostrava Zoo, the team took a multi-pronged approach, focusing on conservation (law enforcement improvement, monitoring population and patrolling to identify illegal wildlife traders), education (schools and universities) and working with farmers on growing diverse crop sustainably. They began documenting their work online at SwaraOwa, which means “gibbon voice” in Indonesian.
Instead of using Google Maps on our phone, I draw a long, snaking rendition of the island of Java in my notebook, which we then divide into thirds. He shows me that Petungkriono forest is situated just after the border separating west and central Java, near Dieng Mountain about 6 hours north of Yogyakarta.
“Central Java is dominated by plantations (tea, rubber, teak, tobacco etc.). Where we work sits on the final belt of rainforests in west Java,” he adds.
The locale is also significant because it provides insights into the easternmost range of the Javan gibbon population. It was, at least at first brush, a chance for forestry and primatology researchers to venture out into the field and do more to document an endemic, endangered species.
What they discovered though was a wonderful opportunity to connect biodiversity with sustainability for Sokokembang’s local villagers.
“We started doing camera trapping and sound recordings to document gibbon movements. But what we found is that the area is actually very rich in biodiversity. We’ve been able to document the presence of the Javan hawk eagle, the Javan slow loris, leaf monkeys and langurs. Most of these species are endangered but since it’s unprotected, there is a lot of wildlife hunting here.”
That was not all. The villagers in the regency are farmers who mainly grow rice and produce non-timber forest products. But they also grow coffee. A yearly harvest will yield about 50kg of green coffee beans per family. Though processing coffee can be a complex affair, the villagers have, over the years, improved their processing and packaging techniques.
The dots began connecting.
“We realised that for decades, villagers here have been growing coffee under the canopy of existing forests, which is the gibbon’s natural habitat,” Arif said.
I asked him if it was a sustainable enterprise for the farmers. He shook his head. At approximately IDR2000/kg (S$0.20) a packet, farmers were planting and harvesting coffee in an environmentally sustainable but economically unsound way.
“It just isn’t a form of income for them. So we began experimenting collaboratively to improve roasting and processing methods so that we could sell a small quantity to consumers beyond the village at IDR45,000/kg of green beans (S$4.50).”
The idea began taking shape in earnest. Small quantities could be packaged conscientiously as “wildlife friendly” coffee. Profit from the sales would go directly to the farmers and to gibbon habitat conservation work in the regency itself.
“So now we have a way to incentivize the coffee farmer to look at the forest and recognise that cutting trees without thinking reduces biodiversity and reducing biodiversity means that this opportunity to create an economically and environmentally sustainable form of livelihood is gone,” said Arif.
The team is also exploring ways to sustainably process brown sugar from the palm sugar trees that grow in the village. But bringing farmers on board cannot be achieved through environmental grandstanding and preaching. CPCP’s approach is grassroots and fieldwork-oriented, which is where Arif believes trust can be built and the greatest impact can be made.
“Magic happens in the field, but you need to surrender to chance. If you go with a plan and money, it doesn’t always work out. We’ve had a lot of great discussions with the farmers. But we don’t want to create the impression that we’ve come with a cash hand-out, or a free meal, in order to persuade them to attend the meeting. We want to share knowledge and collaborate. So we always think of ways to achieve this.” These are words of Arif Setiawan, a graduate from the forestry department of Universitas Gadja Mada, who began thinking about ecology and the impact of habitat loss on Java’s primates in 2007, when he was still a student.
I met Arif in Java where he and his team are working in Sokokembang on a Coffee and Primate Conservation Project. As part of the team’s project work in the field, small women’s groups were established in the village so that they could be trained on selecting the appropriate fruit from the coffee tree, through to sorting, processing and roasting. The possibilities are endless, though coffee production is new territory for the team and they are learning as they go.
“At Sokokembang village, we’ve been producing Robusta coffee and we’ve recently begun work in a village that is situated 1300m above sea level, where they are producing Arabica coffee.”
Though Robusta has high caffeine content, it isn’t as flavourful as other types. Arif is keen on working with the farmers to continue improving its quality so that shade-grown, gibbon-friendly coffee becomes a sustainable venture for the villagers and an enjoyable beverage for consumers on the other end.
“Our focus is to fund conservation and support the farmers. We’re working towards improving the quality so that we can, for example, sell our gibbon-friendly coffee in zoos around the world.”
Though upwardly mobile consumers are increasingly keen on purchasing fairtrade coffee, gibbon-friendly coffee could be a pioneering product. Imagine you’ve just seen a gibbon at a zoo for the first time, brachiating through the canopy. When you sit down for a cup of coffee after your visit, you may pause for thought if you know it comes from a forest where villagers are committed to their survival. Consumption and conservation are inextricably linked and shade-grown wildlife-friendly coffee could be a wonderful way to draw that connection for visitors and consumers alike.
There is great community pride in Sokokembang village. In a short educational video made by the team, a group of 5th and 6th graders confidently face the camera and introduce themselves before trailing off into giggles and laughter. But as each of them goes on to describe the river and forests that surround their village, their earnest narratives are complemented by the echoing song of gibbons in the mist-clad canopies and undulating hills that surround them. You get a moving glimpse into how much folk culture and identity is deeply embedded in the land where a community exists and how intuitively children connect with everything that surrounds them.
“I want to write a children’s story about gibbons,” Arif tells me, when I mention how much I liked the video.
The children may not be aware of the full-scale impact of what forest degradation and destruction entails, but it might be easier for them, rather than those of us who live in highly urbanized environments, to be motivated to pause for thought and understand what famed biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson once said:
“Now when you cut a forest, an Ancient Forest in particular, you are not just removing a lot of big trees and a few birds fluttering around in the canopy. You are removing or drastically imperilling a vast array of species even within a few square miles of you. The number of these species may go to tens of thousands. Many of them, the very smallest of them, are still unknown to science, and science has not yet discovered the key role undoubtedly played in the maintenance of that ecosystem, as in the case of fungi, microorganisms, and many of the insects.”[ii]
Arif knows that he has his work cut out for him and that there is a great deal more to be done to convince policymakers and law enforcement officials to protect these forests, while bringing the villagers on board. But as we finish our meal and he washes up to go for his evening prayers, he smiles optimistically.
“We have a long-standing relationship with primates. So what’s different now? Humans have been close to animals for tens of thousands of years. That history and that connection are there. To feel it, to remember it, you have to return to the forest.”
If the current degradation and the illegal pet trade continue unchecked, the IUCN estimates that there is a 50% chance gibbons will become extinct in the next 50 years. This is a startling and deeply disturbing prediction.
It is heartening to know that somewhere right now, in the Petungkriono forest near Dieng Mountain, the gibbons are swinging from branch to vine to branch, while an innocuous group of conservationists watch from their tree-house or village outposts far down below, committed to preserving their habitat.
Guest Writer: This article was written by Vinita Ramani, writer and co-founder of Access to Justice Asia, an NGO that has engaged in human rights and transitional justice work in Cambodia. She is currently working on a novel that touches on conflict, cultural identity and conservation.