The last gibbon

The last gibbon

Guest post by Kashmira Kakati

When you hear a gibbon call, time stands still and flies past. When that ‘song’ tumbles around the forest mists, it is hard to tell which is the call and which, the echo. It comes from the deep jungles of aeons ago, and hearing it is like having an ear to infinity, a bit like looking at the stars.

A wild female hoolock gibbon up in the rainforest canopy (Photo: A Christy Williams)

In my dreams, the sound of the rainforest always comes to me in this, the call of the gibbon. If there was a sound that had to stand for everything truly wild and free, this would be it. It is also a love song. We now know a lot about our sub-continent’s only ape, the hoolock gibbon—found only in northeast India, south of the Brahmaputra, and the adjoining forests of Bangladesh and Myanmar. There are so few left that they count, regrettably, among the world’s top 25 most endangered primates. We know that they are among the few mammals that pair monogamously, often for life; that they give birth every two years or so and the young live with their parents for almost 8 years, learning the ropes of survival in the high canopy of the rain forest. There is no other animal as agile or gracile as the gibbon in that lofty world. We know that each gibbon family defends a small territory, not by violence, but by singing! We also know that they eat a lot of different kinds of forest fruit, but that they need some leaf as well. Then, there is a lot more that we do not know.

Six kilometers from Margherita in Upper Assam is a Singpho village called Inthong or the village of a “thousand houses”. In the 1960s though, Inthong didn’t actually have a thousand houses. It was just a settlement of 10-20 households surrounded by forests, and what seemed like hundreds of howling gibbons. The young Singpho men even tracked tigers in these forests.

We had driven out to Inthong from my camp at Digboi—not to sample its unique, organically grown phalap or Singpho tea—but to see a half-wild, half-pet hoolock gibbon called Kolia, the Black One. She may be nearly 30 years old. Kolia’s guardian is a gentleman by the name of Bhupeshwar Ningda. From the verandah of his traditional Singpho chang-ghar, Ningda calls out to Kolia. In a trice, out of the betelnut tree, swinging hand over hand on the rafters and rope-walking on the railing, comes Kolia. We are thrilled. In so many years of studying gibbons, this is only the second time I am within touching distance of one. (The first time was when a sudden monsoon shower sent me scurrying for shelter under a tangle of lianas beneath a stately hollong tree in the Borajan forest. The wild female I was following apparently had the same idea. Hearing a noise just above my head, I looked up at the same time she looked down at me. My heart missed several beats. I looked away, and so did she. I don’t know how long we sat there behind that liana curtain, within 3 feet of each other. It may have been minutes, it felt like enchanted hours. Until, as abruptly as it had started, the rain stopped, and we resumed our roles as the observer and the subject.)

Kolia, the last gibbon (Photo: Kashmira Kakati)

Kolia. Ningda remembers the day—but is not sure of the year—when his dog caught the young gibbon as she scrambled along his garden fence behind her parents. Ningda rushed to her rescue and handed her back to her mother. He named her Kolia, because she had the jet black coat of young gibbons. What a surprise he must have had then, when about 8-10 years later, she started turning golden as female gibbons do when approaching adulthood. It was too late to change her name and he still believes, erroneously, that she is male—but that is not important to the plot. Anyway, to continue the strange story, Ningda says that after the dog incident, the gibbon family started staying in the patch of forest around his homestead more often. They were among two or three groups of gibbons that lived there.

This forest patch, formerly part of the Upper Dehing Reserve Forest (East Block), was separated from it when the Powai Bongaon (Forest Village) was set down in that area around 1960. In just over two decades most of the gibbons would disappear, in a familiar but unacknowledged sequence of circumstances that took place all across northeast India. The official term is forest fragmentation—when forests become progressively smaller and isolated from one another by the hand of man. The effective term is death sentence—for the isolated forest, and everything in it, as the incredibly complex system that is a living forest breaks down and ceases to function.

Intricate and complex, the rainforests are now threatened by fragmentation and disturbance (Photo: A. Christy Williams)

By 1995, Kolia had lost both her parents and she was the last gibbon left in the Inthong forest patch. Ningda started putting out bananas for the lonely orphan. She started approaching the house closer than she ever had, seemingly for the bananas, but possibly just for the company of another living being. I’ve seen wild sub-adult gibbons exhibit separation anxieties, lasting months, when the time comes to leave the family and strike out on their own until they find a partner. It has been 14 years this year that Kolia has not seen another of her own species. Her social contact is with Ningda and his large family. She takes food from their hands, and she will groom their heads. She often holds the mirror on the verandah and peers intently into it, trying to touch that familiar animal on the other side. Maybe she understands it is just a reflection. I hope the high intelligence of her species fails her and that she doesn’t understand.

Mostly, she is safe. But sometimes, school boys pelt her with stones. One time, poachers shot at her, taking off a finger. And another time a man approached Ningda, offering him money for Kolia’s heart, which he said he’d grind into good medicine. Such is the nature of the human beast.

When she hooted, we laughed, amused. But it was a song without any context. In the wild, from up on high, she would have been singing a duet with her mate once in the late morning. She would have been singing to celebrate her ‘married’ status, to guard her territory for her family. At Inthong, Kolia would launch into crazed hoots every time someone prompted her. As everyone laughed at the antics of the funny ‘monkey’, I suddenly recognized that she was demented. It was there in her eyes, and from that slightly open, down-turned mouth. I have watched wild gibbon eyes for hours on end, for months together. They are curious, intelligent eyes. Or playful, indulgent eyes. Sometimes they can be angry or annoyed or fearful eyes; and sometimes just sleepy, lazy eyes. They shine. They used to first warily, then calmly, directly, watch me back. But Kolia’s brown eyes were empty. Her eyes wouldn’t meet mine. Inside them were two bottomless pools holding all the loneliness of the world, all the burden of being alive when everyone you knew and loved, or could love, has gone.

On the drive out, a tremendous April cloudburst surged down the car windows and brought to me an old memory of a story. It was called the ‘The Fog Horn’, by Ray Bradbury. It told of an ancient sea monster that emerges from the bottom of the sea, answering the call of a lighthouse’s fog horn on a cold, misty night; clutching desperately to a shred of hope that another of its kind was finally calling to it. As it approaches, the frightened keeper switches off the foghorn. The monster is first confused by the silence, then enraged by it. In the anguish and fury of a hope lost forever, it cries out and lashes at the lighthouse, destroying the unbearable untruth. Bradbury sends it back to the depths of the sea, never to be seen again, to wait another million years for the merciful death that would release it from its intolerable existence. Kolia has all the gentleness of her species, none of the fury of the monster. But her call is the lonely monster’s call is the echo of the foghorn blowing:

…whoever hears it will weep in their souls,

whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity…

Note: Hoolock gibbon populations continue to decline across its range, leaving many Kolias calling hopefully, hopelessly, from the tattered, disappearing patches that were once their soaring, vine-tangled forest abodes. In the worst of these forest fragments, they no longer call.

7 Replies to “The last gibbon”

  1. Thank you…. I am going to read this to my kids at schI ool…it rings true and that appeals to the young and unspoiled.
    Thank you

  2. Very touching. The feeling I got while reading this account, was the same as reading “The Fog Horn”. While we are concerned about the species being endangered as a whole, it is so painful to think about the loneliness of that peaceful and persecuted individual, Kolia. All the best with your work.

  3. “I hope the high intelligence of her species fails her and that she doesn’t understand”. Sad, but beautiful narrative. Felt helpless! Broke my heart!

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