From the lens of a veterinarian: The white-bearded gibbon


Veterinarian and wildlife photographer spotlights his encounters with this swift, curious primate

There is another fascinating primate in Borneo to talk about before I get back to the orangutans: the fleet, poetry-in-motion, white-bearded gibbon (also known as the Bornean agile or southern gibbon).

Even though they are protected by Indonesian law, and included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITEs), logging, mining, and palm tree plantations have seriously impinged on their range in southern Borneo. As if that is not enough, there is the pet trade, forest fires due to drought and global warming, and subsistence hunting of them for bushmeat.

Because of this, they are losing the battle for survival as a species and are listed as an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This explains why I did not see them while traveling to and from Camp Leakey on the klotok, like I did the macaques, proboscis monkeys, and occasional orangutan.

This is the 2012 model of that gibbon, still hanging around.

This is the 2012 model of that gibbon, still hanging around.

The first time I saw a gibbon it was hanging around (literally) at Camp Leakey in 1991. As cute and cuddly as they looked, we were warned never to attempt to touch one. They are much faster and more powerful than we are and with their vicious bite, can inflict a serious wound that is easily compounded by the humidity in the jungle and a lack of medical care. We all wisely heeded the warning.

I could not resist taking my chances to get a photo when I saw this unique angle.

I could not resist taking my chances to get a photo when I saw this unique angle.

I find gibbons mesmerizing; they are like a ballerina and an Olympic gymnast rolled into one athlete. They speed through the rainforest upper canopy in graceful and almost effortless motion, using long arms and legs, in a technique called brachiation. It is so smooth and fast they seem to be flying. Word has it that they can cover up to 45 ft in one leap, and can move at over 30 mph through the canopy.

This video I took in 2012 at Camp Leakey shows just a few seconds of brachiation to give you feel for it. Imagine walking through the jungle watching them do this all around you.

Gibbons spend most of their time in the upper canopy, brachiating from tree to tree in search of their main diet of fruit, supplemented with leaves and occasional insects. When they do come to the ground it is only a for few moments, and they are soon shimmying back to the top of the canopy. They can go 20 ft straight up a tree trunk with no branches in a few seconds.

They would wait in the trees around the platform for their opportunity to pounce.

They were so fast I never got a picture of them jumping from a tree onto the feeding platform, and had to be content with them checking out the food once they were already on the platform.

They were keenly aware of me as I pointed my telephoto lens at them.

Despite being almost solely an arboreal animal, they can walk on their 2 hind legs with their arms raised in the air. This is in stark contrast to the orangutans that walk on their knuckles and the palmar surfaces of their front hands in a more quadruped motion.

Gibbons are one of the more vocal primates, especially as the sun rises and just after the cicadids finish their morning chorus. Both sexes engage in a whooping type of duet that is heard throughout the rainforest. We heard these sounds in the early morning as we rested in our hammocks under a tree with a sleeping orangutan far above us. We (including our eagle-eyed Dayak guides) never saw the gibbons making these sounds, a testament to how far this sound resonates.

Due to the thickness of the rainforest, along with their swiftness, they seemed to appear in camp like an apparition. They stayed more out of curiosity than anything, since they never attempted to pilfer our food or take our belongings like the orangutans did ceaselessly. They seemed content to sway from some branch or building and just observe us. What a treat, to have a truly wild animal, and being a primate an animal we relate to, look into your eyes from only a few feet away.

It was while sneaking some food from the orangutans at the feeding platforms that the gibbons were most entertaining. They waited in the trees around the platform until the orangutans were distracted by the park rangers feeding them. This was their signal to jump down onto the feeding platform from their tree and grab a handful of bananas.

On the feeding platform they would walk on their rear legs with their front arms up in the air when they had bananas they were pilfering from the orangutans. Resourceful and opportunistic they were.

With hands filled with bananas they would run on their back legs to the edge of the platform where they first landed, and with an explosive launch covering well over 20 ft, land on a vertical tree trunk and run up the tree. Getting these photos was a photographic challenge, the kind of challenge I like, since I am an action photographer.

Soon after the “stare down” they were off running to the edge of the feeding platform.

I was determined not to miss the takeoff from the feeding platform like I did with the landing moments earlier. This is the final step before going airborne.

With a final thrust and swing of the arms they were off.

You need to move that lens fast from left to right to stay with them and keep the focus locked on. This skill takes time and practice to learn.

At 12 pictures every second (called frames per second) my camera only captured 3-4 frames of the takeoff and landing, a testament to how fast they are.

This video features a yelling sound in the background from a park ranger announcing that lunch was being served.

For the next several articles, I will focus on the orangutans at the feeding platform. You will get to meet the whole cast of characters.

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