The singing farmers of the forest

The only non-human ape found in our country is in danger


“. ..hoo…koo…hoo…koo…,” a song pierces through the thick canopy, breaking the silence of the forest. The singers, a male and a female, sitting on opposite branches of a tree performed a perfectly well-synchronised duet. Every morning the forest wakes up with the melody of their songs, more so during the summer. The song is unusually loud and can be heard even from a distance of five kilometers. Hoolock gibbons greet everyone who comes to visit them in these rainforests of the remote corner of northeastern India.

Their song carries a message and its meaning may vary among different listeners. To their own kinds, it means their home is protected and nobody should dare to come closer to it. To each other it reinforces their love, and for us, it tells that despite our efforts to silence them, they have still managed to survive.

Hoolock gibbons are one of our closest relatives and the only non-human ape found in our country. Besides India, they are also found in Myanmar, Bangladesh and China. In India, they are found in the forests located south of river Brahmaputra. There are other 16 odd species of gibbons, which are found in southeast Asia. They belong to a group called the lesser ape, named so because of their smaller body size compared to their big brothers, the great apes, which are gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo and orangutan.

The adult males are black, whereas the females are copper tan. Due to this colour variation, people often mistake them as two different species. Their babies are milky white and as they grow older, they keep changing their body colouration until they become completely black. Once they reach a sub-adult stage, however, the male remains black, while female continues to change her coat colour and transform completely into copper tan.

Unlike other monkeys, gibbons live in a small group of just 2-5 individuals, consisting of an adult male and female and their offspring. This type of social system is termed as monogamous because once they pair up, the couple remains together throughout their life. The older sub-adults are, however, forced to leave their parent’s home so that they can find a suitable mate and begin a new family.

They mostly feed on the fruits and use their flexible hands, which are proportionally longer than their feet, to reach out for the fruits, which are otherwise inaccessible to other animals. They move from one branch to another using these flexible hands. Such acrobatic movement is called brachiation which helps them to negotiate through the forest canopy with utmost efficiency and thus they are considered as the fastest canopy moving animals. Interestingly, they never come down on ground but do so, occasionally in case of a wide unmanageable gap in the canopy.

You must be wondering how they quench their thirst if they are never on ground. Well, they lick the leaves laden with morning dew, eat juicy fruits and often drink water from tree-holes with rainwater.

As they eat lots of fruits and move in the forest, they disperse the seeds through defecation. They are nature’s farmer and play an important role in the regeneration of the forest.

Unfortunately, only a few thousand of them are left in the wild today. We humans have destroyed most of their habitat.

Today, they are forced to live in these highly fragmented forests,devoid of their once favourite fruit, and their sleeping trees long gone. They are also killed by forest tribes mainly for food and body parts that are rumoured to cure diseases.

These singing farmers are sure to be silenced forever, unless we human beings overcome our selfish motives and let them live.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 21 November 2012.

Photo credit: Narayan Sharma