In mid-summer of 1995, a young man who was working as a security guard at our (then) home in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, returned from a short trip to his homeland in Stung Treng. With him he brought an infant gibbon that he claimed to have bought from the man who had captured it. He said that since my wife, Mieko and I did not have any children, the gibbon could be our child. He then asked me to pay him the $20 it had cost him to buy the creature.
Needless to say, I was infuriated with the young man. I knew that these animals were endangered and I knew that for every infant that makes it into captivity, at least 10 mothers and infants die. The only way to “capture” an infant gibbon is to shoot the mother out of the tree. If the same lethal bullet doesn’t kill both, then very often the infant dies as a result from the fall out of the tree.
In the middle of my tirade, I picked the gibbon up off the floor. The little creature’s body was no larger than my hand. It was emaciated, dehydrated and covered with feces. It had an infected wound on its scalp, and with its only remaining strength, it clung to my bare chest and tried to suckle on my breast. That was it. I was now responsible, and he had earned the name Samnang,which means “lucky.”
After a few more months in Phnom Penh, where Samnang quickly recovered his health on a diet of “doctored” infant formula every four hours (day and night),we moved ourselves to Takhmau.
Infant gibbons stay very close to their mothers for about 4 years. The first year or so, the infant tries its best to stay in direct body-to-body contact with the mother. It will only leave the mother for a few minutes to go exploring on its own,but always stays within arm’s reach. As my chest was bigger and hairier than Mieko’s, the role of mother could only be filled by me. Thus, everywhere I went for almost six full months, Samnang had to go. Separation was traumatic for both of us. He rode around on my shoulders all day long. He slept in bed with Mieko and me. If I took a walk, he went with me. If I went to market, he had to too.
By the end of that first year with us, Samnang had become a superstar in Takhmau. He was now old enough to wander around the village brachiating from tree to tree, and the neighbors treated him very much like just another village child, albeit a mischievous and sometimes not very bright child. People would come from all around to sit on the ground and watch his antics overhead in the trees. His favorite game for the longest time was to drop through the branches of a very tall tree, and at the terminal stage of the free fall,reach out and take hold of a tree limb. The limb would bend down and at the end of the bend, Samnang would reach out and steal people’s hats right off their heads. The tree limb would act as a sort of “bungee”rope and propel him back up and out of range of the fastest hands in the blink of an eye.
We strung a thick rope from our bedroom window to a large mango tree about 10 meters away. One of our neighbors, Dr. Thy, put up a rope from his house to another tree on the border of our land. With this highway in place, Samnang could travel from house to house and more easily entertain Dr.Thy’s patients, who Dr.Thy claimed to be getting well faster because of all the laughter that Samnang caused around the place.
I was now able to sneak away in the morning to go to work, since Samnang would wake up and immediately leave the bedroom to search for breakfast and find children to play with during the day. But when I would come home, as soon as he heard my Jeep pull into the yard, he would come swinging through the trees and along the ropes to drop onto my shoulders from 5 meters up.
As Samnang began to mature, he became less and less dependent upon us. He foraged throughout the village for fruit, leaves and insects. People took to leaving pieces of fruit around their homes for Samnang to come and take. But in time, his instincts began to dominate.
In the wild, gibbons stay in small family groups. Unlike any other primate,they are monogamous and mate for life. They are notoriously fussy about choosing a mate and will often roam the forests for years as a bachelor or bachelorette before settling. In their family groups they often control more than 200 acres of land, and Samnang was quickly extending his territory beyond the confines of our immediate neighbors. He was also becoming very independent. At one time, he would return home from wherever he was and whatever he was doing with just a whistle. He was growing up to the point where he came home only when he wanted to, or if I physically went to where he was and carried him home.
Time changes everything. Eventually, Samnang was wandering too far from home and in an entirely bad direction — towards civilization. In the latter part of 1997, we had to put Samnang into a Gibbonarium.
Samnang is now about 6 years old and is beginning to change color very quickly, a sign of maturity in male gibbons. He is still very affectionate and if I walk around the gibbonarium, he assumes the same position across my shoulders that he did as an infant, but for the most part, our relationship is now even more on his terms. I may go into the gibbonarium and lay in a hammock for many hours, but during that time Samnang only stops by for a quick hug or a game of “tickle me”— seems all primates like to get tickled.
By Jon Morgan.