Oh, Phuket, the dream destination for strolls on white sandy beaches lapped by the Andaman Sea, attempting new watersports, and drifting through lazy days by the pool. That is until one of your children falls over, needs three stitches in his chin, and has to avoid water for several days. Oh.
Fortunately for the land-bound, Phuket is also the home to one of the most fantastic animal conservation projects in Thailand.
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, in Thalang, has been working since 1992 to rescue, rehabilitate and, where possible, release gibbons rescued from the tourist industry and illegal captivity. The Project, which is funded entirely by donations and staffed by volunteers, also has a strong educational mission, seeking to educate local communities and tourists about the illegal trade in wildlife and the importance of environmental protection. The volunteer staff on duty are passionate about the cause and are incredibly knowledgeable about the history and work of the project and about the resident gibbons.
The Project base itself is small but perfectly formed: a visitor centre with an abundance of information; a gift shop stocked with gorgeous gibbon themed t-shirts, crafts and gifts, many handmade locally, sold to raise funds for the Project’s work; and the main attraction – the gibbons!
The aim of the project is to rehabilitate and release the rescued gibbons and, between 2002 and 2013 they released 31 gibbons into the protected forest of the Khao Pra Theaw non-hunting area. Even better than that, 11 wild-born gibbons were born in the reintroduction site during that period.
However, there are a few individual gibbons, non-native species or those badly affected by the injuries or trauma sustained in captivity, which cannot be released. There are also a few residents which call the project home after release attempts failed when they repeatedly returned. These long-term residents live on-site in fantastic forest enclosures, visible to visitors but kept at a sufficient distance to allow them to live as naturally as possible. This provides the visitor with the opportunity to see these beautiful animals in their natural habitat without them being exploited or harmed.
The boys instantly fell in love with one of the most vocal residents, called Gibby. A Golden-cheeked gibbon donated to the Project in 2008, Gibby was in the enclosure closest to the information centre when we visited and she provided endless entertainment with her distinctive loud singing and acrobatic demonstrations. Gibby definitely knew how to play to the crowd! The Project shop sold locally hand-made soft toys which were too hard to resist, and we somehow left with two life-sized Gibbys… However, as every penny goes back into the Project’s conservation work, it was well worth the small cost and the slight embarrassment at the amused looks of passers-by and airport staff on our return home!
The GRP is now working on a new release site in Chiang Mai due to limitations of space at the Phuket site. Whilst it’s great news that the Project is so successful in its rescue and rehabilitation work that it requires more release sites, it’s sad that the demand for their work continues unabated, as a result of the on-going use of gibbons in the tourist industry.
If you’re looking for something to do away from the beach in Phuket, you won’t be disappointed by a visit to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project. More information about the work of the project and their fundraising, including their gibbon adoption programme can be found at www.gibbonproject.org