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The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project
Just inside Khao Pra Taew National Park, between a hillside jungle and a gurgling stream, dozens of gibbons swing from branch to branch, filling the forest with boisterous hooting.
It seems like a happy sign of jungle life, but something is wrong with this picture. These animals are not roaming around free; instead, they live in cages near the park entrance as part of the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project. Most of these small apes were poached from jungles around Thailand and kept as pets or zoo and bar amusements. They were forced to perform shows, do tricks, drink beer, or get their pictures taken with tourists before they were rescued by this project. As a branch of the Wild Animal Rescue Foundation of Thailand, the center aims to rehabilitate the gibbons in their natural habitat, with the intention of releasing the animals into the wild (though some animals that were abused will never be able to live freely again).
The center holds more than 60 gibbons. They're kept in large cages, away from visitors. The idea is to purge them of their familiarity with people, although visitors can hear them in the distance and glimpse their playful leaps through the trees. All gibbons are named, and their life stories are posted at the center for tourists to read: Lamut and Pai Mei were working as tourist attractions at Patong Beach before their rescue. A baby, called Bam-Bam, was found in a cardboard box at a roadside. Saul, a young blonde male, is missing a patch of fur, which researchers think could be the result of bullets that grazed him when his mother was shot.
When new gibbons arrive at the center they get a complete medical checkup, including tests for HIV, hepatitis, and tuberculosis. It costs $700 a year to treat, feed, and house each animal, and although the center sits within the national park, it receives none of the $5 entrance fee. In fact, the center receives no funding from the Thai government—it survives on donations alone. For B1,500, the price of a good night out in Patong, visitors can "adopt" a gibbon for a year. If you're unable to make it out to the center, the website of the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (www. gibbonproject.org) has information on how to adopt a gibbon or make a donation.
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