Silchar: The tragic death of two Eastern Hoolock Gibbons near the Assam-Bangladesh border has once again highlighted the everyday dangers faced by India’s only ape in its quest for survival.

On Friday, two Eastern Hoolock Gibbons were electrocuted and another injured after they came in contact with a high-voltage live wire in southern Assam’s Karimganj district. According to sources, the incident took place in Mokamtilla near the India-Bangladesh international border, about 88km from Silchar, around 10:30 am on Friday.

The injured Gibbon was nursed to health and then released into the forest, Patharkandi forest ranger Manoj Kumar Das said. 

Were the Gibbons smuggled into the area? Maybe not 

The Eastern Hoolock Gibbons belong to the Hylobatidae family and usually live up to 25 years. Males are generally black while females are grey. Gibbons are bigger compared to monkeys, and they have a unique lifestyle. Gibbons are the only apes in India. They are classified as small apes because they are smaller than gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans.  

Talking about gibbons, Das said these animals move through brachiating. This explained how they were found lying unconscious near a tree. Unlike monkeys and great apes, gibbons spend almost all their time on trees, which is one reason why a reduction in forest cover endangers them much more than, say, monkeys or langurs, who spend a lot of time on the ground too. 

Talking about what can be done to help gibbons move around safely in their habitat, Das pointed to Assam’s Mariani district. “A special bridge has been built over a railway line for the smooth movement of gibbons. We need more such initiative to save these beautiful creatures,” Das said.

District forest officer (DFO) Vasanthan B said the gibbons found in Patharkandi are usually found in Northeast India, eastern Bangladesh, Myanmar and a few other countries. 

“We are not sure from where the gibbons exactly came, but sadly, we lost two beautiful creatures. We managed to save one with the help of doctors. We will ensure better security arrangements for them in the future,” he said.

“Gibbons are found in this area, but the population is less. They keep roaming around the international border as they are found in India and Bangladesh. I don’t think these gibbons were kidnapped and brought here from anywhere else,” he said.

A section of locals, however, said they had never seen such creatures in Mokamtilla or its neighbouring areas before and suspect this is the handiwork of animal smugglers. However, given that gibbons like to inhabit dense forests and spend all their time on trees, it is possible that for locals, sighting these animals is unlikely to be easy. 

Das also confirmed that the region is a habitat for these primates. He added that BSF personnel have told them (forest officials) that they have seen the creatures many times over the past three years and the DFO has also confirmed that Hoolock gibbons are found near the Indo-Bangladesh international border. 

The ranger also said forest officials spotted another female Hoolock gibbon with a baby gibbon in her near the international border on Saturday after they went there for an inspection.

Habitat destruction more damaging than smuggling

Conservationist Mridu Pabon Phukon said habitat destruction is the reason behind the decline in the population of Hoolock gibbons in the Northeast. Poaching/hunting is also one of the factors for the decreasing number of the creatures, however, cases of these primates being rescued have not been high over the years, indicating that the decline in their numbers happened may not be because of smuggling, he said.

“Hoolock gibbons are ‘canopy dwellers’, and they spend all their time on trees and never come down on the ground. Their life is affected severely if trees, their habitat, are cut/destroyed,” said Phukon. 

Talking about poaching/hunting, Phukon said gibbons are hunted for their meat and superstition among various tribes. In many tribes in the Northeast, it is believed that hunting (sacrificing) Hoolock Gibbons is auspicious after women get pregnant, he said.

Asked about conservation efforts in the Northeast to save Hoolock gibbons, he said the region needs to focus more on finding ways for the conservation of gibbons. He hailed the Assam government for taking the initiative of naming a sanctuary in Jorhat after Hoolock Gibbons. “The sanctuary – Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary – is the first wildlife sanctuary in India to be named after Hoolock Gibbons, and the state government deserves appreciation for this,” he said.

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