It’s been a day of wildlife here at Cat Tien.
Well, we’d already had some wildlife experiences, as we have a tame frog that lives in our bathroom. He may have startled me into expletives when he unexpectedly jumped onto my leg last night, but mostly since then he’s been content to peer out at us and jump around the walls every now and then. I have yet to name him.
Speaking of names, today we met a leopard named Lucy. And a bear named Lam. And a gibbon named Tony.
Lucy, I have to say, behaved in many respects like our neighbour’s cat Jessie, which sits on our wall in the sun and occasionally rubs her face on things. Of course, I feel much less threatened by Jessie. Lucy was rescued from Ho Chi Minh City where she was kept in a small cage; now she has her own jungle enclosure. Her keepers are teaching her to hunt by releasing live chickens and rabbits into her enclosure, and it’s a mark of the impact of my five days in Saigon that this idea did not bother me in the slightest. Lucy lives at the bear sanctuary in Cat Tien; her keepers don’t know how long it will take before she is able to be released into the wild.
If Lucy behaved like a large, deadly cat, then Lam reminded me of nothing more than the guard dogs we used to have at my old work. Lam is a male sun bear, who also lives at the bear sanctuary with five other sun bears, all of them female. A new male has come to the sanctuary; Lam and the females were quite happy playing together, but the new male has upset the balance and has to be kept in his cage just off the enclosure where Lam and the females spend their morning, so they can get used to one another. When we arrived, the two males were snarling at one another and making barking noises. The guide told us that Lam was a very friendly bear; when this was met with incredulous stares, he stuck his fingers through the cage and Lam ambled over and licked his fingers, seemingly quite at ease (also like the guard dogs at my work).
As well as the seven sun bears, the sanctuary has twenty-one black bears. The newer bears have to be kept in individual pens, from which they are released one at a time into a larger enclosure to get them used to the space. Most of them have been kept either for entertainment or for their bile.
The bears that have been there a bit longer are released into a larger forest enclosure of about one hectare. The black bears go in there in the morning, the sun bears in the afternoon. All of the bears are being rehabilitated so as to be eventually released into the wild. They are taught to look for food; before they go into the forest enclosure, the keeper hides food up the trunks of trees (to teach them to climb), in the artificial ponds (to teach them to look for fish), and in a rotating barrel with holes in the side (to teach them to reach their hands into gaps). When we arrived in the morning, some of the black bears were snoozing in trees and some were ambling around looking for food. While we watched, one of them climbed down and waded around in the pond. Only one bear stood by itself near the wall, rocking from side to side, looking at the doors back to its smaller cage. Our guide, whose English was limited, said it was younger than the others; I can only assume it wasn’t yet used to freedom.
After lunch, including some spring rolls which I personally think defeated the ones of two nights ago for the title of Best Of, we headed across the river to Dao Tien island, home of the Endangered Asian Species Trust’s primate rescue centre. Our guide was the very informative Steph, an Essex girl who is the centre’s education officer.
We had wandered past several large cages containing pairs of gibbons in phase one of their rehabilitation when a few drops of rain started to fall. By the time we reached a raised hut opposite the semi-free enclosure that represents phase two of gibbon rehabilitation, it was raining convincingly. Luckily, Steph was able to fill the hour or so that followed with more information about primates than I had ever learned before (including the difference between a monkey and an ape – I’m a beginner). Best of all, while she did so, we were able to watch a pair of adolescent gibbons play in the treetops. Most of the gibbons on the island have been kept as private pets and, in order to prepare them for release, they are not allowed to have any human contact at all. After a couple of months in the phase two enclosure, they are released into a 20-hectare forest enclosure to prepare them for the wild, and they’re not released until the staff are convinced they really know how to be gibbons. The last pair released took a year and a half in phase three, and only two gibbons can be in the enclosure at a time. Steph hopes the pair they’re preparing at the moment can be released by the beginning of the next rainy season, after a bit under a year in phase three.
As well as preparing gibbons (and pygmy loris, and sometimes other primate species if they’ve been rescued) for release, the centre also runs education programs in local schools. Until recently, these have evidently been mostly information-based. The program Steph is preparing at the moment is more values-based, and includes a debating compenent based around conservation, as well as teaching respect for animals. Even from our limited experience here this seems to be pretty key, since the Vietnamese man who is also staying here, and who has been going around to most of the same tours as us, has been routinely waving to the animals and shouting at them so they look round at his camera.
Some things I didn’t know about gibbons this morning. They’re a lesser ape, in the same family as, but not as evolved as, chimps and orangutans. They mate for life and change colour as they grow older: the infants are all gold, the juveniles are all black, and the adolescent females change back to gold as they begin to sing the female song (this is literal, not a euphemism – they really do sing a song). One family, consisting of male and female parents and any infants, occupy a space of up to eighty hectares and no other gibbons can live on their territory, though other species of primates may. They can contract human diseases.
For gibbons that have lived as pets, one major problem is Herpes simplex type-1 (coldsores). Gibbons catch these from their owners in the same ways that it’s spread between humans: from being kissed and from sharing food and cutlery. In gibbons, however, it can cause serious problems, including premature birth and miscarriage in females. Gibbons with herpes can never be released back into the wild, and places are found for them in sanctuaries, sometimes internationally. Of the twenty-odd gibbons at Dao Tien, seven have herpes.
Tony is an adolescent male gibbon and, so far, he hasn’t had much luck with the ladies. He’s onto his third potential wife. His second strike, Ellie, the keepers thought might work out, but she was a little older than him, and, as Steph explained, Ellie found she needed a man, not a boy. Tony could be the subject of a country song.
Our time on Dao Tien cost us a scant $15 each, and is possibly the most enjoyable hour we’ve had in Vietnam so far. I asked whether they have many volunteers, but because the centre’s only been going a couple of years the word doesn’t seem to have spread yet.
So: Jodie, do a google image search for a pygmy loris and tell me you don’t want to come over and rescue them. Martha, the education program needs classroom helpers (the program they’re developing at the moment has eighty students and two teachers). Everyone else: go to the website, spread the word.