To the rescue of the animals
Story & pictures BY TOM COCKREM
Saturday August 14, 2004

The most beautiful creature in the whole wide world has adopted me as a friend. He whimpers if I walk past him in his cage, leaps wildly on me when he’s out, clinging to my shirt; then bounds off up a tree, shows off by climbing high, and  whoosh  he’s back now on my neck. Each leap is preceded by a plaintive little cry. 

“Ngo-Kong, Ngo-Kong!” I bark as he skips naughtily away to the outdoor dining table and jumps up for a lychee. In a jiffy he’s in his tree again, lychee getting peeled. How, my God, can I bring myself to return him to his cage? To do so makes me bleed.

I am a guest at the Wild Animal Rescue Foundation of Thailand in Ranong, 568kms from Bangkok. There are some 50 animals here  mostly gibbons and macaques. All need real friendship and care. Some have been orphaned  their mothers shot by poachers. Some have been chained up in bars for the amusement of the patrons. Others have endured untold horrors in laboratories. White-handed gibbon “Lucky” was rescued from a bird cage, so small her legs grew gnarled and bent.

There is tragedy here, as well as heroism, sacrifice and hope. Sure, there have been some failures  like when two gibbons paired off all but tore each other apart. But there have also been the triumphs. At least 20 gibbons have been released back into the wild. Ten are known to have successfully bred. 

The foundation, which calls itself “WARF” (www.warthai.org), runs virtually by itself. There is no government funding, no official sponsorship, no big-time publicity or promotion. Everyone is a volunteer. Yet it has managed to establish four big working centres  including the one here at Ranong and another in Phuket. They take all comers. Amongst them is a leopard that was bought at Bangkok’s Weekend Market, a kite burnt in a fire, a porcupine that was left under an expressway in Bangkok and two slow loris that were destined to be smuggled overseas.

The very hands-on secretary-general is Pornpen Payakkaporn. She has an office in Bangkok, which serves also as a shelter, for part of her task is to rescue animals from public markets  those tragic little orphans sold illegally as pets.
 
The centre lies some 80km south of the town of Ranong, in the province of the same name. It is the ideal locality for a refuge, lying about half way down Thailand’s southern peninsula. The Andaman Sea coastline here is a labyrinth of mangrove-shrouded estuaries and islands. Myanmar is a short boat ride away. On the landed side are forest-covered hills. They roll endlessly  well, seemingly  away into the mist. 

“There are plenty of wild deer there,” says Preecha Sornserm who met me at the airport. “Civets, clouded leopards and even tigers. It’s the perfect place for releasing the animals.”

Preecha is a character-and-a-half  laid-back, personable and witty, he lives and breathes his work. One of his many projects is making artificial island sanctuaries, surrounded by moats. They serve as stepping stones for gibbons with some chance of returning to the wild.
“They are going OK,” says Preecha with a whimsical smile. “Only in the last dry season the water got too low, and the gibbons all escaped. We had to catch them all and put them back  a very difficult job.” 

On my arrival at the centre, I was surprised to be greeted by an Australian  a super-positive and cheery young chap named Matthew. And yes, he is a volunteer. One of his pet projects is to re-establish the once large numbers of green and leatherback turtles that now nest, but rarely, on nearby Paklong beach. He was meant to stay for six months, and it’s now been nine, and still he doesn’t want to leave. No-one wants him to leave.

“It’s gonna be hard to drag myself away,” says Matthew, who is actually based in WAR’s Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in Phuket. “When I do, I’ll have to just keep coming back to catch up with my friends.”

“We don’t want to lose him,” says Pornpen. “He’ll be very difficult to replace I think impossible.”

There also to greet me was Bam-Bam, a baby orphaned white-handed gibbon. He was bound for Phuket. He had us in hysterics as he romped crazily about with his cuddly turtle toy. No way he’d give it up.

Ranong’s fabulous forest intrudes into the centre. So the animals are all but in the wild. Their enclosures are mostly huge  further tribute to the workers here, who make them on the spot.

Relishing to the utmost their spacious accommodation are messieurs Joon and Ja-ae. They are two white-cheeked gibbon brothers, probably smuggled into Thailand from Laos. They branchiate at constant breakneck speed, stopping only for a song. This is the famous gibbon territorial call, and it’s done here in unison. You get a slow and steady wind-up, before all hell breaks loose with an ear-splitting staccato wail. Poor bow-legged Lucky has been listening in, and has herself been inspired to have a go. And yes, we do get a gibbon call  albeit a fuzzy broken one. But for hapless Lucky that is great!

Feeding happens twice a day  at around 8am and 2pm. This brings more antics and fun. Three white-handeds and one crowned gibbon  all youngsters  are allowed out of their cage. One found my shoulder a convenient first step to the nosh. I certainly didn’t mind.
Adding to the centre’s charm is the village it adjoins  Baan Talae Nork. Here congeniality rules. The foundation has already contributed a schoolhouse and a teacher. It now plans to set the village up for eco-tourism. This will bring valuable income to the villagers themselves and help promote environmental awareness. The message it seems is already getting through.

“More abuse cases are being reported to authorities,” says Pornpen. “Policing has also improved, and there are now more prosecutions. I think we are having an impact.”

In the short term at least, this means many more animals coming into the centre. More enclosures are desperately needed, more medicine and food, scientific equipment and staff. That means more funds. There is one way for everyone to help  come and see the centre, and stay as a visitor or volunteer. Little Ngo-Kong and his many friends will love you if you do. W
 
·  The Phuket “Gibbon Rehabilitation Project” sanctuary is in the Khao Phra Thaew Wildlife & Forest Reserve at the Bang Pae Waterfall. It welcomes day visitors.



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