A home so near, yet so far

After years of being nurtured by their parents, young hoolock gibbons get the boot one day

June 26, 2021 04:33 pm | Updated 04:33 pm IST

Lurking on the margins, the hoolock gibbon is careful to remain out of sight of the father. Photo: Wiki Commons

Lurking on the margins, the hoolock gibbon is careful to remain out of sight of the father. Photo: Wiki Commons

The hoolock gibbon father didn’t want his son around anymore. In the forests of Jeypore-Dehing, Assam, the older black-furred male shook bamboo stems while croaking menacingly, sending the subadult fleeing. Kashmira Kakati couldn’t help being amused and feeling sorry at the same time. It was time the young primate set off and made his way into the world. The blonde mother paid no heed to her son’s predicament, focusing her attention on the younger offspring. The parents were not being hard-hearted. This was their way of ensuring grown sons didn’t take over their territory in the future or mate with their mothers.


Hoolock gibbon couples stay within the strict confines of their arboreal territory, howling in chorus when defending their trees and strengthening their bonds. Adult males may rarely sneak into neighbouring territories to check out a fruiting tree. The females and their dependent offspring don’t step out of their turf. “They are glued as a family, eating and sleeping together,” says Kakati.

Raised within a tight-knit group, the young male wasn’t familiar with the world outside his home.

“He had nowhere to go nor did he know any other gibbons besides his family,” says the researcher.

Afraid of leaving the comfort of the family home, he lurked on the margins, careful to remain out of sight of his father.

“He kept popping up here and there,” says Kakati. “I was sad for him, unwanted by his own family.”

One afternoon, the scientist, who had been observing the parents, suddenly discovered the young male primate and his little brother had disappeared. She scanned the canopy but couldn’t find them. Had a predator taken them? Had that been the case, she would have heard the panicky calls of the mother and father. What could have happened to the brothers? Unperturbed, the older gibbons continued to feast on ripe figs. Had they not noticed the missing baby? Perhaps there was nothing to worry about, or maybe they didn’t care. The researcher packed up her knapsack in the evening with rising disquiet.

And then...

Early the next morning, Kakati returned to the site for another day of fieldwork. She spied the missing youngsters making their way through the canopy. While the little fellow reunited with his mother and clung to her belly, the older one stopped at a distance. The researcher realised the almost full-grown gibbon hadn’t been able to face another night of sleeping alone and had kidnapped his brother to keep him company. The parents knew what had happened and weren’t concerned by their disappearance. Even if they thought little of the incident, the scientist was relieved that the young primates were fine.

Kakati had one more reason to be disturbed for subadult gibbons getting the boot. Territorial vacancies occur when an adult male or female dies. In small patches of forest such as Jeypore-Dehing, youngsters kicked out by their parents are doomed since such openings are rare. In large tracts, however, they stand a better chance.

After years of nurturing their young, do the parents brace themselves for the separation? Are they sorry for their bewildered offspring? It’s hard to say.

“Dispersal is interesting but difficult to study,” says the researcher. “It’s heart-wrenching to see the subadults being terrified. They don’t want to leave and keep coming back.”

Kakati also gathered data from a different part of the forest where another hoolock gibbon couple was trying to convince their grown daughter to move on. Although the parents weren’t as forceful in their efforts, the young hoolock was still compelled to lie low. Instead of kidnapping a sibling, the lonely primate preferred hanging out with the researcher, who was collecting samples of plants. Any company was preferable to none.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.

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