1. How can you get a gibbon to take his medicine?

2. What do you do with twin baby gibbons?

3. What’s the connection between palm oil and gibbons? 

These are just a few of the questions we asked and answered at the conference that IPPL Executive Director Shirley McGreal and I attended last week. The friendly staff at the Natural Science Center of Greensboro, North Carolina, hosted the First International Gibbon Husbandry Conference. Nearly 70 gibbon enthusiasts came from as far away as India, Australia, and Japan (as well as California, New York, and of course South Carolina!). We met to talk about the plight of gibbons and the wild and how best to care for them in captivity.

The gibbon gang at the Greensboro conference

Gibbon caregivers and fieldworkers from across the U.S. and around the world met in Greensboro, NC, last week.


The silent auction raised $1,400 for overseas gibbon conservation. Conference organizers will be sending the funds to The Silvery Gibbon Project (associated with the Perth Zoo in Australia), which assists a variety of gibbon rescue and conservation groups. Shirley had the winning bid on this lovely piece of art created by Jin, a white-cheeked gibbon living at the Toledo Zoo.


A painting by Jin.
A painting by Jin, a white-cheeked gibbon at the Toledo Zoo, which Shirley won at the silent auction. Proceeds will benefit the Silvery Gibbon Project.


And here’s some of what we learned:

1.  There is more than one way to trick a gibbon. You can train gibbons, using positive reinforcement techniques, to accept liquids like Gatorade—with meds mixed in—via a syringe (no needle, of course!). You can put pills into a pill grinder or break open capsules and mix the powder into something tasty like soy yogurt. You can opt for the less-nasty-tasting of several medications, if possible. Or you can cut up a pill into the smallest possible pieces and stick each one inside a raisin; some greedy gibbons will wolf down the whole thing and never know the difference. The IPPL gibbons are pretty savvy about detecting meds in their food, though. The latest trick that has worked well for us here at IPPL is a Jello sandwich, made by smushing meds dissolved in thick Jello between pieces of whole-grain bread.

2.  Give mom a hand. Dr. Warren Brockelman, a conference attendee who has carried out field studies of gibbon behavior and ecology for decades, has never seen a twin birth in wild gibbons. But, in captivity, twins and even triplets are not unheard of. However, the burden of nursing two demanding infants can be a challenge for any gibbon mom. We learned that supplemental formula feedings from caregivers can be a big help.

3.  Gibbons suffer even more than orangutans. Vast swaths of prime forest habitat in Malaysia and Indonesia have been mowed down for oil palm plantations, especially in the last decade. Palm oil and its derivatives are found in processed foods like cookies and crackers as well as many commercial applications, from shampoo to biofuel. The orangutan has been the poster child for primates (and other wildlife) displaced by this devastating loss of habitat—but we learned that gibbons are even worse off than orangutans when their forest homes are destroyed. Gibbons (unlike their large-bodied ape cousins) almost never come to ground in nature. When they are forced to because of forest fragmentation, their more sensitive immune systems are even more susceptible to picking up diseases and parasites from terrestrial sources.

Wish you could have been there? Have a look at the conference Web site for an overview.



  1. Anne Garrison on June 25, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    Hi! I am a principal at an elementary school in NC. This year our learning theme is focused around the Rainforest. I am trying to find a poster of a silvery gibbon and the golden lion tamarin. Can you help me to find somewhere that has these?
    THANKS! any information you have will be helpful!

    • Sharon on June 25, 2012 at 2:42 pm

      Hello Anne,
      For the golden lion tamarin, I see that you can buy nice posters at the CafePress Web site. If you’re looking for something free, I wonder if the people at the National Zoo’s Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Project would be able to provide visual resources aimed at teachers.
      The silvery gibbon is harder. However, if you adopt one of the animals at the Silvery Gibbon Project, you get a lovely packet that can include a 8.5×11 glossy picture of your chosen adoptee. Or maybe the nice people at the Natural Science Center of Greensboro can help; their silvery gibbons (also known as Javan gibbons) are new to the scene there, but maybe they’ll have posters available soon–or at least they might be able to offer more suggestions (and they’re in your home state, too!).
      Hope this gets you started! Anyone else have suggestions?