Saving the Primates, Tying the Knot: Israeli Woman Volunteers in Thailand

“To see the gibbons meandering on their own, free in the forest, is the best part,” Noga Ruschin says as she kneels in the rain-forest jungle on the island of Phuket in southern Thailand. At the moment, the Israeli woman is just above the Gibbon Rehabilitation Center where she volunteers, waiting to watch a family of gibbons, the smallest of the primates, that was released to the forest five months ago. It has just rained and the temperature is 96 degrees, with 95 percent humidity.

“Here she is: This is Pompam, the mother,” Ruschin says enthusiastically. After a few minutes, son Yogi and daughter Sabai, young gibbons jumping with delight between the trees, come into view.

“They look great, they gained some weight,” she says. “Yesterday when we came to feed them we found they did not eat all their food, which means they can take care of themselves.”

Ruschin, 28, from Kfar Saba, has been living here together with her husband, Sam Legh, 26, from London, for almost a year.

“We met in Bolivia on another rehabilitation project. Sam worked with the puma, I worked with birds, and for some reason they put us in the same room. That’s how it all started,” she says.

“Then we decided to come here to Phuket to study about gibbons,” Legh interjects. “A few weeks after we got here, the project manager asked us what we thought about having a ‘gibbon-style’ wedding as a fund-raiser, and we said yes, as long as it would be a small event.”

It would have been difficult to get married in Israel because Legh isn’t Jewish. In any case, the couple’s “small wedding” soon became a huge media event, with a Reuters TV crew beaming the pictures to viewers around the world.

“Part of the reason to get married here was that gibbons are known for having monogamous relationships, and they mate for life. We hope to do the same thing,” Legh explains.

“And the gibbon family is totally feminist: Often the female is the leader, and I definitely like it,” Ruschin adds.

The Phuket project has about 70 gibbons, all of them from the tourist industry: In Thailand, handlers often approach tourists and offer to take their picture with a gibbon for money.

Many tourists find it cute, but Ruschin and Legh don’t seem to share that view.

“Most gibbons get here from a life of torture. They’re caught when they’re little, their parents are usually killed in front of their eyes and some are addicted to drugs,” Ruschin says. “Often they’re held in horrible conditions, sometimes in bird cages. That’s why it takes a very long time to rehabilitate them until they’re ready to be released to the jungle. Many people don’t understand why they have to be in cages, but this is the only way for them to learn in the beginning. Unfortunately, some of them will have to stay in cages all their life.”

The Phuket project is the only successful releasing project in the world for gibbons.

When a gibbon comes to the project it receives a medical check, undergoes blood tests for various diseases and is placed in a quarantine area. Before being released, the gibbons are put through a series of environments to encourage their natural behavior and provide them with an opportunity to eat natural foods and have a minimum of contact with humans.

Juvenile gibbons are put together, and adults have the opportunity to form pairs.

Staff members and volunteers on the project hold a weekly meeting where they decide which gibbons are ready to be released to the jungle.

The project, which is funded by donations, is managed by locals.

“Noga and Sam are doing a great job not only with the gibbons, but also in helping us to get the message across to people around the world,” says Suwit Punnadee, the veterinarian who runs the project.

After last December’s devastating southeast Asian tsunami, Ruschin and Legh joined a group of volunteers looking for bodies and cleaning damaged houses.

“Then we saw there were enough people who came to help, and the animals — as usual — were left alone, so we got back here,” Ruschin says.

“We need volunteers and money,” she adds. “Especially after the tsunami the number of tourists declined, and now we’re getting less donations and less volunteers.”

The couple is so passionate about gibbons that they were accepted into a graduate program in primate rehabilitation at the University of Oxford, even though they don’t have undergraduate degrees in the subject.

“Experience is crucial in this field, and we hope that after we complete our studies next year we’ll go somewhere and start our own rehabilitation project,” Ruschin says. “Gibbons are the smallest of the primates and the others — orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees — get all the attention, so I reckon we’ll stick to gibbons. There is so much to do.”

Details about how to adapt a gibbon, volunteer in the project or make a donation can be found at www.gibbonproject.org.

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