A Trip To Sumatra To Hear a Gibbon's Call

The Gibbon, a smaller member of the primate family, is well-known for its long arms and hands. Its speed makes it difficult to see, but its distinctive call is easy to identify. A trip to the rainforests of Indonesia by plane from New York, followed by a crumbling 30-year-old propeller plane, and by foot finally yielded a call from the elusive gibbon.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now, we're going to take a walk through one of the warmer, stickier places on earth, the rainforest of Sumatra. Filmmaker Andrew Goldberg brought us this audio journey of his search for the illusive kind of ape called a gibbon.

Mr. ANDREW GOLDBERG (Filmmaker): Our trip to the rainforest of Indonesia started in New York and after several connections landed us in the city of Medan, the largest on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. GOLDBERG: From this crowded city of over two million people, we caught a flight on a crumbling, 30-year-old propeller plane with no door on the cockpit deep into the interior of the island, to the small village of Ketambe, complete with chickens and other animals roaming freely from home to home.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Mr. GOLDBERG: In the local schoolhouse, the children began to sing to us when they saw our recording equipment.

Unidentified Children: (Singing in foreign language).

Mr. GOLDBERG: To go into the rainforest from here, we could only proceed on foot. After a full day of walking deep into the rainforest, it struck me that we'd finally gotten away from not just the Western world and all of its anxieties, but also from all of the people. Where we were, my cell phone clearly read: No service.

Sitting and listening to the rainforest was calming, and holding perfectly still, we tried to identify as many different sounds as we could.

(Soundbite of rainforest)

Mr. GOLDBERG: At the end of the next day, we were determined to see a gibbon or at least hear one of their calls. Gibbons, which are smaller members of the primate family, are well known for their long arms and hands that they use to swing from branch to branch to branch as they race through the treetops. Their speed makes them difficult to see, but their distinctive call is easy to identify.

Unidentified Man #1: They have big tree there. They spend (unintelligible) sometime in the big tree.

Mr. GOLDBERG: To get from here to where the gibbons are, how many meters is it?

Unidentified Man #1: One kilo probably.

Mr. GOLDBERG: A kilometer.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Okay, let's go.

After hiking more like five kilometers, all of it uphill, we finally came to the place where our guide said we could hear the gibbons. But upon arrival, we heard something else, which to me sounded like a giant, angry duck.

(Soundbite of birds)

Mr. GOLDBERG: Our guide explained it was not a duck but rather a large bird known as the hornbill. A few seconds later, however, we got to hear the gibbon call.

(Soundbite of gibbons)

Mr. GOLDBERG: Success.

(Soundbite of gibbons)

Mr. GOLDBERG: Where we were in Sumatra, the forests are largely pristine, but in much of the other rainforests of Indonesia, this is not the case.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Mr. GOLDBERG: Massive demand for palm oil, used in such things as food and cosmetics, and demand for exotic wood such as teak and mahogany, has led to rapid deforestation here and the subsequent death of so many of these birds and animals.

On our last day in Indonesia, as we drove back toward the city, we stopped in an area that had once been lush forest but was now hundreds of square kilometers of empty land entirely cut down. In contrast to the cacophony of the forest, this virtually dead place was truly saddening.

Now that I am home, I've uploaded the call of the gibbon into my digital alarm clock to wake me up every morning.

(Soundbite of gibbons)

Mr. GOLDBERG: It's both a happy and sad sound that reminds me not only of the beauty in this world, but also the heartbreaking reality of our capacity to destroy it.

NORRIS: That story was produced by filmmaker Andrew Goldberg.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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