PAHANG, MALAYSIA: Two hours into our journey by truck through a landscape of palm oil plantations and pockets of deforested countryside, we pulled up to a small side road leading to our destination, and our host, Ms Mariani Ramli, asked us to turn off our cameras.
“I don’t want to give my location away,” she said. “A lot of people are after me. They hate me.”
The 31-year-old’s activities on social media have drawn more than just the usual trolls – her posts hitting out at Malaysia’s illegal exotic pet trade, naming and shaming the poachers and traders involved in this lucrative black market, have provoked ire and threats.
“They call me names online. And they ask me to mind my own business, otherwise something bad will happen to me,” she said.
We were on our way to the secluded, secret sanctuary she’d built and almost single-handedly runs to rehabilitate rescued victims of the traders. Specifically, six gibbons: Daru, Daly, Chantiq, Betsy, Lola and Bella.
They may have been given names, but Ms Mariani – or Bam to her friends – makes it quite clear that they are not trophy pets, but creatures that belong in the wild. And she plans to return them to it.
That mission is why this born-and-bred city girl – who not five years ago was loving life riding her beloved superbike through Kuala Lumpur’s streets and hanging out with friends – gave it all up to work in the middle of a forest, with no electricity or running water, a near-hermit-like existence.
“I sold everything,” said the passionate activist. “I used to live in a big house. It became smaller, smaller, smaller. But inside, I'm moving up, up, up.”
She hopes to eventually help bring an end to Malaysia’s exotic pets trade. And though she’s barely started, it’s a journey that has already seen the plucky young woman lose close friends, risk her life, and give up most of her possessions.
Growing up in Kota Kinabalu, Bam’s close encounters with wildlife were right at home: The exotic pets that her father kept in cages, such as pythons, otters and birds.
At the time, the practice didn’t strike her as intrinsically wrong, though she quickly developed an empathy for the creatures.
“I remember when those animals died because of mistreatment,” she said, referring to the unsuitable diets they were fed, which eventually killed them. She’d try her best to comfort them, she said, “by giving them love, petting them, giving them food that was tasty to me. I thought it would help.”
At the same time, she developed a love for the outdoors as she took part in school camps. So in 2007, at the age of 20, she moved to Peninsular Malaysia and joined the wildlife department as a ranger.
Her job entailed spending 15 to 20 days at a stretch in the jungle, collecting data on and tracking animals in the area. Meanwhile she studied part-time for a degree in animal biology at the National University of Malaysia.
Part of her work was to track poachers. Once, she encountered a group of Thais in the jungle trapping tigers. “There were so many of them and they had guns. We had only parangs.” Helpless to stop them, she could only report their location to her superiors.
About five years ago, she said, the illegal pet trade was booming on social media. Cute baby gibbons, with their golden fur, tiny stature and large innocent eyes, were bought and sold in this black market.
They were advertised through Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. Things started to get really bad when celebrities started buying gibbons.
The devastating effects go beyond just the unlucky plight of one captured gibbon. Gibbons have strong family bonds, and when the poachers target the babies, fierce protective instincts kick in and “the whole family must be killed” – Bam estimates the toll is about 10 dead for each baby taken.
That doesn’t even take into account the 50-per-cent casualty rate while the babies are being transported to market, she added.
Meanwhile, celebrities shared pictures of themselves on social media with their exotic ‘pets’, ignorant of the true circumstances. The twist was that while Malaysia’s Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 made the hunting and keeping of gibbons as pets illegal, according to Bam, there was nothing to stop one from posting on social media.
“It made me sick to see them posing with baby gibbons like that,” Bam said with feeling. “I wanted to go there immediately and save those gibbons.”
START OF A GIBBON LOVE AFFAIR
Up until then, despite all those weeks in the jungle, Bam had never seen a gibbon in the wild before. She’d only heard their melodious songs. “I tried to follow (the sounds) but I couldn’t see them clearly even when I used binoculars.”
What drew her to primates was the potential for communication with them, through expressions and body language. “Every action has meaning to them,” she said, adding that their human-like eyes spoke volumes as well.
In 2012, the wildlife department was alerted to a baby gibbon found clinging to its dead mother. They named him Ellek, and although Bam knew nothing about gibbons at the time, it was love at first sight.
He was crouched in the corner of his cage, too scared to even move. When I looked into his eyes, he was crying.
Bam volunteered to care for Ellek. She began consulting books and online resources to learn about gibbons. “I thought we had only orang utans in Malaysia at the time,” she said. “But I found out that we actually have two types of ape in Malaysia.”
She learned that gibbons were endangered, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List; and that they are the only primates that can sing, and have the longest arms.
The more she read, the more special gibbons seemed to her. Sadly, though, Ellek died from a soil infection a year into her care. She took it badly.
“I blamed myself because I didn’t know how to take care of him, and I didn’t want to take care of gibbons anymore, or of animals anymore,” she said.
But then a year later, her friends brought her to see Daru, another victim of the pet trade.
Kept in a cage with barely inches of room, the male gibbon was fed only twice a week. It was biting its own paws, pulling out its fur and rocking back and forth violently, clear signs of stress and anxiety.
“He was totally unmotivated. He didn’t want to eat, he was trying to kill himself,” she recalled.
I said yes, I’d look after him, I’d learn, I’d do anything I could to help him. I didn’t want him to stay there (in the cage) anymore.
Bam took Daru back to her home in KL. Since there were no how-to guidebooks on caring for gibbons, she relied on trial and error. Her aim was to rehabilitate Daru for release back into the wild.
Her first challenge was getting Daru to eat normally – and for that, she learnt “gibbon communication”.
Like a mother dealing with a picky eater, Bam turned mealtimes with Daru into a game. She would pretend to eat in front of him and tease him by refusing to share food. Not wanting to be left out, Daru would mimic Bam’s actions, and soon began to eat at regular times.
Another gibbon that Bam took under her wing was Bella, whose mother had been eaten by indigenous people and was on the verge of being sold off to pet traders. Bella didn’t know how to walk yet, so Bam lured it with toys and food, and it soon learnt.
Over the years, Bam added to her rescued brood when she went undercover to meet with gibbon sellers. Once, she posed as an ignorant city girl whose boyfriend had asked her to choose between an iPhone 8 and a baby gibbon for her birthday.
“When I see the baby gibbons, I need to stay calm and pretend that I want to buy,” Bam said. “But inside I feel like, grrr.”
ALONE IN THE WILD
When her brood grew to six, Bam knew the house in KL was no longer enough. She and her best friend decided to commit to gibbon rehabilitation full-time.
This meant leaving city life behind. Bam sold her car, her beloved bike, most of her furniture and her clothes to rent a 0.8-acre rubber plantation that had lain abandoned for 10 years.
They lived in a tiny one-room house with an outhouse. The owner of the land allowed Bam to build a gibbon cage behind the house. “It was so dark during the night because there were no lights along the road,” Bam recalled.
No one believed that I lived there; they said it was a haunted house.
Their new life consisted of feeding, training, cleaning up after the gibbons and scrimping on expenses – and very little else, given that they were out in the middle of nowhere.
The gibbons had to be fed every two hours, a task Bam performed while juggling work as a delegate to the Copenhagen Zoo (which is involved in conservation projects in Malaysia), and completing her part-time degree.
“They would even sleep on the same bed as me when they were babies,” she said.
Her best friend complained about their lack of a social life and, more importantly, their lack of funds – they had an additional six mouths to feed and some of their charges needed medical attention. It all became too much for her and, less than two years later, she left.
Far from friends and family, it was just Bam and her gibbons now.
“I’m not used to living far from people, and when she gave up, I lived there alone,” she said, the memory bringing on tears even now. “It was me with the gibbons in our own little world.”
“But if I stopped, who would continue this? I promised I’d look after them until they were free one day. I could never forgive myself if I broke that promise.”
WATCH: How Bam built a sanctuary for wild gibbons that were traumatised by captivity (Dur 6:58)
A SANCTUARY TAKES SHAPE
As her gibbons grew, they started becoming more active and needed a bigger area to stretch and train their fully formed limbs.
In 2017, a local environmental activist heard Bam’s plea for help and donated two acres of her privately owned forest to Bam for use as a rehabilitation centre.
Bam approached a local rubber tapper, whom she calls Pakcik, for the use of his house as an office. He immediately said yes. While he didn’t know anything about gibbons, after meeting one of hers, he said: “I grew fond of it, so with all my heart, I want to help to conserve them.” He is now a part-time caretaker for the gibbons.
The sanctuary that is their home today is well camouflaged into the surrounding trees. “I want to simulate the wild settings as much as possible,” said Bam.
Zig-zagging bamboo connects the trees like branches, forming a terrain where the arboreal gibbons can train their arms for swinging tree to tree.
Gibbons in the wild drink the water that collects in tree hollows, so Bam cleverly engineered her own “bamboo water bottles” – hollowed-out stems filled with water and hung up high for the gibbons to dip their lanky fingers into.
These are all what Bam calls “survival skills training techniques” that didn’t come from any book but from her own imagination. She designed the living quarters and training arena to prepare them for eventual release into the wild.
What this means is that their interactions with humans also need to be carefully managed.
For instance, she ignored Bella’s attention-seeking antics when it was let out to play. “Just ignore her, she will get the hint,” Bam said, her voice muffled by Bella’s body sprawled purposefully across her face.
As the cheeky gibbon ran off with Bam’s hat in yet another bid to get her to play, she said: “They need to learn to be wild, they shouldn’t still be so comfortable with me.” But still, the surrogate mother fought back a smile.
We weren’t laughing, however, during one training session when a female gibbon named Chantiq approached and abruptly bit producer Lam Shushan on the arm.
Bam remained calm, and quietly instructed Shushan to groom Chantiq – a sign of respect and peace-making among gibbons.
“For me it's a good sign when Chantiq doesn’t like humans,” said Bam afterwards.
She's becoming wild, it means that she is defending herself, and I'm proud of that actually.
Bam indeed has reason enough to be proud of her brood, most of whom have been with her for five years: They have come a long way from being traumatised, psychotic and unable to fend for themselves when they were first rescued.
Daly, for instance, was so badly malnourished that he was balding and the fragile skin on his palm tore the first time he tried swinging. Today he, along with the once-suicidal Daru, are confident apes which are able to swing, sing and forage for food.
She wasn’t even deterred when one of her gibbons once bit her on the eyelid. “I'm so happy because I see their progress from sick to healthy – I can never regret this.
"Every time before I sleep, I smile thinking of them.”
‘DON’T FEEL SORRY FOR ME’
Since embarking on rehabilitating gibbons five years ago, Bam has spent over MYR200,000 (S$68,000) on their food, medication and the like.
She hasn't held a job with a steady income stream since 2016. She relies on private donors, educational talks that she gives around Southeast Asia, and contributions from her mother’s own tailoring business.
Initially her family, especially her mum, didn’t approve of what she was doing. “She was so worried that I was living alone,” Bam said. But now, “she encourages me to continue. Every time she has extra cash, she will send me money”.
Her brother and sister too are concerned over her welfare. “I say I’m good, I’m comfortable,” said Bam who lives in a sparsely-furnished apartment with a mattress on the floor, a three-chest drawer with all her belongings, and a once-white bean bag now grey with age.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. No one forced me to do this, I chose to do this on my own.” she said matter of factly.
These days, Bam has a couple of helpers who assist in the daily routine. They include Belgian volunteer Stéphane Depont, who is helping out for seven weeks, and caretaker Mohammad Sallehuddin, or just Salleh.
Stephane described Bam as “a strong girl”. “Many people may put her down (but) she’s still doing it, so I’m very impressed by her.”
Those naysayers include old friends from the wildlife department who said she should stop wasting her time – “they sad it’s impossible to rehabilitate gibbons and it’s better just to send them to zoos or animal parks”, said Bam.
She has a soft heart for more than just gibbons too.
Salleh is a shy and gentle 23-year-old whose demeanour belies a history of parental abuse and learning difficulties, according to Bam. “He lives in a shack by the river which he built himself. He has no electricity and no running water.”
Though there were other candidates better suited for the job, she hired Salleh, entrusting him with the care of Numan, a baby macaque found in the city, which she thinks will help him be more capable too. “Salleh can have some monkey therapy,” she quipped.
And at the end of a long day of cleaning, training and feeding, Bam still finds the energy to tutor some of the village children in English, Mathematics and Science.
“These kids don’t go to school,” she explained. “If I can help them, I will”.
PLANS FOR THE FUTURE
Looking to the immediate future, Bam is hoping to mate two of her gibbons this year. One reason for this is that under the IUCN framework, the gibbons should be released back into the wild only once they can show that they can care for their offspring – among seven other criteria for release.
A second reason is simple: The preservation of the species.
There is no up-to-date survey of the gibbon population in Malaysia, according to Bam, but what she has noticed is that these days, she rarely hears their calls in the jungle – unlike the years when she was a park ranger.
“Gibbons are seed dispersers and they keep the forest healthy. There are a few species of trees like rambutan that can only be dispersed by gibbons,” she said, pointing out how the removal of just one part of nature’s ecosystem could have devastating effects on the rest.
Extinction is like this: If you know the car is going to crash, wouldn’t you put on the brakes?
With the paucity of local knowledge about gibbons, educating wildlife rangers and the public about them is an important part of her mission. One day, she hopes to drum up enough attention for gibbons that they are recognised as ambassadors for Malaysian wildlife, like tigers and elephants.
She also plans to expand her rehabilitation project to 40 to 50 other apes and monkeys currently known to be kept as pets or traded illegally.
Her greater hope is to get the laws amended, such that the information posted by traders or owners of gibbons on social media would be enough to effect an arrest.
She sees the fight against the exotic pet trade as far bigger than her – and that’s why she has planned ahead for what needs to be done in the event she’s no longer around.
“Here are my SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures),” she said, taking out a large book filled with scribbled instructions on handling and meal preparations, as well as facts and figures about her gibbons. She has even planned for future generations of gibbons, hoping that “someone will help continue my work here”.
We asked if she ever felt afraid for her own safety.
“No, never,” she replied swiftly. “I'm just scared of losing them (the gibbons). If they can be taken care of by other people that can do better than me, then it's okay. I don't want to lose them to bad hands.”
Know of any everyday heroes who are making an impact? Drop us a note here at CNA Insider.