Chapter Six:
The Future for Siamangs

Siamang gibbons are rare animals. In contrast to white-handed gibbons, which are found throughout Southeast Asia, wild siamangs exist in only two places--the Malayan Peninsula and the island of Sumatra.

The Sumatran and Malayan jungle homes of siamangs are shrinking every day, destroyed by human hands. In some places, jungles are cleared to create farmland, desperately needed to provide food for skyrocketing human populations. Some jungles are cleared so people can obtain the valuable lumber from the tall trees. In some places, jungles are destroyed in the search for oil to swerve an energy-hungry world.

A jungle is a fragile environment. Once it is destroyed, it is gone forever, or at least permanently altered in important ways. Jungle soil is surprisingly thin, and it is held in place almost entirely by the roots of enormous trees. When the trees are cut, soil is quickly washed away, making jungles very poor farmland. The tall trees do not grow again, so jungle lumbering is hardly a long-term business. And once the oil is gone, there is nothing left but dry wells surrounded by desolation.

A few kinds of wild creatures seem to adjust reasonably well to radically altered environments. White-handed gibbons, for example, seem willing to live very close to farmland. But most wild creatures cannot adapt. Without the jungle, there would be no siamangs, no orangutans, no tigers on Sumatra.

The siamangs chances for survival in the wild are totally dependent on wildlife preserves--special areas set aside by governments to be left in a natural state, the plants and animals undisturbed by humans. Probably nearly all of the siamangs in the wild today live in or around preserves in Malaya and Sumatra. For now, the siamang gibbons are safe.

But unless the problems of human overpopulation and overconsumption of natural resources are solved soon, the pressures may become too great. Governments may consider wildlife preserves expensive luxuries they can no longer afford. Wildlife preserves, like the rest of the jungles, may be destroyed to buy a few more years of population growth and overconsumption for unthinking humanity. If the preserves should disappear, wild siamang gibbons would become extinct.

A principal concern of good zoos today is extinction-prevention. Zoo people do whatever they can to educate the public about wildlife conservation, to encourage governments to maintain wildlife preserves, and most of all to breed rare animals in captivity. If the Milwaukee Zoo has anything to say about it, there will always be room in the world for siamang gibbons.

Update: When they were fully grown, both Smitty and Les were sent to other zoos to start families of their own. Sam, Unk and Suzy’s youngest, stayed in Milwaukee. As of February 2010, Sam had fathered five children. The three oldest had grown up and been sent to other zoos, but the two youngest boys, born in 2006 and 2007, were still living with their parents in Milwaukee.