Reports: Wildlife Dept forcibly removes gibbons from ex-ranger’s rehab centre despite ongoing court dispute

Betsy and Lola ― the two of the gibbons taken by Perhilitan yesterday. ― Picture via Facebook/Gibbon Conservation Society
Betsy and Lola ― the two of the gibbons taken by Perhilitan yesterday. ― Picture via Facebook/Gibbon Conservation Society

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KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 30 — The Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) yesterday seized and removed four gibbons by force from a gibbon rehabilitation centre in Pahang operated by its former wildlife ranger, even as a court dispute over the gibbons remains pending, reports have said.

Even as Gibbon Rehabilitation Project’s (GReP) founder Mariani Ramli continues to pursue the court case at the Federal Court, Perhilitan had confiscated the gibbons by acting on a Court of Appeal decision in the government department’s favour.

According to news portal Malaysiakini, Mariani had yesterday said that Perhilitan officers came at 8am to seize six of the 15 gibbons at the Pahang rehabilitation centre, with the officers leaving with four gibbons at 6.30pm after a 10-hour raid. It was also reported that one of the gibbons escaped during the confiscation attempt.

Mariani reportedly said that Perhilitan officers would return today to confiscate the two remaining gibbons.

In the same Malaysiakini report, Mariani said the Perhilitan raid was due to a Court of Appeal decision that ruled that she had no permission to keep the six gibbons, but noted that the legal dispute is not over as the decision can be appealed at the Federal Court.

“They want to take the gibbons because they say I have no right to take care of them. I lost the Court of Appeal case but the decision allows us to file an appeal. The court case is not over yet,” she was quoted as saying.

Mariani said the raid would disrupt the rehabilitation process of the gibbons, reportedly saying: “They are not thinking about the welfare of these animals.”

The court dispute

According to non-profit organisation Gibbon Conservation Society’s (GCS) statement on its Facebook page, Mariani had in 2007 joined Perhilitan, which had handed over six gibbons to her while she was working as a wildlife ranger to rehabilitate them for release into the wild.

Perhilitan in 2017 dismissed her from employment and also withdrew permission for her to care for the gibbons, with Mariani then challenging both the dismissal and permission withdrawal through a judicial review application in the court.

While the High Court in July 2019 ruled in her favour to overturn the termination of her employment and the withdrawal of the gibbons’ care, the Court of Appeal on November 16 set aside the High Court’s decision, the Gibbon Conservation Society which supports GReP said.

According to Malaysiakini, Mariani’s lawyer Jessice Binwani said her client had filed for leave to appeal at the Federal Court, and had told the courts of their plans to seek a stay on the Court of Appeal decision to maintain status quo while pending the appeal.

Malaysiakini said the application for leave to appeal was filed on December 14 with both Perhilitan and the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) included for notification of the application, based on court documents and records.

“In our opinion, the status quo should remain. Let the formal application be filed, let it be heard. Everybody knows that we are going to file the application for a stay and the Court of Appeal had ordered us to do so,” she was quoted as saying.

The lawyer also reportedly questioned the “rush” by Perhilitan to take and remove the gibbons from a place where they are safe and well taken care of when the court dispute is still ongoing, pointing out that the gibbons are not mere goods or buildings but the most endangered primate species in the world.

Separately, local daily The Star yesterday reported Jessica as saying that the seized gibbons have been undergoing a rehabilitation process for the past five years by Mariani and her team.

“Mariani is concerned that the forced removal and transport of the gibbons to another location will cause unnecessary stress and fear in the animals, and lead to physical harm or even death if not handled carefully,” Jessica was quoted as saying by The Star.

A few days prior to the raid, Perhilitan had wrote to Mariani asking for the return of the gibbons, with Jessica reported by The Star as saying that she had written to the AGC the day before the raid to say that Perhilitan should respect the court process and the status quo should remain until the Federal Court gives its final decision on the legal dispute.

Malaysiakini also reported Perhilitan officials as saying that the government department was acting in line with the Court of Appeal’s decision, with Perhilitan enforcement director Pazil Abdul Patah quoted as saying that the six gibbons belong to the department as Mariani had rescued the animals while working for the department.

Pazil also reportedly said Perhilitan has the expertise to rehabilitate the gibbons and will do so.

At the time of writing, more than 2,600 persons have already signed an online petition on Change.org started less than 24 hours ago, with the petition seeking to stop Perhilitan from taking away the six gibbons from GReP GCS.

“By signing this petition we can stop the Wildlife Department from taking away the six gibbons and to continue their rehabilitation project without interruption,” the petition read.

In a statement yesterday, GCS said a change in status quo for the six gibbons would render their rehabilitation process pointless, stating: “We now have an opportunity in Malaysia to continue with the rehabilitation process and ensure that we do not lose this species too. However, we may lose this species altogether if the Malaysian government does not see any value in ensuring their survival by allowing their rehabilitation process to proceed unhindered.”

“Our plea is not to disturb the gibbons now and allow the due process of the court,” the group had said.

Separately, GCS on its Facebook page also shared letters of support from international wildlife organisations, including from the international organisation International Union for Conservation of Nature — Section on Small Apes (IUCN SSA).

In the December 28 letter, IUCN Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group Section on Small Apes (SSA) vice-chair Susan M. Cheyne urged for the gibbons to remain with GReP, commending Mariani as an accomplished primatologist specialising in rehabilitation and the only Malaysian certified by IUCN SSA “for instigating successful rescue and rehabilitation of gibbons and siamang”.

She said GReP has been following accepted IUCN best practice guidelines in its rehabilitation work of gibbons, and that GReP has done a “phenomenal job in bringing these gibbons to a stage where they are possible candidates for return to the wild”.

“The gibbons should not be removed from GReP given how far they have come in their rehabilitation and removing them suddenly will cause psychological trauma, behavioural changes and will certainly diminish the chances of these gibbons successfully returning to the wild,” she had said in the letter.

Separately in a December 29 letter, IUCN member and gibbon expert Florian Magne who founded and is the director of the world’s sole Western Hoolock Gibbon rehabilitation programme expressed concern over Perhilitan’s decision to remove the six gibbons — Daru, Daly, Bella, Betsy, Lola and Chantiq — from GReP despite a pending court case at the Federal Court.

He highlighted the risks of an operation to remove the gibbons which he said are highly cognitive developed apes that are very sensitive to psychological trauma and human infection, noting: “The attempt to removing them from an environment where they are getting proper care should be done very cautiously and only to be transferred back to the wild or to a better facility, preferably recognised by IUCN.”

“I am humbly requesting the Malaysian government to put on hold the removal procedure and possibly get in touch with our IUCN expert group. I am sure my colleagues as well as I will be ready to help both the Malaysian government and the GReP to come to a solution with no harm to none. The gibbons that have been transferred to the government facility should be returned to GReP as soon as possible so that everyone can work together in the best interest of wildlife,” he said as he vouched for Mariani’s expertise and the GReP meeting requirements for gibbon welfare.

The IUCN recognises gibbons as an endangered species, and gibbons are classified in peninsula Malaysia as a totally protected species under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010.

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