Forty years of 'monkey business' and still going strong
Turning into the driveway on a hot, steamy morning in June, a strange sound begins to compete with NPR. It wins.
Sitting there, listening, the hauntingly beautiful chorus of myriad voices harmoniously transports the listener to some exotic place, far away … Xanadu … in the middle of Summerville.
The gibbons are singing.
Forty years ago, Shirley McGreal, PhD, OBE came to the rescue of Gibbons. Today she operates the International Primate Protection League and a Gibbon sanctuary in the Summerville area. Next week the IPPL celebrates its 40th anniversary.
A human voice jars with a pleasant “hello!”
Tina McCoy leads the way into the cool confines of a plain brick structure that houses a surprisingly pretty office inside.
McCoy offers a welcome then suggests a tour. Sanctuary executive director, McGreal, is on the phone and will join us later.
As we exit the office we peer through dense foliage and a tiny face peers back. Intelligent, watching, waiting to see what this intrusion would bring.
It is Palu Palu one of the 37 gibbons that live at the sanctuary.
“He's our office manager,” laughs McCoy. He sits there all days and watches what we do inside.”
The sanctuary is a sort of tropical paradise, planted in such a way as to mimic the natural habitat of the Gibbons to make them feel secure and comfortable. Long wire “tunnels” lead from each huge enclosure. These enable the staff to move Gibbons from one enclosure to another safely.
Gibbons are not particularly human-friendly or safe so no one handles them unless they have been anesthetized. In fact, there are discreet rows of plantings about four-feet around every enclosure – the arm span of a Gibbon. Go inside the four-foot zone and don't be surprised if you lose your glasses or you hair.
(A hand on my shoulder firmly pulls me back when unaware, I wander inside the plantings and quicker than light, a Gibbon hand sweeps by my face aiming for my glasses.)
McGreal doesn't just house Gibbons however. At the sanctuary live two dogs and some otters.
In addition to an office, the sanctuary also offers a medical facility/kitchen, which holds cases of fresh fruit and vegetables. The staff are quite savvy shoppers getting the best deals between the grocery stores such as Piggly Wiggly – for cases of fresh mangos -- and the Summerville farmer's market for bushels of tomatoes, squash, beans, etc.
After a quick “hello” to the otters, who want to play, we settle on a golf cart to tour the rest of the grounds. Beautifully landscaped sympathetically to Gibbon world, the grounds include a number of houses or cottages where visiting experts stay. McGreal also lives on site so the Gibbons are never left unprotected.
Since 1973, McGreal has helped countless primates across the globe, her reach touching primates in Bolivia, Cameroon, Chile, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nepal, Republic of Congo, Thailand, Uganda, South Africa, Vietnam, Columbia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea. Guinea, Nigeria, Peru and Sierra Leone. Through grants, the IPPL helps numerous organizations worldwide, protect primates. It plays watchdog on behalf of primates uncovering abuse, exploitation and wanton killing.
The Summerville sanctuary has expanded to 36 acres including a buffer zone so the singing doesn't bother the neighbors. The IPPL mission is “to promote the conservation and protection of all nonhuman primate, including apes, monkeys and prosimians, around the world.”
Operating with an international advisory board, the IPPL is able to help both financially and by publicizing, organizations to change laws, rescue and offer sanctuary to primates.
And then, of course, there are the delightful Gibbons who live here in Summerville.
Wily and intelligent, these primates live in what could be considered, in the Gibbon world, the lap of luxury. Safe inside huge spaces, they are able to keep track of the world around them, take a nap, enjoy feasts of fresh fruits and vegetables and get their backs scratched by their human caretakers.
They get veterinary care and live out their lives in peace.
“We tend to lead the way to get groups recognized on the map,” said McGreal. “We have more than 10,000 members, including foundations, and we are speakers for the world.”
McGreal says there are always several campaigns ongoing and they often get animals that have been confiscated and sent to the sanctuary.
McGreal, a British subject, speaks fluent French, “some Spanish, modest Hindi and Thai.” and is recognized by her peers as a leader in primate protection. She operates the only Gibbon sanctuary in the country.
In anticipation of its anniversary celebration, tributes from around the world have come in to the Summerville office.
“Congratulations to you Shirley and all your amazing colleagues…for 40 years you have struggled to improve the lives of countless primates and have truly made a difference in their lives.” Jane Goodall, PhD, DBE
“Thanks to its [IPPL] kindess…three chimpanzees have been able to leave the horrible conditions they were living in….” Franck and Roxane Chantereau, J.A.C.K. Sanctuary, Democratic Republic of Congo
“IPPL was instrumental in helping Malaysia….” Mohammed Khan, Wildlife Chief of Peninsular Malaysia
“We really want … IPPL…to know that we appreciate …from the bottom of our hearts your generous help….” Pharanee Deters, Highland Farm Gibbon Sanctuary, Thailand
When IPPL struggled with a lawsuit by an Austrian drug company because it was trying to block the company's plan to set up a large-scale chimp lab in Sierra Leone, it got assistance from a surprising quarter: The British Royal Family. Prince Philip, a life-long conservationist with an interest in wildlife trade issues. The Prince interceded on IPPL's behalf, getting the lawsuit dropped. The lab plan collapsed.
Prince Philip stepped in on a number of other occasions to support IPPL and its work. When McGreal went to Buckingham Palace to receive an Order of the British Empire honor from Queen Elizabeth, she and the Prince spent a long time chatting privately in his sitting room.
McGreal has a precious collection of letters from the Prince.
“IPPL is a shining example of what can be achieved by persistent effort, accurate intelligence and fearless intervention. I am delighted to…send my congratulations and best wishes to everyone…particularly its founder on this important anniversary.” Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
Anyone wishing to support the IPPL may do so by contacting IPPL at P.O. Box 766, Summerville, SC 29484 or calling 843-871-2280. For more information, go to www.ippl.org.