As Director of the Gibbon Conservation Center, Gabriella Skollar lives and works with the rarest group of apes in the Western Hemisphere. The GCC houses 41 gibbons, representing five different species. The mission of the GCC is to promote the conservation, study, and care of gibbons through public education and habitat preservation. Gabriella has just recently allowed visitors to camp overnight by booking through Hipcamp. With your tent perched up high on a bluff, you will wake to the musical orchestra of gibbons singing at sunrise, claiming this area nestled in the Santa Clarita Valley, as their own.
From glampsites to Indigenous lands, wineries to working farms, Gabriella is part of an emerging community of landowners who have generously opened their land to the next generation of campers. Dive in to learn more about Stay Wild Campground at the Gibbon Conservation Center, Gabriella’s conservation efforts, and take a peek at the camp in our interview below.
Hipcamp: Why did you join Hipcamp, and allow campers to stay on your land?
GS: I live on site so I know that it's a very cool experience to wake up with the Gibbons and hear them singing.
Interview paused by Apes Singing for 20mins…
We had friends and anthropology students camp here in the past, and the GCC staff is also living on site. We know what an amazing experience it is waking up with the gibbons bursting into their song. It’s a chance to be away from the city, just being in nature experiencing the peacefulness of the night with sounds like owls and coyotes. We just want to extend this invitation to the general public, so they can also experience it. It is also a great opportunity for us, another way to reach out and teach people about gibbons and what we are doing here.
HC: What kind of activities can campers participate in at the Gibbon Conservation Center?
GS: Early morning campers can bring coffee and have their breakfast while watching the gibbons sing. Later they can join us for a tour. We can take them around the property and talk about what we're doing here and the different species of gibbons and their unique personalities. After that they can just hang out or hike, we have lots benches and picnic areas.
Photos by Ezekiel Gonzalez
HC: What led you to pursue a lifestyle closer to the land, and more specifically working at the GCC?
GS: I always loved animals growing up. I grew up in a small town, very close to nature. I could just walk outside and five minutes later I would be at the creek. I went to school to study biology and learn about animal behavior in Hungary. I originally came to the Gibbon Center to learn english. I just fell in love with the place while I was caring for the animals. I was learning more and more about them and I didn't want to leave. I can't imagine living anywhere else. You can't get bored with this.
HC: What is your day-to-day routine as a Hipcamp host and director of the GCC? Do the routines compliment themselves, are there differences?
GS: We have certain days on the weekends where we are open to the public, which makes my routine different. Early mornings are the same, the gibbons start singing between 5:30–6:00 in the morning. Then, the staff slowly gets up to make coffee, have breakfast and start preparing food for the gibbons. At 9:30 we let the public in and give a tour. Then the public can stay here until noon. After we have a half hour break before we do the afternoon feedings.
But when we don't have visitors here, it is just the staff and the gibbons, and we just do daily tasks like feedings, cleanings, and fixing enclosures. We finish outside around 5–6, and then we go inside and work on the computer and catch up with emails. When we have campers here we want to show them what we do here. We want to participate in things with them so they get a feel of what it’s like living here, even if it’s just for one or two days. If they want, they can follow us while we're feeding the gibbons. In the afternoon once we’re done with the feedings we can go for a hike and watch the sunset. It just depends on the people, if they want more privacy and they want to just enjoy the place without interruption, or if they want to participate and see what we're doing here.
Top and bottom photos by Ezekiel Gonzalez
HC: In your listing, you mention the GCC is the only institution in the world to house and breed all four genera of gibbon. How and why was the GCC formed?
GS: It started like a small zoo. It was one person's childhood dream. Alan Mootnick started the center in 1976, but he was only nine years old when he fell in love with gibbons. He had an idea that one day he would create a center just for them. He started to gather gibbons from different zoos, gibbons that were unrelated to other gibbons in the US and looked for rare species that really needed attention. We used to know very little about gibbons, and he wanted to learn about them and teach people about them. He didn't just start the center here, he also traveled to other parts of the world and taught people about gibbon taxonomy. Anything that he learned he tried to share with others. I was very lucky to work with him for seven years. I was able to work alongside him and learn how to care for the place and about the gibbons.
HC: Can you talk to me more specifically about the threat to gibbons and why sanctuaries like the GCC are necessary to protect them?
GS: There are 20 different species of gibbons. All the species are either critically endangered or endangered, and there is only one species that is vulnerable. One of the rarest mammals in the world is also a gibbon, it’s called the Hainan gibbon. There are only 25 individuals left. One of the biggest issue is that they're losing their habitat. There is deforestation, they're cutting down the forest either for plantations or for using the hardwood, building roads, and sometimes just because people need more space and move closer and closer to the forest. People are also going into the forest for hunting. They're hunting the gibbons for their meat, or they capture them and sell them as pets. People kill the parents, taking the babies away and selling them as a pet. Sometimes people use their body parts in traditional medications or using them during ceremonies, or just collectors putting them on their wall. So, hunting is just as big of a problem as the deforestation. It just depends what country.
HC: What countries are most of the gibbons from?
GS: All gibbons are from Southeast Asia, Northeast India, and Southern China. So from places like Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia.
HC: How would you describe the camping experience at the Gibbon Center? If you had to describe in three words, what would they be?
GS: One word is peaceful. I would also call it musical because of their singing. The third word is exciting.
HC: How would you describe the gibbons’ personalities? Are some more playful or curious than others?
GS: Yes, it is so easy to relate to them because they live in families with parents and their dependent offspring. They have their family dramas too, lots of love, but also arguments and competition. They all have different personalities. Some are very sweet, and gentle, and some are very temperamental. Young ones are playful, and can me be very mischievous. Some couples are always touching, grooming each other, playing or cuddling, and some couples just like to sit close to one another, and are not so much into cuddling.
HC: As a new host, what are you most excited about having recently joined Hipcamp?
GS: For us, it's just another way to reach out and tell people about what we're doing here. All of my staff is so dedicated and we just love what we're doing, it's so exciting. It’s a great thing that we can actually share this with others and people can experience what we do.
HC: What do you hope Hipcampers learn while camping here?
GS: Well they're definitely going to learn a lot about gibbons. A lot of people don't know what a gibbon is and people call them monkeys. So that will be one of the first pieces of information they get when they come to the front gate, we tell people we don't have any monkeys here! These are gibbons, they are small apes. But also, they just learn about being close to animals, and how to behave around them. People learn about just being in nature, there could be snakes out there, there could be spiders!
HC: What does the Gibbon Conservation Center have planned for 2017? Are there any exciting improvements or events you hope to make happen this year?GS: We are always improving and enlarging the enclosures, garden furniture areas, and planting new trees. We also always have education programs to plan for each year. We have big plans for the next 5-10 years to prepare to move to a different location and build a new facility with larger enclosures. Right now we just have a portable toilet for campers, but we're planning to build a compostable toilet, sink, and outdoor shower that will be heated with warm water. We want to plant some trees and prim the garden to make the view even nicer for campers.
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Lisse Lundin is a photographer and Parks & Recreation major based in San Francisco. You can follow along with her adventures via Instragram.