ST 20080325: How macaques and humans can live together


This is a great commentary on the Singaporeans-vs-macaques war, and mentions the Binjai Park residents’ “get-back” at monkeys fiasco. That it is by a primatologist, a person studying primates, surely tells us exactly what Singaporeans can do with our penchant to shut out anything non-human.

Dawn also posted an alert on it. What’s interesting on that are the comments left there, especially Dawn’s thoughts on the matter:

Dawn said…

I think one of the issues is that people are resistent to change. There are so many better alternatives to killing. It is cheaper and more effective to pursue alternatives and more humane.

It’s also quite worrying that people don’t question what happens to the animals. There is a sort of ‘let’s leave it to the authorities’ mentality. Undoubtedly some don’t ask because they don’t want to know, but there are others who just want the matter to be taken care of without thinking things through. Where else will the monkeys (or cats) go except to be killed?

March 25, 2008 7:48 PM

As we have also mentioned here, it seems like nobody few people want monkey blood on their hands, just like there are few individuals who want kitty blood staining their nails red. Incidentally, I just can’t help but see the parallelism between those who want perceived varmints off their “lands” but refuse to understand that tolerance and a compromise are necessary to an acceptable outcome for all to this: the double-standard of religious skepticism described here.

We apply judgments and pronounce sentence on others, especially those “not like us”, but do we measure ourselves by those same standard? Judge and be judged.

The reality is, you can’t always have your cake and eat it. For people with kitty trouble, an understanding of kitty behaviour, the vacuum effect and the appreciation that you can’t rid the pathway outside your property of every kitty there ever was is paramount. You can’t complain of the problems the cats cause you while refusing to acknowledge the faults on your end, even if it is just a matter of perceptions and assumptions.

So it is with people who want to do the living-close-to-nature gig just because they can. You can’t be near nature and expect the wildlife to respect the boundaries you impose on them in their habitat. You have to be prepared that you are living among beings who do not live by YOUR rules; don’t just complain about the problems they cause you, think about the problems you cause them, and what you should do, or should have done, to reduce conflict potential… and tragedy.

Mr Gumert, in his article, astutely pointed out salient points about this whole us-vs-them thing:

  1. The media sensationalised the episode, slanting it in benefit to the human actors, and playing for human sympathy for fellow human-trauma.
  2. That the Binjai Park vendatta did not claim more casualties is a miracle, given the gross ignorance of the human residents
  3. Why does AVA loan out traps to untrained people to trap wildlife when researchers have to get permits just to observe said wildlife? (Similarly, why does AVA loan out traps to residents to trap cats, when they can’t even ensure that any trapped cats are treated humanely?)
  4. There are a few simple rules that will help Singaporeans to live their close-to-nature fantasy without the seemingly incidental man-vs-macaque conflict. (The trick, as far as I can see, is in getting them a following.)

When I read this paragraph, I can’t help but feel even more sorry for the traumatised family of the trapped macaque baby in the Binjai Park residents’ “get-back” at monkeys fiasco:

First, the macaques were said to have bared their teeth in a sign of aggression. But this display is known as the ‘fear grin’. Macaques don’t display such a grin when they are about to attack; they display it when they are surrendering. The grin is similar to the fake smiles that humans show sometimes, assuring their superiors they know their place.

The adult macaques were actually giving in to their tormentors, and trying to show that they meant no harm to the people who set the trap, and just want their baby back… who ultimately still died despite its family’s pleas, put to death by the AVA of course.

That Singapore has 4.5 million people and 1,400 long-tailed macaques shows the macaques are at a distinct disadvantage. The STB (formerly STPB) must be asleep when scientists suggested Singapore’s macaques may be distinct from other breeds of long-tailed macaques. Imagine what a genuine complement that would be to the (commonly viewed as flaky by commoners) “Uniquely Singapore” campaign.

Mr Gumert also say, “The macaque population in Singapore is small but viable” even though 5,000 is a more reasonable number to work with… must we, the citizens of Singapore, push them over the brink?

Another interesting and surely AUTHENTTIC Uniquely Singapore link our macaques hold is this tidbit Mr Gumert closed his article with:

Most Singaporeans are not aware of this, but the species name Macaca fascicularis was coined by none other than Sir Stamford Raffles in 1821. I doubt he would be happy if Singaporeans were to turn the lights off on a species that he officially named.

So much for happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation. Have we progressed or regressed since 1821?

March 25, 2008

How macaques and humans can live together

By Michael D. Gumert, For The Straits Times

st_images_mgmonkey.jpg
MONKEY TROUBLE: A macaque near Bukit Timah. The scarcity of space in Singapore has sparked conflict between humans and macaques. — ST FILE PHOTO

PEOPLE come to Singapore for many reasons – the glitz, the shopping malls, the food, the entertainment, the conveniences. When I moved to Singapore, it was for none of these reasons.

I came to learn about a small population of long-tailed macaques that live in the few forest patches that remain on this once lushly forested island.

The Victorian naturalist and co-discoverer of the theory of evolution Alfred Russel Wallace once said that Singapore was one of the most species-rich locations in Southeast Asia. Today, Singapore’s rainforests are nearly gone and there’s a new forest canopy of concrete, glass and steel. This human jungle has sprawled all over the small island, bio-diversity has been replaced with market diversity, and the space for one of our simian cousins, the long-tailed macaque, is dwindling.

That scarcity of space has sparked conflict between humans and macaques. And the humans are ‘hitting back’ in response to macaque food raids.

Recently, a few residents near Bukit Timah decided to catch macaques on their own and, according to The New Paper, the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority provided them with a trap. The trappers succeeded: They captured a baby macaque!

Naturally, the other macaques got mad and the humans became hysterical. This agitated the macaques even more and a simian rumble ensued.

Media reports of the event contained several alleged facts that struck me – a primatologist who has studied the long-tailed macaque for 10 years – as odd.

First, the macaques were said to have bared their teeth in a sign of aggression. But this display is known as the ‘fear grin’. Macaques don’t display such a grin when they are about to attack; they display it when they are surrendering. The grin is similar to the fake smiles that humans show sometimes, assuring their superiors they know their place.

Also odd was the report of a fear-grinning macaque chasing humans into their bedroom. Macaques just don’t run full speed into unfamiliar places unless forced.

Finally, the reports claimed the macaques were howling. Macaques don’t howl. They grunt, scream and bark but they don’t howl.

The media reports would seem to have been exaggerated. They probably reflected how ‘terrorised’ people perceived things rather than reality. Moreover, it is altogether likely that humans helped provoke the simian riot by acting inappropriately in a dangerous situation.

First rule when faced with a dangerous macaque situation: Remain calm. The more emotional and distraught one becomes, the more agitated macaques get.

Second rule: When macaques are riled up, it’s best to move slowly. Do not turn your back on them. Stand your ground, but don’t stare.

Macaques rarely make contact aggression while you face them. If you turn and run, you may get chased.

So if you get into a stand- off with a macaque, walk backwards slowly but keep facing the assailant. Turn only when you are about 5-6m away from the macaque, and then walk away briskly. Check if the animal is following you. If it is, and you cannot get away quickly enough, turn and face the animal again.

Imagine if I trapped my neighbour’s children because they had been disturbing me. Would you feel bad if the father slugged me and took his children back? I would think not.

So why would humans be surprised when macaques get mad when their infants are trapped? In many ways, their reaction shows courage.

How many creatures stand up to formidable foes to protect their kind? How many would not turn tail and run in the face of danger, as the ‘terrorised’ humans did when the macaques revolted?

As a whole, macaques stand little chance against humans. But if the situation demands it, they do stand up. One has to respect them for that – and learn how not to trigger macaque revolts.

We are lucky no one was hurt in this poorly planned ‘hit back’ against the food-raiding macaques. The surest way to get a macaque to attack a human is to mishandle its young. This recent simian rumble could have been avoided with different tactics.

Even to watch macaques in behavioural research, scholars must obtain ethics approval and park permits. So why were inexperienced residents provided with equipment and permitted to capture macaques? They endangered themselves and others in their communities. Monkey revolts are far more dangerous than monkey food raids.

How do we avoid conflicts with macaques? One key is urban planning. Building homes at forest fringes causes difficulties. People living near forests all over the world face wildlife problems. White-tailed deer eat ornamental plants in the United States, elephants trample houses in Africa and macaques raid homes in Singapore. All this happens mostly within 200m of forests. The only way not to get into conflicts with macaques is not to live near forests.

That does not mean, however, that those who have moved close to forest fringes – because they are nature enthusiasts, perhaps – are doomed to fight endless macaque wars.

First, never feed macaques. Once they know you are a food patch, they will visit you daily. Second, keep your house shut, don’t leave food in open places and secure your trash. Lastly, keep large sticks, a hose or water-sprayer and an air horn. You can use any of these to scare macaques away. With a little effort, macaques will learn that your house has little to offer them.

Singapore has 4.5 million people and 1,400 long-tailed macaques. Scientists suggest Singapore’s macaques may be distinct from other breeds of long-tailed macaques. Conservation biologists recommend animal populations should be greater than 5,000 to be genetically viable. But a population greater than 500 can be maintained through active management.

The macaque population in Singapore is small but viable. Some countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have millions of macaques. Maybe nowhere on earth is human-macaque conflict so well controlled as it is in Singapore, thanks to the National Parks Board’s good management.

Most Singaporeans are not aware of this, but the species name Macaca fascicularis was coined by none other than Sir Stamford Raffles in 1821. I doubt he would be happy if Singaporeans were to turn the lights off on a species that he officially named.

The writer, a primatologist, is an assistant professor of primatology at the Nanyang Technological University.

Advertisements

2 responses to “ST 20080325: How macaques and humans can live together

  1. Sigh! Humans excel at vilifying their victims. This is awful. It’s like the singapore version of what happens in N.America to coyotes, wolves, raccoons, squirrels,beavers … you name it, even pigeons and blackbirds. We take over the land, destroy habitats, then despise the survivors for looking for/finding ways to adapt and live amongst us.

  2. Yes, exactly. Somehow humans don’t play well with others… we don’t even play well with other humans, so I guess it’s expected.