Macaque issue: Stop monkeying around

Michael D. Gumert, For The Straits Times 8 Dec 10;

SINGAPORE, the acme of modernisation, struggles with a simple issue: monkeys.

Citizens demonise them for minor inconveniences. The media portrays them as gangsters and villains. Wildlife organisations lack the staff, knowledge and will to manage them. All of which begs the question: Why is a country that is so good at managing so much, so poor at managing its wildlife?

The answer is simple: No serious effort has gone into it. Officials act like it is a minor issue, but every few months, an article or two appears in every major newspaper in Singapore highlighting macaques. If it is so unimportant, why do we hear so much about the issue?

Sadly, the current approach to macaque management is inadequate. People are not fully educated on the issues, and sensational newspaper articles forge a warped impression of macaques. We also lack a long-term, scientific monitoring of the macaque population, which is absolutely necessary for wildlife management.

We should stop immediately the 'loaning' of traps to untrained citizens, putting them at risk. Scientists require special training and permission to safely capture monkeys, which can become violent when contained. But in Singapore, any resident can 'borrow' a monkey trap for his home, possibly triggering monkey mobs.

Citizens need good information and restrictions should be set for people choosing homes near macaques. Individuals should not be demanding the extermination of Singaporean wildlife because of personal inconveniences. Macaques are part of the public natural heritage; we must carefully weigh the views of all Singaporeans before acting.

The media has a responsibility to correctly represent the facts to the public. Much media coverage still focuses on satirical articles that childishly humanise macaques as villainous miscreants that victimise their innocent neighbours.

Singapore needs a professional macaque programme. There should be a specialised wildlife unit, devoted solely to working with macaques, and having enough flexibility to effectively manage such issues as:

# Modifying the environment in human- macaque interface zones, such as by requiring monkey-proof bins, structures and homes;

# Monitoring people's behaviour, educating them and providing well-trained rangers to assist citizens troubled by macaques;

# Providing a scientific monitoring system that will track macaque populations and actively manage and conserve Singapore's macaques.

It is funny to sit back and watch monkeys continually outsmart their less adept human neighbours, but eventually the humour wears off. In the end, the price is dead monkeys - despite which people still go on complaining about them.

It is time to quit monkeying around, and turn Singapore's so-called 'monkey business' into an internationally respected wildlife programme.

The writer is an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University. Having worked closely with macaques for more than 10 years, including living with them in the forests of Indonesia, Dr Gumert currently studies stone tool-using long-tailed macaques in Thailand.

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