Childhood pet leads to primatology calling

Dr Andie Ang is dedicated to the conservation of wildlife in Singapore
Jan Lee The New Paper 28 May 18;

Primatology is not the career a young Singaporean girl usually dreams of.

Until she gets a monkey.

When she was 10, Dr Andie Ang's family received a monkey as a gift from a relative.

It was a male vervet monkey from South Africa, and the family named him Ah Boy.

She loved the monkey with all her heart.

"I would bring him outside on my bicycle, play with him and feed him every day. We groomed each other too," recalled Dr Ang, now 33.

But the wild animal was not meant to be a pet.

When it grew to its full size, it had to be chained up in the house, for fear it might scratch and injure someone.

Eventually, keeping the monkey in the flat got too dangerous and it was moved to a factory in Tuas.

The sadness in Ah Boy's eyes as it got older started to affect Dr Ang.

She said: "No matter what I did and tried, it just seemed sad and bored."

To help her beloved pet, she did more research into the natural habitat and habits of monkeys, and soon found that being alone and away from the wild was not the way for animals like Ah Boy to live.

So Dr Ang made the decision to give it up willingly at 15.

Dr Ang said: "I knew I had to return him to the wild. But it was so heartbreaking to part with him. I knew I was never going to see him again."

REACH OUT

In a bid to find Ah Boy a suitable home, Dr Ang reached out to several agencies including the then newly formed Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres).

Blue, the dancing monkey featured as the logo of Acres, is actually based on Ah Boy.

Dr Ang said: "When Louis Ng (the founder of Acres) first saw Ah Boy, Ah Boy looked so sad that Louis decided to call him Blue. I am thankful to Louis."

Her time with Ah Boy, who was eventually released into the wild in Zambia, sparked something in Dr Ang.

At 18, on the brink of entering university to study engineering, she changed her mind and switched to life sciences at the National University of Singapore.

After furthering her studies in the US, she is now a leading primate researcher in Singapore, working to conserve the Raffles' banded langur, a breed found only in Singapore and Johor in Malaysia.

No one had spotted the notoriously shy langurs in years when Dr Ang embarked on her project 10 years ago.

She said: "I was told I could try to look for them in the forest for a few months but if I did not see any, I would have to give up.

"When I finally saw them two months in, I was so thrilled. It is not extinct."

The Raffles' banded langur is an endangered species, with just some 50 of them in Singapore.

Aside from chairing the langur working group, Dr Ang is the president of an environmental group, the Jane Goodall Institute in Singapore.

She also assists in education and awareness-raising campaigns to help Singaporeans live in harmony with wildlife.

Increasing urbanisation here has closed the distance between humans and wildlife, and encounters can range from annoying to dangerous.

Complaints of macaques going into residences foraging for food are common among those living near the nature reserves and forests of Singapore.

CONCERNS

Dr Ang said such concerns are worsened by human behaviour such as poor food waste disposal or an insistence on feeding monkeys.

She said: "Sometimes people think these macaques are pitiful because they do not have enough food in the forests. But they do, and we should not feed them.

"Feeding them does more harm to them. It encourages the monkeys to leave their forest home to get easy food from us.

"With more food given out by people, the monkey population will increase at an unnatural and unsustainable rate..."

Dr Ang said she regularly comes across food left out for monkeys. She believes that having tougher enforcement of laws related to wildlife can help.

"Education and enforcement have to go hand in hand in order to stop people from feeding wildlife," said Dr Ang.

Currently, under the Parks and Trees Act, there are penalties such as fines for those caught feeding wild animals, but the law is difficult to enforce unless perpetrators are caught in the act.

The law only applies to those caught feeding within nature reserves and national parks.

Feeding of animals such as wild boars that appear outside of such places is not banned.

Last year, a wild boar was injured after colliding with a car and charged at people in the area.

A police officer shot it, and the animal was later euthanised.

Such incidents can make cultivating empathy for animals, especially those that come into contact with humans, difficult.

Calls for the culling of such animals are not uncommon, and Dr Ang takes on the tough job of emphasising to Singaporeans the importance of conservation.

"One of the biggest myths, I think, is that we do not have a lot of wildlife," said Dr Ang.

According to information from National Parks, Singapore is home to some 40,000 kinds of non-microbial organisms - which includes flora, fauna, animals and insects on land and sea.

Many of these species are native to Singapore, and some are so rare as to garner international attention.

The Neptune's cup sponge, a sea creature shaped like a goblet, was thought to be extinct until it was re-discovered in Singapore waters in 2011.

The critically endangered Singapore freshwater crab is also only known to exist here.

BIODIVERSITY

Dr Ang added: "There are some people who may say that there's not much wildlife to conserve in Singapore, but that is not true. Singapore has amazing biodiversity of which some are only found here and nowhere else."

Conservation is rapidly becoming an issue both in and out of Singapore, with South-east Asia being a particular hotspot for illegal wildlife trade.

Said Dr Ang: "Demand for tiger bones, rhino horns, elephant tusks, bear bile, shark's fin and such stems from persisting beliefs in baseless information and the desire to display one's wealth and status."

Consuming tiger bones will not help treat illness or improve vitality, she said.

But not all is lost, even as the struggle for an end to the black market for exotic animals and their parts continues.

"Education outreach goes a long way," she said.

"With more people becoming aware of the issues with consuming shark's fin, there is less demand, for example, during weddings, and more pressure for restaurants to stop serving it completely."

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