Malaysia: Monkey Matters

There’s a whole lot of monkeying taking place up in Malaysia’s northern region — and we have researchers Nadine Ruppert and Jo Leen Yap to thank for that.
Elena Koshy New Straits Times 21 Jul 18;

DIAN Fossey and Jane Goodall are household names for their ground-breaking research on primates. Both women ultimately dominated their fields, and at a young age, both felt driven to explore the natural world. These early excursions helped launch their long-term studies of primates.

Clearly, we’ve learnt a great deal not just about our evolutionary cousins but also about ourselves thanks to the work that they began. But forget gorillas in the mist, or even the deceptively smart chimpanzees that Goodall loved and made famous, we have our very own primates right here in Malaysia — 25 species of them according to the IUCN Red List, an international inventory of animal species.

We also have our very own primate champions whose fascination with our local simians have produced fascinating results, proving that these overlooked creatures have an intrinsic value to our fragile natural ecosystem.

From the overtly friendly and oft-aggressive long-tailed macaques of Kuala Selangor to the elusive gibbon perched on a high tree at the Royal Belum forest, primates remain one of the few creatures (unlike other wild animals) that most people have encountered, but little understood. Persecuted, harassed and dismissed, our primates are perhaps the most mistreated animals in this nation.

For Dr Nadine Ruppert and Jo Leen Yap, studying these animals has been nothing short of fascinating. “There’s a great deal that we don’t know about the primates of Peninsular Malaysia,” reveals Rupert, admitting: “Sporadic researches have been conducted in the past but none has been very comprehensive.”

Ruppert is currently involved in several research projects involving the study of primates. “They’re our closest relatives,” she quips with a laugh, when asked about her abject interest in these animals. “There are so many angles and aspects to discover when studying these creatures. The implications for science and for our understanding of ourselves are profound.”

RATTING OUT ON THE PIG-TAILED MACAQUE

One of Ruppert’s projects is the research of the Southern pig-tailed macaque (Macaca nemestrina), found in lowland and hilly primary rainforests, and occasionally spotted in swamps and secondary forests. This species, as with other primates, Ruppert points out, have been affected by the decline of forest habitat and have resorted to venturing into oil palm plantations to forage. “Most farmers and plantation owners consider them to be crop pests,” she says.

Pig-tailed macaques are known to be highly frugivorous, with most of their diet consisting of fruit while the remainder includes insects, seeds, young leaves and small creatures. However, after almost two years of close observation, Ruppert and her band of researchers have discovered that the macaques at the Segari Melintang Forest Reserve in Perak have got an interesting addition to their protein needs — the large rats scurrying around oil palm plantations!

“They’re usually known to be stealthy crop raiders, often particularly adept in raiding nearby agricultural fields, including oil palm plantations,” explains Ruppert. The pig-tailed macaques at her research quadrant had other ideas. Venturing out of the forest fringes around the plantations, these macaques were found scavenging after large rodents for their meals.

Rat-eating monkeys? Fascinating! Ruppert catches on to my scepticism and laughs. “It’s quite a discovery,” she insists. Agriculture alone drives 80 per cent of global deforestation and the demands of a growing global population are increasing pressure on a shrinking area of forested land.

“With farmers and plantation owners resorting to pesticide, it’s not just our wildlife that will be impacted through direct or indirect application, such as pesticide drift, secondary poisoning, runoff into local bodies or groundwater contamination,” she explains. Introducing these macaques as a viable biological pesticide, she adds, might give agricultural owners a far healthier option for pest or rodent control.

“Natural predators can do what they’re meant to do in nature — provide natural controls,” she says, adding: “Organic systems save wildlife from the dangerous impacts of pesticides, encourage them to flourish and restore the natural balance that’s unable to exist in a conventional agricultural system.”

The research is still ongoing, she says, adding with a smile: “It’s been fascinating studying these creatures.” How was it possible that these wild macaques would allow researchers like Ruppert to sit with them and follow them around, recording details of their lives? “The answer is habituation,” she says. “It’s a basic and important rule for studying primates and other wild animals.”

In animal behaviour studies, habituation specifically refers to the process of getting animals used to people. In forests, where most primates live, it becomes a difficult endeavour to observe wild animals in their natural habitat, especially when they’re skittish and wary of human presence. So if you want to study primates, says Ruppert, habituating them to your presence becomes necessary.

She shares: “It took quite some time to get them used to our presence. Our researchers go into the forest from 7 in the morning to 7 in the evening, observing them. These macaques love being in swampy areas, and sometimes the situation can get a little tricky. One of my researchers almost stepped on a python in the swamp!”

SWINGING IT WITH THE DUSKY LANGURS

Ruppert’s obvious interest in our evolutionary cousins has rubbed off on Yap. The PhD student who counts Ruppert as a mentor, tells me that studying the dusky langurs of Penang was a natural choice. “I grew up in Bukit Mertajam, and I’ve had encounters with dusky langurs while hiking up the Cherok Tokun hill,” she recalls. Her interest was further sparked when she was working in Batu Caves for her post graduate studies. “Seeing dusky langurs there somehow compelled me to find out more about these primates. I soon found out that there wasn’t much research done and they were generally either regarded as pests or worse, taken as pets,” she says.

Adding, she elaborates: “I realised there was a need for more baseline data regarding these langurs which are being displaced because like all other wildlife in this country, their habitats have been encroached and fragmented. leading to more human-wildlife conflicts.”

With Ruppert as her advisor, Yap embarked on her Langur project which set out to study the ecology and behaviour of the Dusky Langurs or Dusky Leaf Monkeys (Trachypithecus obscurus). Found on the island of Penang, this primate is also known by other names such as langur, lotong, lutong and spectacled langur. Their range stretches from Southern Myanmar to Peninsular Malaysia and they’re mostly found in closed primary forests. The Dusky Leaf Monkey is arboreal (i.e. lives in trees) and folivorous (i.e. eats leaves); although they also feed on certain fruits, flowers and young shoots.

“People assume that these creatures live deep in the forest, but with their forest — especially in Penang fast degrading, they’ve had little choice but to move to more urbanised areas, she says. This, she points out, forces the primates to travel between fragmented forests leading to them being vulnerable to road accidents and encounters with other predators, including humans.

“Some people tend to want to adopt these creatures as pets,” discloses Yap exasperatedly. The demand for exotic pets has led to an unrecorded number of deaths with poachers annihilating an entire family group just to obtain the baby, which soon follows the fate of its parents as pet owners are ill equipped to care for it.

Harnessing the power of community, Yap embarked on the project using citizen science to collect information. Citizen science is the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Through citizen science, people share and contribute to data monitoring by providing Yap with information on the species’ sightings. “We enlisted the help of residents to Whatsapp or message us on sightings of the langurs in order to get an idea of their distribution around Penang,” she says.

The collaborative efforts, she adds, also come hand in hand with education. Says Yap: “We’ve developed educational tools, went on roadshows and raised awareness of these langurs so people could gain a better understanding on how to co-exist with these animals.”

Transforming her research into an outreach project has paid off, she discloses. The 2½-year-old project now involves a team of volunteers who venture into the forest to observe and habituate with these creatures while recording their behaviour and movements. The data collected is now leading Yap to plan another venture — creating canopy bridges targeting arboreal wildlife.

“It will be the first of its kind here in Malaysia,” discloses Yap proudly, adding: “With their habitats being fragmented, the risk of becoming roadkill is high. The collaborative project involving several agencies including APE Malaysia (Animal Projects & Environmental Education) uses upcycled fire hoses to build these bridges so that these animals can cross safely on busy roads.”

NO BUSINESS LIKE MONKEY BUSINESS

Primate studies are now well established around the world; inspired, in part, by women like Goodall and Fossey. For Yap and Ruppert, taking on the baton from 
these illustrious scientists is vital to this part of the world. “As our forests slowly disappear, our wildlife will soon follow suit,” says Yap soberly.

A recent research shows that three-quarters of primate species globally are in decline and about 60 per cent are now threatened with extinction. From gorillas to gibbons, primates are in significantly worse shape now than in recent decades because of the devastation from wholesale destruction of forests making way for agriculture, hunting and illegal wildlife trade.

Primates, Yap stresses, are extremely important to the ecosystems in which they live. As they feed on leaves and fruits, for example, they move pollen between trees. They pass seeds in their droppings, allowing plants to spread across a healthy range. “People used to think of primates as not being vital for ecosystems,” says Yap, adding: “But now we know they are.”

Chips in Ruppert: “Everything is interconnected with our ecosystem. Removing certain links from this chain will impact the entire human race negatively.” Primates are also important as part of the natural heritage of many countries and form an important component of this planets biodiversity and the biodiversity of many individual countries.

With an ever-increasing focus on the importance of biodiversity both ecologically and economically, any loss of keystone species will have a significantly negative impact on both the ecology of their home ranges and the humans who rely upon their ecological functions. “The very simple message everyone needs to understand is increased biodiversity equals increased benefits for humans in every area, from health to economy, with the reverse equalling great losses for humans,” says Yap.

Ruppert tells me that her other projects on hand include counting the population of the endangered white-handed gibbons at Merapoh: “Knowing the population of these creatures will most definitely help in conserving the forest tract there.” There are also researchers studying the long-tailed macaques at Batu Caves.

“Assessing the human-macaque interface and causes for conflict might provide us better solutions in mitigating human-wildlife conflict issues without harming these primates,” she explains.

From observing rat-eating macaques to building bridges for langurs, these two women, alongside many others, tirelessly champion the welfare of primates in the hope that with every discovery their research might shed light on, these primates will have a better chance of survival; and at the same time, further underscoring the importance of conserving our precious natural heritage.

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