How macaques and humans can live together in Singapore

Michael D. Gumert, Straits Times 25 Mar 08;

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 psychology at the Nanyang Technological University.

Article gave macaques a human face
Letter from Chua Shuyi (Miss), Straits Times Forum 1 Apr 08;

I READ with great interest Dr Michael D. Gumert's article last Tuesday, 'How macaques and humans can live together'.

Wildlife and conservation articles are often dry and dull, yet Dr Gumert managed to convey his message by giving the macaques a human face, while not compromising on facts.

I have been a victim of teeth-baring macaques during runs in MacRitchie Reservoir. I've had energy drinks stolen and emptied by these creatures. These unhappy experiences caused me to fear long- tailed macaques and see them as a nuisance.

Never did I realise macaques bare their teeth to show submission, nor did I realise they steal our food because we first feed them and inadvertently cause them to become dependent on us. Imagine, these poor creatures have lost the ability to find their own food in the wild.

Who's the savage one? Man or beast?
Letter from Dudley Au, Straits Times Forum 5 Apr 08;

I REFER to Ms Chua Shuyi's letter on Tuesday, 'Article gave macaques a human face'. Whales, elephants, the American bison and a host of others are either on the threshold of extinction or have passed into extinction.

At present, the American bison is being nurtured (bred) in national reserves to try to pull it from the threshold of no return. The pitbull was bred on purpose by genetic mixture to produce a savage animal to fight the bull in the arena. If we look at it, in its proper perspective, both the bull and the pitbull are not enemies and would rather go their way in peace. Man, arbitrarily, brings them together in the ring, to satisfy his sadistic craving in the form of such 'entertainment'. When the pitbull is kept as a pet and it attacks or kills a human, the animal is killed.

Where does the culpability for savagery lie? Does it lie with the dog which was programmed to be this way or does it lie with the human species which programmed the animal? Ms Chua got it right when she said we feed the macaque until it becomes dependent on us and then we blame the macaque for this dependency.

There is a growing awareness of certain sections of the human population who are dedicated to the saving of animals from cruelty and from pushing them into extinction. The numbers are growing and it is hoped in time there will be great eradication of cruelty and killing. There can be no absolute eradication given the human species' irresistible compulsion to kill even each other. To believe otherwise would be specious.