Man vs monkey at MacRitchie

Joel Cooper Straits Times 30 Sep 12;

Who says Singapore is a safe country?

Only the other week, I was forced to step in after witnessing an attempted mugging.

Worse still, it happened in broad daylight on the crowded boardwalk of MacRitchie Reservoir Park.

The petite victim was clinging desperately to her bag as her assailant - a short, hairy chap - tried to wrestle it from her. I couldn't just stand by and do nothing. It was time to act.

"Get away from her," I shouted.

The mugger turned and glared, eyes boring into me with a look of pure animal rage. Then, releasing his grip on the woman's bag, he bared his teeth and hissed in contempt before scurrying off on all fours along the boardwalk.

Damn those cheeky monkeys.

I used to love hanging out with the long-tailed macaques of MacRitchie. But since witnessing this shameless attempted robbery, I have started to regard them as a bit of a menace.

It's not the first time that something like this has happened. Last year, a fitness corner was renovated near the entrance to the park. But before it had even been opened, the equipment was already being put to use - and I don't mean by senior citizens. Like a troupe of little furry gymnasts, the macaques swarmed all over it, balancing on the sit-up machine and hanging from the bars.

One of them was even perched proudly on the exercise bike like an Olympic cyclist about to start his workout. I was shocked. Here was this fresh, shiny facility designed for the wellbeing of old folk in the area being abused by a bunch of hairy interlopers.

Of course, the macaques have been making a nuisance of themselves for quite a while now, ever since some bone- headed park visitors first mistook them for pets and started feeding them. But even in the 11/2 years that I've lived in the area, the problem seems to have gotten worse.

Warnings that monkey feeders will be prosecuted don't appear to make much difference. At the entrance to the nature reserve, the surly primates can sometimes be seen sauntering about like teenage delinquents clutching empty chip packets or even cigarette cartons.

Littering, mugging, a taste for junk food: It seems the macaques are finally suffering one of the worst fates that could befall any creature. They are becoming human.

It's a tragedy that inevitably occurs whenever people and animals are thrown together by the relentless advance of modern living. MacRitchie may have escaped being sucked into the concrete wilderness, but even in their woodland oasis, the macaques cannot hide from mankind's corrupting influence.

Once, way back before the dawn of history, humans were mere guests in a world ruled by animals. Hunted by tigers and terrorised by floods, droughts or herds of stampeding elephants, our ancestors tiptoed around in fear of the mighty beasts they could not control.

Nowadays, we rule the roost. And if any other creature wants to survive in this plastic world that we've created, it had better be on our terms. Is it any wonder that the more the monkeys see of humans, the more they feel the need to act like us?

In a tiny, industrialised country like Singapore, the problem is especially acute. The garden city may be clean, green and blessed with well-run national parks, but that does not mean man and beast won't occasionally clash.

Less than two weeks ago, an elderly woman fell and broke her hip after a wild boar on Pulau Ubin started tugging at a bag of food she was carrying.

The biggest tragedy is that the only places where humans and animals can coexist happily are those where the people are poorest materially. The tribes of the Amazon basin have a fantastic relationship with the creatures of the forest. Unfortunately, they also have very little in the way of money, clothes or modern gadgets. And as soon as they acquire these things - which, let's face it, all of us want - the harmony is shattered forever.

I hope that we can find a way to live alongside the monkeys of MacRitchie. In the meantime, I've a suggestion for how to deal with those irresponsible buffoons who continue to offer them food. Simply send them to live in the forest and give the macaques their houses.

What better way to give both species a taste of how the other half lives?

I'll bet that after a few days spent trawling through household bills or negotiating the packed MRT, the monkeys will be itching to escape from the urban jungle.