Thursday, April 03, 2008

Human folly & animal suffering

Yet another example of foolish Singaporean / human behaviour that causes suffering to the animals.

Article #1 : Straits Times Review - March 25, 2008

How macaques and humans can live together
By Michael D. Gumert, For The Straits Times

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 #2 : Straits Times Free Story
- Dec 31, 2007

They're still feeding the monkeys
NParks may up fine and rope in security firms to nab culprits
By Arti Mulchand

THERE are fines, heaps of signs, and numerous reports about monkeys attacking feeders and picnicking families for food.

Yet many park-goers are oblivious, and seem to think the National Parks Board (NParks) is monkeying around when it tells them not to feed the primates that call the reserves around MacRitchie and Peirce reservoirs home.

Yesterday, barely five metres from a sign asking visitors to 'Stop feeding the monkeys... Fine $250' at Lower Peirce Reservoir, engineer Joseph Ng hung out with his sister, young niece and nephew, and maid, armed with a bag of bananas and small mandarin oranges.

Within seconds, he was surrounded by at least 15 feisty long-tailed macaques, demanding to be fed, with yet more bounding over.

This, just a day after this newspaper reported that monkey-feeders were to blame for a horde of monkeys attacking a food-bearing pregnant woman and her toddler.

'It's just a way to entertain the kids... It's only natural for us to feed them,' Mr Ng said, adding that he did not know feeding the monkeys was an offence. The sign he thought, was just a poster, and the 'fine is too small to read'.

'I didn't see it,' he declared, adamant.

So far this year, 151 people have been caught red-handed and fined. NParks may also up its fine, and rope in security companies to nab more culprits.

Mr Ng was one of the braver feeders - other park-goers were spotted throwing everything from fruit and potato chips to empty crisp packets to the scores of monkeys waiting by the roadside from the safety of their cars.

But just as Mr Ng stated that he knew of the danger - and was therefore more watchful of the primates - a cheeky long-tailed individual jumped up, twice ripping the red plastic bag he was clutching to free the rest of the treats.

According to the experts, feeding the monkeys changes their dietary habits and makes them aggressive when they are denied food.

They search for food outside the forest, recognise vehicles and plastic bags as potential food containers, and often end up invading homes around the nature reserves.

Illegal feedings continue to be the monkey on the back of NParks, sparking problems across the island.

Yesterday, over at MacRitchie Reservoir, one cheeky monkey made off with a packet of Milo drink from a family's picnic spread, and scurried up a tree to quench his thirst.

And then, as Bulgarian violin teacher Veneta Zlatinova, 42, settled down for her picnic with her husband and sons, she was also in for a rude shock.

A long-tailed macaque jumped up on the bench where her son sat and worked through two bags to find a homemade roti prata - filled with cheese no less.

Shocked that the monkeys were so 'fearless', she said perhaps the answer would be for people to simply not take food to the parks at all - whether as feeders, or as visitors.

'First of all people should stop feeding the monkeys... And also, this is their forest, we are in their territory.

'And when they see us eating, they expect the food is theirs too. I have always told my sons not to feed the monkeys, but perhaps we should not be eating in front of them too,' she concluded.
SEEING RED: A monkey ripped the red plastic bag engineer Joseph Ng used to hold some bananas and oranges. He was feeding the monkeys at Lower Peirce Reservoir with his sister, niece, nephew, and their maid. -- ST PHOTOS: WONG KWAI CHOW

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