Reflections: BQLive with a JGIS Volunteer Guide

I probably first encountered Singapore’s long-tailed macaques when I was a child, during my family trips to the nature parks and reserves. In secondary school and junior college, I saw the macaques more frequently as my Co-Curricular Activity (CCA) trained regularly at MacRitchie Reservoir. Over the past few years, I came to recognise and appreciate them as characteristic of Singapore’s biodiversity. Burning Questions Live with JGIS volunteer guide Joys was a perfect chance for me to learn more about this species! Knowing that not everyone was fond of them, I was also curious about the work that goes into ensuring human-macaque coexistence in Singapore. 

What I Learned

The most surprising thing I learned was that long-tailed macaques are also known as crab-eating macaques. I had no idea that crabs were a part of their diet! As evidence, Joys showed us a photograph of a macaque walking through a local mangrove, searching for crabs. She explained that such sightings are rare as many of Singapore’s shores have been developed, leaving a limited number of coastal environments for the macaques to find crabs. Fortunately, she reassured us that most of Singapore’s macaque population has adapted to this change. They now spend most of their time in the edges of our forests, feeding mainly on fruits. Regardless, it was a reminder of how urbanisation can affect wild animals.

I was also intrigued to learn that macaques live in troops of typically 25 to 35 individuals! I hadn’t expected such a large number. These troops would consist of a mixture of individuals of both genders and various age groups. Within each troop would be a social hierarchy, with some macaques having titles such as alpha, beta, gamma, and so on. Alpha individuals have privileges, such as being the first to eat and choosing the sleeping site. However, they also have to keep the troop safe from harm. Being a leader is more than having a title!

Listening to Joys, I gained a new perspective on the issue of human-macaque conflicts in Singapore. Due to our country’s small size, many people live close to natural areas, creating a zone of overlap between the macaques’ and our human habitats. Furthermore, our limited and segregated green spaces mean macaques often have to pass through urban areas to move between forests. Where our living spaces intersect, food becomes a key driver of conflicts. Macaques are drawn to humans because we provide food, directly through feeding or indirectly through food disposal. Conflicts arise when macaques get too close for comfort and humans are unsure of how to manage the situation appropriately.

Unfavourable encounters coupled with the media’s negative framing may have led some to detest the macaques. However, Joys explained that the aggressive side of their behaviour can be traced back to us feeding them, conditioning them to approach us for food. Furthermore, they cannot understand our human boundaries, such as walls and fences. Ultimately, it is up to us to learn the appropriate behaviour for macaque encounters and implement measures to drive them away from our homes.

A Question

Sustainable conservation efforts require the support of the general population. Unfortunately, Prof Siva had shared during the session that the long-tailed macaques are not very well received by the Singapore public. Just as how some are unhappy about having to fend off otters, some may not be pleased if they were told to adopt measures to keep macaques at bay. How then can we convince the public that the macaques are worth the trouble? Especially for those who do not innately appreciate them, how do we justify the need for certain measures that would require their time, effort, and maybe even money?

To Help People Learn About Macaques

Improving public understanding of species such as the long-tailed macaques undoubtedly requires education and outreach. Apart from the content, the way the information is packaged is also important. One way I would suggest making learning about macaques more interesting is to employ techniques like personification and analogies. These would present the macaques and their related issues as more familiar and hopefully easier to understand.

For example, we could create a “day in the life” video of the species, making use of real-life footage or cartoon animation. The video can include important information about macaques in an informal and approachable format. Additionally, it can highlight the more human-like aspects of macaques, such as how they build social bonds by playing with each other. Showcasing their natural lifestyle can also remind viewers of the unnatural aspects, such as eating human food. 

Another example: we could draw similarities between taking care of pets and behaving appropriately around macaques. Chocolate is bad for dogs, but knowing that they cannot make that judgement themselves, we keep chocolate out of their reach. Likewise, human food is unhealthy for macaques. Unfortunately, they’re not aware of that, especially when they’ve become conditioned to feeding and having easy access to human food. Hence, in being responsible for our native “pet,” we should keep and guard our food around macaques, monkey-proof our bins, and stop feeding them. Hopefully, through such analogies, the public may better understand and be more willing to adopt the steps necessary for human-macaque coexistence. 

My Thanks

Learning about macaques and Joys’ volunteering experiences at JGIS was exciting! After the session, I felt grateful to her and the many others dedicated to protecting Singapore’s primates and educating the people about them. In the past, I’ve always just referred to them as “monkeys.” Thanks to Joys, I can now call them by their proper names and differentiate them!

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