Student on a mission to save Singapore's monkeys

Meet 26-year-old Amanda Tan, the only Singaporean and also the only person currently pursuing a PhD in primatology — the study of monkeys — in Singapore.
 
The postgraduate student at Nanyang Technological University also happens to be on a quest to change the public's behaviour and attitude toward wild monkeys in Singapore, and to stop the animals from being killed.
 
Since she started observing the long-tailed macaques in Singapore's Bukit Timah Nature Reserve some years ago, Tan has become a familiar face to people in the area. She goes door-to-door and attends resident committee meetings to spread her message.
 
The complaints residents have against monkeys are numerous and seemingly unceasing, with a 24-hour hotline for monkey-related issues even set up to hear them.

The grousing has driven government agencies like the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) to hire animal control agencies as contractors to capture and kill the macaques that stray out of territory overseen by NParks, or the National Parks Board.
 
Figures from the AVA show that the number of complaints received about monkeys have more than doubled in the past two years: in 2011, the AVA recorded about 730 instances of feedback, while in the first nine months of this year alone, the number jumped to about 1,560.
 
According to the AVA, the nature of complaints involved monkeys snatching belongings and chasing pedestrians or cyclists, and in some cases biting, scratching or injuring children, the elderly or pets. In January this year, there was a report of a monkey in a school chapel that repeatedly dislodged glass window panes, while another incident last month involved a monkey reportedly entering a condominium and injuring an infant.
 
"I think macaques in general are just very, very misunderstood, which makes me feel very sad for them and at the same time I want to do something about it to tell people about macaques and how they're not really this evil creature that everyone thinks they are," she told Yahoo Singapore in a sit-down interview recently.
 
Tan says she likes bringing residents out to see macaques in nature reserve areas as well, in order to help them better understand how they behave in their natural habitats — instead of simply seeing them raiding dustbins and stealing fruit off the trees in their garden, for instance.
 
"You can see that once people start to be around macaques more and observe them more, they realise that they're actually not that terrible and that they're actually quite enjoyable to watch and you can live peacefully with them," she added.
 
Behaviour conditioned by humans
 
Tan said people's perceptions of macaques has mostly been shaped by negative portrayals of them in the media, apart from years of human behaviour that has conditioned the monkeys into thinking that people are sources of food.
 
When she was growing up, she always saw people feeding macaques alongside the turtles at Macritchie Reservoir Park on weekends, describing it as "a Sunday activity", even.
 
Since this was before the no-feeding rule was implemented by the authorities, however, she said she can understand why monkeys have over the years learned to approach people, vehicles, houses and dustbins for food instead of relying on the abundance that the forest offers.
 
"And now we have to sort of try to reverse that behavior, which is possible. Everyone just really needs to stop feeding them and exclude them from any food sources, but it's been years so it will probably take years to reverse the behaviour as well."
 
"In fact, monkeys can eat insects, leaves, fruits off the trees, even some types of bark," Tan added while leading us around Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and showing us the usual places the group of macaques she follows appears. "So the forest has no shortage of food for the macaques, and they certainly don't need to look outside for more."
 
What can people do?
 
So what can people do to help reverse macaque behaviour without driving them to extinction in Singapore?
 
"People have to start doing things like not planting fruit trees in their gardens if they don't want macaques, and keeping their windows closed if no one's in the room to supervise," she said for example.
 
"It's quite hard to ask people to do things to their houses because they feel like they have the right to live how they want and shouldn't have to change because of monkeys, but I guess people have to understand that in areas where they live very close to nature reserves… they need to understand what it really means to live with nature," she added.
 
And what can government agencies do? Tan said she understands the need for them to attend to people's concerns about public safety and to immediately address the macaques' aggressive behaviour where it is manifested, but at the same time, to her, culling is but a "band-aid solution" that will not help residents in the long-term.
 
"Most of the time, it's the babies who get caught in traps, not the adults who are smarter and who tend to exhibit the aggressive behaviour where it happens," said Tan. "That's not solving the problem because the adults will just have more babies, and it's also not dealing with the root cause of the issue, which is human behaviour."
 
The agencies should also make it a priority to assist residents living near nature reserve areas with structural improvements such as the provision of monkey-proof bins, and teach them to quickly harvest fruits that grow on their fruit trees and allow them to ripen off them instead of where monkeys can reach them, for instance. Central rubbish disposal areas should also be monkey-proofed as well, she added.
 
Tan says Singapore can also be liked other countries that are moving away from culling and going toward longer-term solutions like training and deploying manpower to respond to macaque complaints on the ground and assist and educate people being harassed by monkeys.
 
"If agencies see the need to manage the macaques properly as wildlife, and maybe allotted more funding to hiring more staff to train people to work with macaques and manage them better, it would definitely help," she said.