Charismatic Primates of Malaysia Event Recap

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It was a wet Sunday afternoon as our counterparts from across the CauseWay graced our UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Heritage Site by giving a public talk on the primate conservation scene in Malaysia and what is being done to save non-human primates there. Overall, it was an enriching time for anyone interested in the natural history of primates and particularly, their conservation.

Dr Nadine gave an overview of the primate diversity in Malaysia and talked about several innovative projects. Malaysia is home to over 25 species of primates, with representatives from all grades of primates (lorises, tarsiers, monkeys, and apes), making it a fertile place for wanna-be primatologists. Primatology has indeed come a long way since Jane Goodall picked up her binoculars and went to Gombe! With the clever use of technology such as drones and heat cameras, it is now possible to answer questions that cannot be answered 50 years ago. For example, gibbons are traditionally hard to observe visually and must be tracked by their calls. While the traditional way is to trek in the forest, listen and take compass bearings, technology has allowed researchers to get sound recordings and figure out the locations of gibbons within the forest in a more effective manner. Other interesting projects include the study on pig-tailed macaques (Macaca nemestrina) as biological control in oil palm plantations. Macaques are usually regarded by farmers as pests due to crop raiding, but if they are found to be controlling the rat infestation in farm areas, people may develop better impressions of macaques which can aid in their conservation.

Ms. Joleene Yap next shared about her conservation group called Langur Project Penang. Like our Raffles’ Banded Langur project, it comprises of two major components – field research and community outreach. It concerns the conservation of the dusky leaf monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus). A close relative to our local langurs (Presbytis femoralis femoralis) the dusky leaf monkey can be differentiated from the banded langur by its thick white eye rings and orange juveniles (banded langur babies are white in colour). The thick eye rings are the reason behind its other common name – the spectacled langur.

But why focus on dusky leaf monkeys? Firstly, they perform an important role in the forest ecosystems of Penang. They are major seed dispersers which is important in an island that lacks large land animals to perform such an important ecosystem service. Seeds are swallowed with any fruits they consume and are passed out in the feces which helps the plants reproduce and thus aids in the regeneration of Penang’s forests. The dusky leaf monkeys also interact with other animal species in their habitat, such as racket-tailed drongos. These birds which follow the monkeys to feed on any insects disturbed during the monkeys’ daily activities. Their importance in the forest ecosystem, together with their charisma mean that the dusky leaf monkeys makes a good flagship and umbrella species for public outreach and conservation. Conserving leaf monkeys means their fellow animal inhabitants can be protected too!

Like Singapore, Penang is undergoing rapid development and urbanisation which results in habitat loss and fragmentation. Habitat fragmentation makes it more difficult for the monkeys to travel between patches of suitable habitat. While most monkeys can navigate the urban environment even if this means having to climb a man-made cable, older and younger monkeys who are unable to do that must cross the road. Being fleet-footed means that the monkeys can cross the road relatively fast most of the time, but failure is fatal. In an urban area that Joleene and her team surveyed, 7 cases of roadkill have been reported since August 2016.

Habitat loss and fragmentation also means that humans and langurs meet each other more often. One of the ways that humans interact with langurs is by feeding them, and this is bad for langurs. Feeding langurs raises the likelihood of human primate conflict. Langurs become aggressive once they have developed a dependency on human handouts. Besides losing an instinct for foraging, langurs tend to crowd around waiting for human food. As overcrowding makes a great incubator for outbreaks of infectious diseases, such feeding has a deleterious impact on langur populations. Monkeys on a human diet also tend to be overweight which negatively impacts their health. There are better ways to show your love for nature, such as volunteering in local conservation groups!

People keeping dusky leaf monkeys (and other animals) is also threatening their survival. Monkeys may look cute, but keeping them as pets supports a cruel trade. For every individual that makes it to the market, many more die in the process.

Ms. Bam Mariani of the Gibbon Protection Society next spoke about her work with gibbons, also known as the smaller apes. Comprising of 20 species in 4 genera, they are well adapted for a life swinging in the trees. Much of Bam’s work revolves around her “school” for gibbons. These gibbon students in her school need to learn survival skills to go back to the wild. Most of the students have been liberated by Malaysia’s wildlife enforcement from a life in captivity as pets. While taking care of the gibbons, Bam witnesses the physical and psychological damage dealt by the pet trade. She receives scratches and bites from many of these gibbons, which shows how much they have been traumatized as caged pets. Despite the care that she and her team gives, some of these gibbon students were unable to “graduate” and die in the process of rehabilitation. While there are several orangutan sanctuaries, such sanctuaries for gibbons are relatively rare in Malaysia. Therefore, Bam also spends her time trying to get more support for gibbon conservation.

There is a thriving illegal pet trade market which makes use of social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. The process in which such primates are procured are typically cruel and inhumane – for every primate infant that makes it onto Instagram for sale, there is a lot more primates that are killed or died on the way to the market as the poachers can wipe out an entire family of primates just to get one baby. It has been estimated that for every primate on the market, 200 individuals would have perished. The young primates are also deliberately starved to bring out the sympathy in prospective buyers. To add to the problem, the keeping of primates is popular among celebrities in Malaysia, which further fuels the pet trade. For every like on the photo of the with their pet primate, thousands of primate lives will be destroyed even if 1% of the followers ends up getting their own pet primate. If celebrity power fuels the pet trade, can it be used to dissuade people from getting primates as pets? Not everyone has a background in biology so we must engage them on the issues involved and advise them against having pet primates.

Overall, it was a great day for primate enthusiasts to learn about the primatology scene in Malaysia. We learned that public outreach (such as this talk!) is extremely important for the survival of our primate relatives on both sides of the Causeway can be assured for the future. Anyone can play a part in primate conservation, so please feel free to drop us a line if you are interested!

Contributed by JGIS Volunteer Sia Sin Wei