Anthropological activity and primate living have continuously clashed due to the fight for resources. Tina Carmillia looks at how research into primate behaviour can help humans, monkeys and apes co-exist sustainably.
Inthe 1988 movie, Gorillas in the Mist, Sigourney Weaver starred as a researcher who travelled to Rwanda in 1967 where she spent 18 years on an extensive study on the lives and behaviours of the elusive mountain gorillas. There, she was appalled by the poaching of the gorillas by the Rwandan natives and dedicated herself to educating the locals and saving the gorillas from possible extinction.
The movie was inspired by the real life Dian Fossey, who was mysteriously murdered in 1985 in her forest cabin in Rwanda. Fossey, along with Jane Goodall and Burite Galdikas, was part of the trio known as the Leakey’s Angels who were some of the earliest researchers to undertake studies in primates, having been tasked by notable archaeologist, Louise Leakey to study primates in their natural environments. Goodall, was sent to study chimpanzees in Tanzania, and is perhaps the most famous of the three. Birute Galdikas became the third when she began her studies in 1971 on the orang utan of Borneo.
Primatology is the scientific study of primates, which include monkeys and apes. The study of primates has now branched out to both living and extinct primates in its natural habitat and laboratory settings to understand aspects of their behaviour and evolution. Because of its similarities to humans, primate studies can help us understand human behaviour and development.
Malaysia is home to at least 18 primate species including orang utan, gibbons, macaques and leaf monkeys. Some of these primates, particularly the macaques and leaf monkeys, are found in urban areas and in fringes of forests. These areas are also known as high conflict zones as they often overlap with human settlements. More likely than not, many of these areas were formerly forests that were developed for residential or agricultural purposes.
According to a recent report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 48 per cent of all primate species are threatened with extinction in their own native countries. There are various mechanisms in place to protect them, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international treaty to govern the trade of endangered plants and animals. All apes, lemurs and many monkeys appear on CITES Appendix I that is reserved for the most endangered species. All primates not listed on Appendix I appear on Appendix II, which lists species that are ‘not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled.’ Besides these primates, several other national animals such as the Malayan tapirs, Sumatran rhinoceros, sun bears, and the Malayan tigers are also threatened species listed on Appendix I. Unfortunately, corruption and poor management due to the lack of awareness and knowledge hampers the effectiveness of the domestic laws and international treaties to protect these species.
Various studies have been carried out by researchers to understand the longstanding human-monkey conflict, especially in overlapping habitats. Humans and monkeys have shared a living environment since prehistoric times as both frequent forests and river edges for food, water and shelter. Due to its close proximity, the relationship between humans and monkeys are sometimes associated with religious and local customs in many cultures including that of Bali, Indonesia, Thailand as well as India. In these places, monkeys are often revered and are shown considerable tolerance due to the positive perceptions of the monkeys despite their raiding behaviours. Such tolerance is particularly enhanced through local folklore and religious beliefs that offer them protection.
In other parts of the world, this relationship is characterised by conflicts. Urbanisation causes some level of deforestation and isolation of forest patches to occur that often result in changes in plant composition and distribution as well as habitat suitability. Different species react differently as they try to cope with these changes. As monkeys are large mammals, this situation easily leads to competition over food and space. The macaques in particular, can become synanthrope, living off human resources such as feeding on cultivated plants that cause significant losses to farmers. The notoriously ubiquitous macaques are considered by some as pests in urban settings as they are unafraid to frequent garbage bins and refuse piles to scavenge for food.
The more gentle and docile leaf monkeys on the other hand, are a source of attraction, especially among tourists. Nature parks are a great place to visit compared to zoos if one is interested to experience free-roaming wildlife in its natural habitat. Bukit Malawati in Kuala Selangor is one such place where visitors can observe and interact with the silvered leaf monkeys.
This human-monkey relationship is a complex and vicious cycle. They become the cause of both terror and fascination as they make new homes in the streets and residential areas that were once their forest habitat. As urban development lead to deforestation and loss of habitat to the monkeys, humans have to cope by fearfully coexisting with the monkeys in residential areas. Meanwhile, in nature parks, monkeys are fed food by visitors, encouraged by illegal peddlers selling food for monkeys that are not found in their natural habitat such as long beans, peanuts and even bread. Park officials usually warn against it, but not many heed this advice. Officials also turn a blind eye towards illegal peddlers, as observed in several parks, as they help attract more visitors.
As this goes on, the monkeys begin to rely on human feeding and trash as their main source of food. Despite the decline in the size of its habitat, its population size can grow steadily due to the abundance of food from its dependence on human feeding and human waste. The population size of the primate species may easily exceed the carrying capacity in its environment, and thus increase the likelihood for conflicts. An over-dependence on humans for food turns them aggressive particularly when they are hungry and unfed. For this reason, it is common sight to read of horror caused by rogue monkey behaviours including recent complaints over public safety in residential areas.
According to statistics from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN), there were 37,822 complaints of long-tailed macaque disturbance received in Peninsula Malaysia from 2006 to 2010, with Selangor recording almost a quarter of these cases. These human-monkey conflicts refer to behaviours that may cause death, injury, property destruction, crop raiding and livestock depredation, as well as acts that can cause fear on public safety. The monkeys are frequently vilified, although often times, both primates and humans are victims due to lack of knowledge, greed, and poor governance on our part as humans.
In human-dominated landscapes, information on the behaviour of the monkeys is necessary to understand its adaptive strategy. Besides the danger from aggression, another threat posed is health-related. Like most animals, monkeys are also capable of carrying diseases that can be transmitted to humans. Conversely, the monkeys can also contract diseases from humans. The silvered leaf monkey, for example, is susceptible to HIV.
With this knowledge, proper urban wildlife management plans can be put in place in the form of stricter regulations, guidelines and awareness efforts including proper waste management. This information is also useful for the government and non-governmental agencies to make relevant assessments prior to large-scale habitat alterations such as in urban development efforts so that it does not affect the livelihood of the wildlife population. As urban development occurs at a rate faster than ever, it is necessary for more studies to be carried out on urban monkeys in order to understand the impact on wildlife living at the edges of urbanisation so that humans and non-human primates can coexist with the least detrimental effects possible.