Monkeying Around: Misconceptions about Macaques and how we can make it better

Hi everyone! Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’d know that Chinese New Year is just around the corner and this year happens to be the Year of the Monkey!

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Generally, people think that monkeys are adorable, curious, and highly intelligent animals – which is not untrue. However, if you’ve ever been on our guided walks or to MacRitchie Reservoir Park at all, you might have seen people scream and run away at the sight of the monkeys.

This is not without reason: the monkeys at MacRitchie have been known to snatch people’s food, bottles, and bags. Though, what people don’t know is that we created these human-macaque conflicts ourselves and all that’s required to resolve it is a simple change in behaviour. But, let’s start from the top to catch everyone up to speed 🙂

About the monkeys

The monkeys at MacRitchie are called long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) and they are a forest-edge species. What this means is that rather than living deep in the forest, the macaques prefer to live at the edge of the forest, which coincides with the parks and paths that we use for our leisure.

Clarifying misperceptions

  1. “The macaques are aggressive and scary.”

Firstly, it is important to differentiate between aggressive and assertive. Aggressive behaviour includes biting and scratching, while assertive behaviour refers to the baring of teeth, chasing, lunging and/or grabbing. The macaques at MacRitchie are usually assertive and have in fact rarely been observed to be aggressive.

Secondly, whether the macaque is being assertive or aggressive, it is all part of their natural behaviour. Visitors to MacRitchie might have noticed that the macaques often travel in groups. This is their troop. In each troop, there is an alpha male – equivalent to the ‘dad’ of the group, and it is his responsibility to care for and protect his troop. As such, when people or dogs get too close to his family members, it is the alpha male’s instinct to display assertive and/or aggressive behaviours.

  1. “The macaques are attracted only to red plastic bags.”

This is a strange myth and how it started remains a mystery. What we do know is that the macaques are in reality attracted not only to plastic bags of all colours, but also to any bag that is handheld (e.g. reusable bag, shoe bag, tote bag, even backpacks). Even when there is no food present, the very image of a bag carried by its handles and held in a hand results in the macaque associating the bag with food.

  1. “The macaques are relocated when complaints are made about them.”

Many think that when people call AVA or NParks to complain about the macaques being a nuisance in the park, the macaques will then be relocated to another forest patch or the zoo. This isn’t a method employed by AVA or NParks in dealing with complaints as relocating the macaques is simply relocating the problem.

When someone makes a complaint against the macaques, the problem macaque, when identified, is actually culled, or killed. Sometimes, when the problem macaque cannot be identified, more macaques are culled 😦

It is important to be aware of the consequences your complaint might have so that you complain responsibly. Save your complaints for problems that you can’t solve. With that in mind, here are some ways in which you can help play a part in resolving the human-macaque conflict.

Resolving conflict

  1. Be prepared

Imagine this: A macaque approaches and attempts to grab something from you, you scream and run. The macaque gives chase and refuses to give up. In the end, you decide to simply get rid of the monkey by giving it what it wants – throwing your food/bottle/bag at it so it will finally stop pestering you.

The above scenario is one that has been commonly observed. The macaques are smart and they learn from experience. Such submissive human behaviour teaches the monkeys that they are able to easily obtain food. It also results in them associating humans with food, which will only prompt them to approach humans more often and more aggressively.

A study in 2014 (Lai) showed that by simply changing your reaction towards macaques, the macaques will respond submissively and not attempt to grab your items. Some simple acts of deterrence include:

  • Making loud noises at the macaque
  • Making threatening gestures using tools such as umbrellas or sticks (or even your hands)
  • Stomping your feet.
  • NOTE: DO NOT HIT THEM
  1. Avoid conflict altogether

Very simply, this means removing the exposure of any items that might trigger a macaque into initiating interaction with you. Such items include:

  • Food
  • Other food-associated items
    • Bottles
    • Plastic bags of any colour
    • Any hand-held bags (be it tote bags, shoe bags, drawstring bags, backpacks, etc.)

It is encouraged that you do not bring food anywhere near the forest, especially on trails, and when consuming food, please clear your trash responsibly.

In summary

  1. Macaques are simply exhibiting their natural behaviour
  2. It is within our power to help resolve the human-macaque conflict
  3. Make loud noises, threatening gestures, or stomp to prevent the macaque from approaching you and/or grabbing your things
  4. Don’t expose any food or food-related items when in the park and/or near the macaques

Ultimately, MacRitchie is our park, but it is also where the macaques live. They too have a family, and they too need a home. It’s been their home long before it was our park, so let’s all play a part in helping both species to coexist by being more understanding and tolerant towards the macaques 🙂

Words by: Tan Jia Xiu

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