The figures are out, AVA has killed 357 macaques in the first half of 2013, almost 20% of our local macaque population in just half a year.
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According to the AVA, the increase in culling was done in response to increased reporting of monkey nuisances. The unprecedented number of monkeys culled however, appears to go beyond conflict management or even population control. With no checks that trappers are only removing nuisance animals, and with no regulations on the number of animals removed, it seems that the strategy AVA is going for is extermination. Extermination of a native primate species, and an important member of Singapore’s biodiversity.
Defendants of culling have been quick to point out that public safety is of utmost concern, and I fully agree. What I am saying though, is that public servants’ goals of ensuring public safety and the appeal for sustainable management strategies by researchers and animal welfare groups are not at odds, but are in fact one and the same.
Does killing monkeys indiscriminately really serve to protect public safety? Does killing address the root causes of human-wildlife conflict? Will killing bring about long-term and sustained benefits to residents? What else can be done, and why are these solutions better? The existence of human-wildlife (or more specifically, primate) conflict is not unique to Singapore. Places such as Bali, Hong Kong and Gibraltar have been tackling serious human-macaque conflict for years, and South Africa contends with human-baboon conflict, arguably bigger and more fearsome than macaques.
I’m sure the governments of these countries value public safety as much as Singapore’s. However, many governments and managers have abandoned culling as a management strategy (e.g. Gibraltar here ), simply because it does not work to solve conflict, or even to effectively manage the population.
Many of these countries have a very real problem of macaque overpopulation. Macaque density in HK is 326/km2, and in Bali is is 1660/km2. These countries are now using sterilisation to manage macaque numbers. Singapore has a macaque density of ~30/km2, and no overpopulation at all. Thus, population control is not a concern at the moment, and we can focus our efforts on directly treating the causes of human-macaque conflict.
Macaques naturally range along forest edges, which also seem to be an attractive living space for many Singaporeans. Countless residential developments border our reserves and nature parks where the bulk of local macaques reside. Residential developments come with many food sources – open dumpsters, cultivated food trees, open windows with food on the tables, people who feed them, etc – and resourceful macaques readily exploit these.
Contrary to popular belief, our monkeys have not lost their taste for natural foods and still spend a considerable amount of time feeding in the forests. By controlling their access to human foods, and modifying their behavior, it is also very much possible to recondition monkeys to the fact they homes and people ARE NOT sources of food. How?
There is still a severe lack of monkey proofing on bins of private homes, and common dumpster areas of condominiums. This is an easy fix, and should be first priority for management agencies.
Plants and trees that are attractive to monkeys should be replaced with species that monkeys do not readily consume.
Residents can fit sturdy mesh screens on their windows that will allow ventilation but keep monkeys (and mosquitoes) out.
Perimeter walls of condominiums can be upgraded to high (>3m), smooth walls not climbable by monkeys, or fitted with electric fencing (less preferable due to high maintenance efforts and costs) so that monkeys are unable to enter the premises. Electric fencing has successfully kept baboons out of South African homes, allowing residents to have barbecues in their yards.
These measures should have been planned for and implemented when the idea of building homes next to reserves was thought up. Better late than never.
When necessary environmental changes have been made, trained personnel should be stationed in monkey-prone residential areas to deter monkeys from approaching using various deterrents such as shooting them with paintball markers or other non-lethal deterrents.
Before you laugh, such strategies have been employed with success in other countries. Monkey guards stationed at the edges of Bali’s monkey forest have managed to deter monkeys from ranging into surrounding croplands, and have significantly reduced crop raiding.
Having people on the ground also has several added advantages. Personnel can immediately assist any residents or passersby with monkey troubles, for e.g. those carrying groceries and unsure of how they can get home. They can personally educate residents on how to avoid future troubles, preventing situations where people or pets run into trouble because of inappropriate behavior – a WIN for public safety!
The safeguarding of public safety and management of problem monkeys can be further improved by having active response teams .
The team will be mobilized immediately when a nuisance report is received. Trained personnel can immediately assess the causes and severity of the situation. They can point out these causes to complainants so that similar problems can be avoided. In the rare case that a monkey has injured someone, personnel can identify the individual, so that we ensure that it is the truly problematic monkey that will be removed from the population.
The lack of education is also clearly apparent in people’s conception of macaques, and how they behave around monkeys.
Many people fear that macaques are aggressive, but I have spent many safe hours around macaques. Studies on local human-macaque interactions ( here and here ) also show that interactions are seldom aggressive, mostly instigated by PEOPLE, and usually in response to food. Macaques can be aggressive under certain conditions, e.g. when their young are endangered, in response to taunting, and in response to food. This can be easily avoided by not carrying food in the presence of macaques, being mindful of your dogs around macaques, and just being respectful of a wild animal’s space.
Researchers (including myself) and AWGs must make greater efforts to reach out to the public.
Education must be accompanied by enforcement as feeding and taunting of monkeys, as well as littering, are still rampant problems in our parks and reserves.
Lastly, government agencies that oversee developments around nature reserves must exercise foresight when planning developments in and around nature areas if we truly want to reduce human-wildlife conflict. Buildings and facilities can easily be built to prevent intrusions by wildlife. Property agents should be required by law to disclose the possibility of animal encounters to potential buyers, and buyers must be educated on living responsibly then legally bound to do so.