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Official magazine of the Biological Sciences Society
National University of Singapore
The Mudskipper, Jul 95
Chasing Monkeys in the Rain
Exorcising Long-tailed Macaques (Macaca fascicularis)
from the Departments of Botany and Zoology, NUS

N. Sivasothi, Zoology Postgraduate

"Wild animals terrorise the Botany Department"

Wednesday, 5th July, 1995: 10.30am - Swee Hee and I were discussing the draft of the ICZN over coffee with Dr Peter Ng when Cheryl called the lab to say she would not be buying food supplies because of the heavy rain. While I grumpily listened to her, Dr Ng used the lull in the conversation to get away.

Just after Dr Ng left, Walford walked in, asking me whether Ecolab was responsible for the two free-running macaques on the third floor of the Botany department! For some reason he figured Ecolab had something to do with wild mammals (this was probably due to Dr Ng's reputation). Once I disclaimed all responsibility, he told me that when he got out of the lift, he saw two macaques on the railing, and the pleasant query of 'what are you guys doing here' led to them running towards him. According to him, they were aggressive.

Swee Hee and I grabbed a couple of things and headed for the third floor, meeting Hwee Cheng and some other interested individuals along the way. They all asked what we intended to do, since Swee Hee was holding a bicycle pump, and I was holding a camera and a long-handled fishing net. I explained that I wanted to photograph this pair for the record, since I had observed the large male several times on the Ridge since 1990. Also, the sight of them prancing about the botany corridors would make a nice slide with the caption "Wild animals terrorise the Botany Department".

My strongest motive was to give the animals a good scare. It requires great discipline to call their bluff if they charge, for they are a formidable sight, and an aggressive macaque could easily injure you. Failure was not an option, for I believed that a panicky retreat would fuel their confidence for the next encounter. Since I had been successful in establishing dominance over aggressive macaques in Penang (Pantai Aceh Forest Reserve, 1993-4) and Sarawak (Bako National Park, 1994), I decided to give the Kent Ridge pair a try.

Watching a connoisseur at work
When we reached the third level, the pair was not in sight. We spread out, searching, and they were finally spotted scaling the rear of the Botany Department building with the aid of the railings and the aluminium shades. By now about nine people (perhaps more) were watching from the third and sixth levels. It was exciting to watch the macaques climb up and along the railings, with grace, using their long tails as a counter balance. They took a brief respite at the sixth level, and one of them chewed the fruit of a potted plant, a member of the ginseng family (Araliaceae), kept there by an eminent botanist. Perhaps the fruit of this species has invigorating properties!

I later discovered that it had consumed at least, an infructescence (an umbel) of what the botanist suspects is a rare species of plant from the cliff side of Gunung Panti, Johore. Collecting the plant had involved considerable physical effort, and after years of care, the plant was beginning to flower. He was rather annoyed because he intends to preserve the inflorescence which is necessary in establishing the identity of the species. An examination of the plant seems to indicate, happily enough, that the monkey had not found the plant tasteful since the other umbels were left untouched. Either that, or the appearance of Swee Hee on the sixth floor changed his mind about having a long snack.

A rooftop chase in defence of plants
The monkeys then made their way up to the rooftop, and the show was seemingly over. I then decided to continue the pursuit on the Zoology and Botany rooftops, for there were more plants under threat (what was I thinking of - protecting plants?), and the intention of intimidating them had not been fulfilled. I sprinted upstairs after abandoning the net, and one of the zoology attendants at the rooftop entrance cheerfully handed me a straw hat for protection from the rain once I explained what I was up to. My enthusiasm buoyed by the straw hat, I shielded the camera under my jersey and stepped onto the roof.

Not having been up there since the photo-taking session after convocation, I discovered considerable plant life amongst the narrow walkways. I began to feel nervous. My anti-macaque demonstrations are space-demanding, exuberant displays which include short sprints. How was I to achieve all this amongst the flower pots?

As I rounded each corner on the rooftops, the atmosphere of the cold, steady drizzle and gloominess of the absent sun fed my imagination. I envisaged a scene in which a half-crazed macaque, tired of my pursuit, retaliates, and sends me fleeing under a barrage of flying flowerpots - the ultimate disgrace for a zoologist to be.

But they had disappeared. They were later spotted at the third level of the Zoology block, sitting on the railing near the favourite bench of the cleaning staff, their mere presence keeping the cleaners at bay.

Macaques on Kent Ridge and surrounding areas
In my knowledge, this was the first time macaques have been seen within the building. All the previous sightings of the larger male was usually on the slope behind the Zoology block. It is possible that they were sheltering from the rather heavy rain that started in the early hours of the morning, and had persisted as a heavy drizzle up to 11 am. The morning news had even warned of floods in one or two areas. Besides, macaques weren't the only thing in to come in from the rain - the cistern of the ladies cubicle on the second level is now host to a resident frog (Kaloula pulchra).

There are only two species of primates left in Singapore. The Singapore Banded leaf monkey (Presbytis femoralis femoralis) is a subspecies described from our island. Since the death of the last leaf monkey on Bukit Timah in 1987, there exists only an endangered population in the Central Catchment Area. The other primate is the long- tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis), a species described by Sir Stamford Raffles. Macaques are common in Singapore, particularly in Bukit Timah and the Central Catchment. But they have also been spotted in various numbers in many other forested areas. In campus, I have seen them frequently behind the Zoology Department at least since 1990. Perhaps readers know of records prior to this decade. I have also heard of macaques 'visiting' Sheares', Kent Ridge and KE VII halls - the proximity suggests that these are all reports of the same pair.

There have also been frequent sightings nearby in Normanton Park. A hairdresser there has been seeing four monkeys, for the past two months. Last week (30th June 1995), one was seen scaling the fence outside Kent Ridge Park into Normanton Park, and after a short walk, it furtively joined a larger monkey up a jackfruit tree, for a repast of fruit. The police apparently made one unsuccessful attempt to catch the monkeys there, probably after a complaint by residents. The absence of repeated attempts, however, suggests a tolerance to their presence, aided perhaps, by the difficulty of trapping these animals.

About two months ago, a pair was seen outside campus grounds, along Ayer Rajah Expressway. They were sitting on the stairs of the overhead bridge, on the opposite side of the expressway. A lady who was approaching the stairs stopped when she saw the macaques. Not wanting to make her way past them, she walked back to the bus-stop, and to her dismay, saw that the pair was following her. She avoided an encounter by hopping on to a bus that had stopped to drop off an unsuspecting lady passenger. How this other lady fared with the macaques is unknown.

The Kent Ridge pair is bold, presumably because they have sent others fleeing in their wake. I have heard accounts of hostelites retreating, but these were never firsthand reports. A somewhat more dignified retreat was recounted several months ago, by an esteemed zoologist. He had parked his car in the Zoology carpark and was about to open his car door, when the larger macaque appeared, perched on the next car. It leaned over and displayed his fangs close to the window. The harassed lecturer could not get out to beat his chest, waggle eyebrows, bare fangs, etc., in order to chase off the macaque, for there was insufficient space in which to manoeuvre. So he crawled over to the other side of the car and left via the passenger door.

The motivation behind the pursuit
Reading about this morning's pursuit in the rain, the reader probably wonders why I bothered. In fact, had the other Ecolab postgrads been around, there would have been a lot of bloodthirsty talk. But don't mistake any of this for expressions of some deep-seated hunting instinct. We like seeing monkeys on the Ridge when they appear every once in a while, but the larger of the Kent Ridge pair is rather aggressive. Our worry is that should a macaque someday chase a prominent NUS academic, or scratch a student, it is likely to be either caught or exterminated. It is the common fate of this species - the ones in our Botanic Gardens were eliminated in 1972, and the ones at the Penang Botanical Gardens were probably eliminated between 1987 and 1992. In other areas, smaller populations have been either relocated or exterminated once they have become a nuisance.

In the mid-80's, a pack of dogs roamed the Ridge. Unfortunately, they extended their territory to include the slopes around the department, and were quite a prominent feature here. There were large dogs amongst them and they would bark at anyone who passed. Apparently, some students on the Ridge were also bitten. After complaints to the relevant authorities, most of them were shot, and the rest fled.

Thus, there is a strong motivation behind this effort to exorcise macaques from the department. Should they become wary of us humans, we can look forward to seeing these monkeys grace the slopes of the Ridge in years to come.

A note of caution
PLEASE DO NOT EVER ATTEMPT TO INTIMIDATE, CHASE OR FEED MACAQUES wherever you see them, particularly in areas where they are familiar with people, such as parks. They play that sort of game everyday, and are much better at detecting hesitation on your part than you are on theirs. Although I have yet to read of disease transmission, they can be a natural host for many transmissible diseases. Thus, no one wants to get bitten. Furthermore, if you have seen the large males up close, you will realise why many people have run from these monkeys - fear. We are rather urbanised, and have not much experience in dealing with aggressive wild animals that look you in the eye! Most people are likely to back away when a macaque behaves aggressively, and each successful encounter on their part may encourage them. Food provision is known to be a significant contributing factor, and thus the aggression of individual monkeys vary from place to place. Leave the chase to others. So, when you encounter a macaque, just watch it's antics from a safe distance - you will find much to admire.

Acknowledgements: This article took only about two hours (before corrections) to write. This was possible because of the help of many people, much thanks to them: Juan Walford informed me about the macaques, Siti Dahlia (Paediatrics Department) related the anecdote about her friend at the Ayer Rajah bus-stop, S. Uma talked to her hairdresser, and with Lim Liang Jim, provided me with the observations at the cleaner's bench and Normanton Park; the esteemed zoologist gave a humorous account of his encounter in the carpark, and Prof Murphy related the dog stories; Tan Swee Hee and Tay Hwee Cheng helped me locate the macaque, Swee Hee pointed out the damaged plant, and the eminent botanist explained it's origins amidst many bloodthirsty remarks about the animal; after kindly checking this article for it's accuracy on things botanical, he told me about the dogs biting students; he also washed his hands after reading this article. Mdm Ee handed me the straw hat, and Soong Beng Cheng opened the accessway to the Botany roof for me. Thanks also to Liang Jim for criticising the draft, and Cheryl Tan and Alvin Wong for their comments. An interesting paper you might want to read [it's in the library]: Wheatley, B. P. & D. K. Harya Putra, 1994. Biting the hand that feeds you: monkeys and tourists in Balinese monkey forests. Tropical Biodiversity, 2(2): 317-327.
© N Sivasothi, 2001