Let's not monkey around with wildlife plan

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 3, 2013

A RATHER sensational poster made in Singapore went viral online recently. It depicted a sad-looking monkey and a caption: "Every time you complain, a monkey dies somewhere."

It's exaggerated, but that poster is an allusion to the view that when it comes to conflict between human and animal, it's always the poor beast that loses out.

It also stems from a fear that Singapore's animal welfare authorities such as the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) and National Parks Board (NParks), which manages parks, are too quick to use culling to manage animals.

That's not quite a fair view.

What is fair to say, though, is that incidents of human-animal conflict are on the rise, and will continue to increase as Singapore becomes more densely populated. Development encroaches into wildlife habitats, and the disrupted wildlife encroaches into residential areas and enters homes.

That's a recipe for conflict.

Rather than being quick to cull, or sticking with piecemeal reactions to individual incidents, Singapore needs a more holistic wildlife management plan. In the same way that the country needs a long-term infrastructure plan for transport or housing, it needs to develop a long-term plan for managing wildlife that balances animal welfare with public safety concerns. But to do this, it needs to do two things better: study more options other than culling to manage animals, and collect better data on Singapore's wildlife.

A beast of a nuisance

BUT first, let's get a grip on the nature of human-beast conflicts.

The AVA received more than 9,500 cases of feedback about animal-related issues last year. This was up by 20 per cent from 2011. A 24-hour hotline it introduced in August last year likely spurred the spike.

Nearly all - 95 per cent - of the feedback in 2011 and 2012 was about animal nuisance, strays, people feeding birds, and requests to borrow or pick up traps the AVA lends out to catch monkeys. Only about 5 per cent alleged cruelty to animals.

Complaints about monkey nuisance are up: 1,460 complaints in the first eight months of this year alone. That compares with 920 for the whole of last year, and 730 in 2011. Common complaints are of monkeys breaking into homes and taking food or attacking pets.

Apart from monkeys, wild boars also irk people. Two people were slightly injured last year when two wild boars from Lower Peirce wandered into nearby Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. NParks culled the area's boars after assessing that the animals were breeding faster than the habitat could support, and that it was not feasible to relocate them.

To cull or not to cull

ONE issue is that some animal lovers perceive the AVA as an agency that is too quick to cull.

In July, activists were upset that the AVA had culled almost 360 macaques - a breed of monkey - in the first half of this year. This was more than in the last two years combined and about one-fifth of the Government's estimate of fewer than 2,000 monkeys here. While animal lovers thought it was overkill, those living near nature areas know that macaques continue to thrive and forage in rubbish bins.

The authorities have also culled stray cats and dogs they cannot re-home. Culling to control overpopulation is an accepted part of good animal management practice globally.

To be fair, Singapore's small space means its wildlife options are limited. The AVA told The Straits Times: "Relocating the aggressive and nuisance-causing animals merely transfers the problem from one estate to the next."

And since animal-human encounters may lead to injuries, safety issues are paramount. A spokesman said: "AVA is the lead agency for animal welfare issues, but we are also concerned with stray and wild animals posing a public safety and health risk (such as rabies). That is our first priority in the management of wildlife and stray animals."

The AVA and NParks have other methods to control animals, including sterilising stray cats, reminding people not to feed wild animals, and monkey-proofing some rubbish bins.

But experts say more can be done. In Hong Kong, the government plants fruit trees within reserves to attract monkeys and keep them away from homes. Over 1,500 macaques have been sterilised since 2007. The AVA and NParks said in June that they were studying sterilisation for macaques too. Natural barriers are also an option. In Africa, rows of spiky cacti deter coyotes.

Animal activist group Acres has hired two full-time staff to herd monkeys back to the reserves in conflict-prone areas like Bukit Timah. Bali and Gibraltar used this method with some success against monkey incursions.

Acres executive director Louis Ng said the primates tend to stick to specific routes. "If you can stop the animals from getting near homes in the first place, you prevent the complaints. Culling does not work as well because if you remove one troop of monkeys, another will come and take its place," he said.

An animal census?

BUT to truly nip human-animal conflicts in the bud, several experts said more information is needed to formulate a long-term wildlife management plan.

Strix Wildlife Consultancy firm director Subaraj Rajathurai said scientific counts of the animals, their distribution and studies on the plants and fruits that sustain them in the reserves are needed.

"We know some of this already but the information is scattered among universities, nature groups and the authorities here. We need to organise the data better, for example through a central repository like the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research," he said.

Other crucial information includes the animals' ranging patterns and behaviour. Some monkeys learn when rubbish bins are cleared and show up then, said primatologist Agustin Fuentes, who researches monkey-human interactions. Understanding animals' seasonal diet can also help keep them within nature reserves.

The Nature Society assessed that wild boars were likely proliferating in Lower Peirce due to abundant sea apple and oil palm plants there. NParks is removing some of these food sources.

To be sure, some promising studies are under way. Last October, NParks said it would monitor the boar, sambar deer and banded leaf monkey in the nature reserves: study where they are found, estimate their numbers, and track their movements and other behaviours.

The AVA is reviewing the recommendations of a study on managing mynahs here.

These are good starts, but several activists said they wished the scope of these projects, their timeline and even progress can be shared so other researchers can help with the studies.

Given the scale of the work involved, a proper wildlife census and study of the creatures' diverse habitats can be conducted only with state support, tapping the knowledge and tremendous energy of existing animal and nature groups. With good information, a long-term flora and fauna policy can then be set out, spelling out animal density and conservation goals. Such a plan will then guide responses to human-animal encounters.

The missing link

WHILE state and animal groups play an important role, the missing link is residents. Their involvement is critical to a wildlife plan.

Moulmein-Watten Neighbourhood Committee chairman Fong Kwok Shiung said: "In my estate, there are a lot of children and elderly folk who would not know how to protect themselves in an encounter."

Residents need to be better educated so they know what to do - and what not to do - in wildlife encounters. Despite public education campaigns, some people persist in the irresponsible act of feeding monkeys, says the AVA. This alters some monkeys' behaviour, causing them to eschew natural habitats to chase after food handouts from humans.

Nature Society's Mr Tony O'Dempsey said that those living near nature reserves should keep food items out of sight and use monkey-proofed bins to dispose of food waste. Fruit trees - a strong draw for the creatures - may also have to go.

Said Mr O'Dempsey: "If you choose to live next to a forested area, you should expect to have to deal with these issues. The Government should not be responsible for problems caused by residents' inadequate precautions."

If residents, activist groups and the state work together to balance animal welfare with public safety, there's a good chance the dire warning in that poster will remain just a joke and never come true.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 3, 2013

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