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Surely, they belong

Contributed by Koh Jieh Long, Coordinator for SARCC/MACC, Asia for Animals Coalition

I will admit when macaques’ population density becomes overabundant in a particular locality, they can cause the environment and other species to suffer. This is true for any overcrowded species. And before we come up with an effective, long-term solution, we need to first understand the root cause of a problem.

So, in line with “not to demonise macaques”, I think we have to show instances of when macaques are not only tolerated but welcomed by other species. Surely, they belong somewhere! Then, we will start to see - why things fall out of place. 

One of my first internship experiences was with Langur Project Penang in Malaysia. During fieldwork, we would go into a recreational forest where people go for their routine morning hikes, to follow a troop of dusky langurs (Trachypithecus obscurus). At the entrance to the forest is a car park. There in the open space, long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) are abundant. But to find dusky langurs, we’ll have better chances looking from within the forest itself. 

On a good day, we’d stay with a troop of langurs for seven hours in the forest, and record the movement, food choices, and activities of the group throughout the sampling session. Every once in a while, we’d find a fruiting fig tree where the dusky langur would spend a big chunk of their daytime feeding from it. These big fruiting trees are popular among the animals - many birds and squirrels are attracted there and it often gets quite noisy from all the smacking, chewing noises and bird chirping. Naturally, a few long-tailed macaques would also be there. Because it’s possible to share! 

When everybody’s bellies are satisfied, the langurs will have their leisure time not far from the fruiting tree, and so will the macaques. This is the time when juveniles like to play with each other; mothers nurse their infants; others take a nap and digest their food…and sometimes we see this social bonding, grooming time. Not just any kind of grooming but that of a macaque scratching a langur’s back and the langur scratching back, in all kinds of positions too!

There, a macaque is wanted. 

One of the best positions while enjoying being groomed.

Pro-social interactions between macaques and other species are not ultra-rare events either. They have been observed in more than a few places between dusky langurs and long-tailed macaques; white-thighed surilis and long-tailed macaques; Raffles’ banded langurs and long-tailed macaques; Hanuman langurs and rhesus macaques; and between red-shanked douc langurs and rhesus macaques, they at least tolerate each other.

A baby is a great conversation starter - that leads to a grooming sesh.

Granted, negative interactions can occur between species sharing the same habitat. It should be emphasized that: it’s not the species that creates an undesirable environment, it’s the context a group of macaques got put into that sets them up for some negative connotations perceived by some people. To only show evidence of negative interactions, seems to me, is an attempt to “appeal to emotion”; you know, the same argument used by some against the advocacy for macaques’ animal rights. 

A give-and-take relationship lasts longer.

It’s always helpful to take a step back from the immediate event and think about what had to happen to lead to it. Macaques are not like the one-dimensional character that only does one thing in a movie. They have cultures and personalities!

Retrospectively, in any “conflicts” related to the macaques, or wildlife for that matter, we quickly realise there’s a common denominator. Talk about the real “elephant in the room”?

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