Primatologist Andie Ang: Learn to coexist with nature as boundaries get blurred

SINGAPORE — Perhaps at no other point in the history of independent Singapore has the need of learning to coexist with nature been more pertinent.

As the city-state's urban areas grow rapidly, and as residential estates get built closer to pristine natural habitats, encounters with native wildlife such as otters, macaques, wild boars and even crocodiles have become more regular.

With the boundaries increasingly blurred between the activity areas of humans and animals, the need for local residents to understand the habits and instincts of the wild animals living close to them - so that everyone can coexist safely - has become more urgent.

"We're moving from a Garden City to a city in nature, and that entails a very different framework," Singapore primatologist Dr Andie Ang, who is the president of the Jane Goodall Institute of Singapore, said during a recent interview with Yahoo News Singapore.

"From a manicured garden, we're trying to weave the wild nature into our lives. The challenge here is whether we can interact positively – or at least neutrally – with this nature.

"Education is very important; we are reconnecting with forests and preserving habitats, but if people don't know how to interact with animals or animal-proof their homes, that's where conflicts will happen."

Nowadays, the advertisements of many new residential developments highlight their proximity to natural surroundings, such as forests or lakes, to appeal to the desire of Singaporeans to have the best of both the urban and rural worlds.

But how much do these developers understand about their surrounding nature? Dr Ang's institute – together with the Nature Society (Singapore) and the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society – have been actively engaging with developers to tell them what animals the potential residents may encounter.

"Sometimes they would say, 'Oh, if we tell buyers that there are snakes in the area, they will not go for our development.' But you have to be honest when it comes to what residents can expect in the area," she said.

"The other thing is to animal-proof the area, making it safe for both people and animals. For example, for lower-level housing, the windows must be meshed so that animals cannot come in."

Dr Andie Ang, primatologist and president of Jane Goodall Institute of Singapore. (PHOTO: Nick Tan/Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)
Dr Andie Ang, primatologist and president of Jane Goodall Institute of Singapore. (PHOTO: Nick Tan/Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

More encounters with wildlife seen; some are unpleasant

With more and more residents enjoying regular jogs or hikes amid Singapore's nature, it is not uncommon to see them posting on social media of their benign encounters with cute otters or curious macaques.

But some of these encounters may be unpleasant and even life-threatening. A woman was knocked unconscious by a wild boar in March, while a male jogger suffered injuries after being bitten by an otter in April.

More recently, macaques have become a thorny issue for Nanyang Technological University, whose campus is next to forests in the western catchment area. The monkeys have been foraging for food among the rubbish dumps, with some even trying to climb into hall residences or swiping at people carrying plastic bags.

"Animals will move out of their natural habitats for only two reasons: to mate or to find food," Dr Ang explained. "In NTU's situation, the issue of macaques staying in the campus lies with unattended food - in canteens, in rubbish bins that are not animal-proof, in hall residences.

"It's not deliberate, but the abundance of high-energy food gives the monkeys a reason to stay in the campus. That's when conflicts may happen, because students and staff do not know how to react in the presence of monkeys. So it's important we give them as few reasons to stay as possible. When there's no food to be found, they will move on."

Conserving endangered primate species in Singapore

Dr Ang - who is also a research scientist at Mandai Nature - was featured recently in "Expedition: Earth", a recent 12-episode podcast series hosted by Lillygol Sedaghat, which gathers stories and experiences from National Geographic Explorers to help listeners appreciate and learn ways to protect nature and wildlife.

Her topic? Not surprisingly, it is about coexistence, as she talked about the efforts in Singapore to live in balance with wildlife such as primates, her area of specialty.

In promotion for the podcast series, Dr Ang organised a visit to Thomson Nature Park, where she has been studying the Raffles' banded langur, a shy and critically endangered monkey, which is native to Singapore.

While the langur population has grown from 40 to 70 in the past 10 years, its genetic pool is quite poor as many of the langurs are highly related to one another. Dr Ang and her team at Mandai Nature are looking at introducing langurs from Malaysia to Singapore, in a bid to increase the genetic diversity.

"It is a long-term thing that we need to work on, as we can't just throw them into the nature park and expect them to adapt to this different environment," she said.

A primatologist for the past 15 years, Dr Ang admits that one of the major motivations that keeps her going in her field of expertise is that monkeys are "really cute".

"I find them very expressive. And the things that they do are very intricate, and many have a lot of meaning behind (their actions)," she told Yahoo News Singapore.

"It's very interesting when I can collect information from the monkeys and share those information, whether it is to educate so that people learn to appreciate them and protect them, or to help with the conservation of the nature we have here in Singapore.

"Nature is not just the beautiful things like monkeys, it also consists of other animals that might not be typically cute. We could do little things to prevent negative interactions, and that helps a lot in coexisting with nature here."

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