Spending weeks with a troop of wild monkeys is an unforgettable experience. Watching them play, groom, feed and snooze so close to you is amazing. Even trying to keep up with them rapidly swinging through trees while more clumsily crashing through the undergrowth below was a fun challenge.
I recently enjoyed volunteering with the Macaca Nemestrina Project in Malaysia. Here students and volunteers follow and observe a pig-tailed macaque, Macaca nemestrina nemestrina, troop called ‘Amy’, as they spend their days between the Segari Melintang Forest Reserve and the palm oil plantation alongside.
Macaca Nemestrina Project
Pig-tailed macaques are primates with short, often-curled tails that live in the tropical forests of Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo and Sumatra. Their brown fur ranges from fawn to mahogany, with a dark cap of hair on their heads. Their hazel eyes are deeply expressive and some of their mannerisms so humanlike it was quite astonishing. Watching Norbert, the current alpha male, lounging on a fallen branch reminded me of someone casually sat in an armchair. And the antics of the juveniles as they grappled, ambushed and antagonised each other made me laugh everyday.
Thanks to years of dedication, the group known as ‘Amy’ is used to the project’s researchers; allowing you to sit and walk alongside them. So you can get extremely close, but must still respect their wildness. Occasionally they ‘pucker face’ at you, sticking out their lips and flattening their ears to their heads. It may look adorable but it is really a sign to back off. Although they generally had no issue with our non-threatening, daily presence – which was such a joy as most wild animals run a mile from humans!
Humans vs monkeys
The project is currently looking at differences in the behaviour of the macaques between the virgin forest reserve and the plantation. Throughout south-east Asia there are major human-wildlife conflicts, as palm oil plantations take over vast swathes of land and nature is pushed into ever-decreasing forest fragments. Choosing not to buy products containing palm oil and supporting calls for change can help reduce this, find out how.
In the fight to survive the widespread deforestation, some species risk entering plantations to feed on the palm fruits. Where this conflicts with the desire for profit, wildlife is shot, poisoned, burned and killed in all manner of ways to stop them taking the plantation owners’ crop. Thankfully this macaque troop are luckier than many as they live next to a government-owned plantation where workers do not persecute them.
There does appear to be a difference between the way they act in and use the forest to that of the plantation. The diverse forest habitat feels very much more their home. They seem far more comfortable there and will happily play and sleep in it. Whereas the plantation seems more like a food resource used simply because it is there, but they are much more wary when in it and will not sleep or stay there permanently. Hopefully we will know much more by the end of the research.
Experience the joy
To see animals enjoying real lives in their natural habitat is worth any minor physical hardship – even wellies full of swamp water, cunning mosquitoes and a few blood-sucking leeches. To look into the eyes of untamed beauty, as a creature accepts you not through force or subjectivity but mutual trust and respect, is mesmerising. To see into their soul and allow them to see you, not as a threat to either one, is to appreciate one of the real wonders of nature.
If you want to get involved you will not regret it; contact Nadine Ruppert at Universiti Sains Malaysia to find out more: firstname.lastname@example.org. Volunteering may not make you rich, but it will pay you in precious memories that last a lifetime!