One of the centres where we work currently houses 47 macaques – 30 of these are long-tailed, the remaining 17 are pig-tailed. On arrival at the centre many of our volunteers are quite rightly very upset about the plight of the macaques and can find the reality of the situation to be quite confronting. Orangutan Project acknowledges that positive outcomes can take a long time to achieve but if they benefit a species or even a single individual we believe those outcomes are worth fighting for and it’s why we do what we do. Conservation isn’t easy and solutions are not simple. This blog will hopefully help give perspective and context to the plight of macaques and other species in rescue centres in South East Asia.
Throughout their range countries, macaques enjoy varying levels of protection under the law. In Sarawak all macaques are listed as “protected species” which means that one requires a license to keep them as pets, hunt, kill, capture sell, import or export them or possess any recogniseable part of the animal. The penalty for breaking these laws is 10,000RM and/or one year imprisonment. However, unfortunately it is extremely difficult for any authorities to enforce wildlife laws as wildlife crime is rife, often well funded and extremely widespread. Resources for wildlife crime are generally limited as issues involving humans take priority, throughout legislative systems around the world. For macaques and other species this means that their protected status means little in real life and they are commonly hunted, traded and kept as pets illegally.
Long-tailed macaques are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as “least concern”. This is the lowest measurable rank and is justified based on their wide geographic range and the presumed large population size. They are very generalist feeders and are therefore tolerant to a vast array of habitat types and even survive well in urban and rural areas due to their ability to raid human food and crops. Although they are under heavy hunting pressure for meat, sport and trophies and are commonly taken into the pet trade as youngsters, these practices and trades are not believed to be a significant threat to the species overall across its range. Macaques live in large multi-male, multi-female troops and females could give birth to one baby each year – they are therefore able to re-populate fairly rapidly if many individuals are lost. Pig-tailed macaques however are listed as “vulnerable” due to the fact they’ve suffered a 30% population decline across the last three generations due to hunting and severe habitat loss across much of their geographic range.
Across their geographic range there are thousands of macaques living miserable lives as pets, photo props or entertainment animals, but because they aren’t a Vulnerable or Endangered species each individual case is not a priority for authorities when there are much more endangered species being kept in equally dire conditions (or humans being kept so). The sad reality is that the scale of illegal wildlife trade for the pet and entertainment industries is so great that there are regretfully more victims than there are centres or facilities with the capacity to provide immediate help.
The vast majority of the macaques at Matang were pets who have been surrendered by their owners who were keeping them illegally. Many people may genuinely not know that it is a crime to keep these animals as pets and do not fully understand the consequences of taking wildlife out of the wild and attempting to raise them in a human household. Many of the macaques at the centre have been relinquished by their owners when they become too aggressive and dangerous to handle. Many have bitten their owners or harmed or killed other pets and at this stage the fearful owner turns their pet over to the centre to provide their lifelong care. One of our latest arrivals, an adult male pigtail macaque, was relinquished to the centre by his owner who has kept him chained by the neck inside a small cage for 10 years. He surrendered him because he feared the animal would attack him. A poignant reminded that this back-story is the rule, not the exception.
At this time macaques are by far the species of mammal that is most frequently relinquished to the centre and as a result there is a serious accommodation shortage. Many of these macaques are coming from homes where they have been either placed in cages so small that they cannot move or they’ve been kept on short chains. In many cases this miserable and cramped solitary life can lead to physical deformity, malnutrition/starvation and psychological disorders much like that exhibited by humans with post traumatic stress disorders.
Their Life at the centre:
When a macaque arrives at the centre we allow them time to settle into their new life. For the vast majority of the macaques our priority is to integrate them with another member of their species as soon as possible. For most individuals this helps hugely to improve their mental health and well being. Macaques are highly intelligent and social animals so being part of a pair or group allows them to express natural behaviours and most importantly helps alleviate stress.
One of the many challenges we face is that just by chance we have far more dominant male pig-tailed macaques at the centre than we do females. Although there is hope for mixing some of the dominant males together in the future we certainly couldn’t mix all 9 dominant pig-tailed males together and thus this places further pressure on the already limited accommodation because most of these males are currently housed alone whilst we work on integrating them with an appropriate con-specific.
At the moment all macaques at the centre are housed in our quarantine facility, an area that doubles as our overflow accommodation. We do not believe in turning any animals away, so long as we can provide a better, even if only marginally, lifestyle than where they’ve come from. The cages housing the macaques weren’t designed to be“forever” homes; however, the cages are large enough that we are able to hang all sorts of play structures and enrichment items such as logs, swings, hammocks and ladders in the cages. In addition to this type of enrichment we also supply the macaques with food puzzle or novel food enrichment on a daily basis. There are only 18 permanent cages in the quarantine area, which means that some macaques live in smaller, free-standing cages. This situation is far from ideal and for those of us who work here on a daily basis it never stops being upsetting to see an animal in a small cage, but we are aware that in every single case the animal is better off than where they came from and we are working towards something better for them.
People often wonder why we, and other centres, can’t simply release the macaques, or other species of animals that they don’t have the resources to house adequately. Rehabilitation and release of any species is complex, time consuming, expensive and in many cases an irresponsible course to take when considering both the welfare of the individuals involved and conservation at large. Please have a read of the IUCN Guildelines for the Placement of Confiscated Animals for more understanding of these issues. Macaques are no exception. As a result of their years spent in captivity where they’ve become very habituated to humans, many of the macaques are emotionally traumatised or not particularly well adjusted individuals. Releasing habituated animals, particularly ones who, as already mentioned, do well in rural and urban areas, invites human-animal conflict. This means that by simply trying to feed themselves and survive the macaques may be taking that food away from humans and this will generally either result in them being shot, or captured and brought back to captivity. Don’t forget that in many Western countries wildlife is often culled because humans decide that they are a “pest”. For example, whether we are talking about culling wolves in Europe, badgers in England or macaques in Asia the principle is the same; the animal has become labeled as a pest because humans have altered their ecosystem and thus they now compete with humans for food resources or eat our stock/crops that we raise/grow on the land that used to be their habitat.
As an organisation we believe in helping macaques by attempting to protect the habitat that wild macaques call home and by providing lifetime sanctuary to those who have become displaced from the wild. Our current major project is under-way to build large macaque enclosures, where eventually we will be able to relocate all the macaques currently residing in the quarantine area.
This project obviously represents a huge improvement to the welfare of the current resident macaques. However, due to the magnitude of the problem, as fast as quarantine cages are vacated they will be filled with new arrivals. For this reason it is our long-term goal to set up a specialized macaque sanctuary so that these animals can live out their days in a safe and stimulating environment. Over the last couple of months staff and volunteers have begun digging up the foundations of an old dilapidated enclosure and are now building retaining walls and getting ready to lay new foundations. It’s a big job that is likely to take months but we are very excited to be building a new home for these lovely monkeys.
For more information on the biology and ecology of macaques, have a read of this!