Anyone who has volunteered at Matang over the last eight years will be aware of the problem with macaques, in particular long tailed macaques, at the centre but also in the geographical area at large. Though Westerners often look forward to and seek out interactions with these monkeys when travelling to Asia, they are a challenging species to live along side and are often sources of human/wildlife conflict. Because of this, they are the most common animal that we receive at Matang. Their arrival frequency has increased of late too due to development taking place in areas that had large wild populations of these monkeys, creating fresh areas of conflict with humans. In anticipation of this, and in light of Matang’s existing problem with adequate captive housing for macaques, we have a large new enclosure for them already many months into construction, and volunteers have been assisting with this challenging project. Building such a large enclosure in a forested area, with no true paths leading there, presents many obstacles, not least moving enough of the incredibly heavy required materials from the delivery point to the project site!
Since Orangutan Project’s inception, we have been keen to look at alternative futures for some of the animals that end up at a centre like Matang. When working at rescue centres like Matang, it is too easy to spend all your time and energy working for the animals that land on your door step – building more enclosures, expanding existing enclosures, finding money to feed an ever-expanding population, creating enrichment, designing and building in situ enrichment, providing veterinary care and funding all of these things. Arguably the task of providing the human and financial resources to adequately care for animals that end up at rescue centres is a large and complex enough task to be the sole raison d’être of a group’s work. At Matang, it is our paid-for volunteering project that assists significantly with the human and financial resources required for the above. However, this is not the only aspect of our work as a group.
Through our tourism projects and our work with government authorities, we have been able to protect existing areas of rainforest and we continue to expand our work in these areas. This is vitally important, although more difficult to grasp people’s attention with than the animals in captivity at Matang. By the time animals arrive at a centre like Matang, the most that our work can accomplish is to place a very small plaster on a gaping arterial bleed – we can hopefully give that animal a stress-free life in a sanctuary-type setting, and potentially consider it for release if it is one of the rare few who would be suitable for this. In terms of affecting change for conservation however, caring for animals that arrive at sanctuaries sadly does very little to help; the greatest outcome can be education of volunteers and tourists that are able to visit and spend time with us on the ground, and this outcome is not tangible in terms of positive impact on conservation efforts. The best thing we can do to both help animals in sanctuaries and help conservation of species is to prevent or eradicate the processes by which animals are taken from the wild in the first place, which means protecting the wild that remains. This is a much more complex task than caring for captive wildlife.
By the time an animal arrives in a rescue centre, the options for their future are:
- Lifetime care within the centre
- Release back to the wild – a very complex process requiring comprehensive disease screening, behavioural assessment to ensure they at least have a chance of fending for themselves, a process of rehabilitation rather than ‘dumping’ back in the jungle, tracking technology to determine the future of the animal once released and a team of staff that are able to track the animal in the forest. Habitat assessments should also be carried out to ensure that the chosen area of forest is able to support the released animal, and also (more importantly) that the released animal will not do any damage to existing wild populations of con-specifics or other wildlife
- Euthanasia – a very unpalatable option to present to the general public, but is recommended by the IUCN for very objective and sensible reasons
- Release to natural settings/island areas, that allow full expression of natural behaviour but isolate them from interactions with conspecifics and prevent potential damage to existing wild ecosystems
The option of releasing to island areas is something we have been working towards since Leo first founded our group. We have had ups and downs, and plans that have fallen through, but this year we have finally secured, with assistance from SFC, a large island in mangrove swamp habitat that is ideal for release of macaques. To prepare for this relocation of macaques, we had been slowly socialising the monkeys in quarantine into slightly larger group sizes – two of these consisted of one male with four females each. The males had been castrated before being mixed with the females, as we do not want macaques to be breeding, either at Matang or on the island.
Transferring the macaques from Matang to the island went very smoothly. The two groups were released at different areas, so that they could become used to the new habitat without the additional stress of interacting with new monkeys. The island does provide some natural foods, but we have also employed another local member of staff, whose daily job is now to take a boat ride out to the island and place food on small platforms so that the monkeys never go hungry. He is also attempting to do a small amount of monitoring.
So far, we have been able to report regular sightings of one of the groups of macaques. The second group has not been seen. This could be because:
- They have moved to an area of the island that is not easily visible from the water’s edge, and are keeping away from the sounds of the outboard engine and human activity
- They have swam off the island to other areas of the mangrove – there is a population of salt water crocodiles in this area that we hoped would disincentives a lot of swimming or exploration of the water, but macaques are very good swimmers so it is a possibility
- They have died
We obviously hope they are doing well and simply avoiding the humans whenever they come to the area. We are continuing with the food provisions and monitoring that these deliveries allow, and have also installed some camera traps on the island. As well as photos of the macaques, it is clear that some of the squirrels are also enjoying the daily provisions of high energy fruit and vegetables to the area! We were able to buy these camera traps thanks to funds raised via our UK charity, Project Borneo. HUGE thanks to everyone who has supported our new charity arm!
Though we have seen mixed success so far with this relocation effort, we are going to give it another shot with two further groups of long tail macaques from Matang. Their sterilisations will be taking place early next month, and we hope to trans-locate them onto the island by early November at the latest. We will also be installing more camera traps in the area to see if we can better monitor them in their new homes.
This is by no means a solution for the conservation of this species. Long tail macaques continue to be branded as a ‘pest’, and as long as a species is awarded this title they are open to persecution by the humans that are forced to share space with them. This is true for any species that is lowered to the brand of ‘pest’, in any country around the world. Humans are simply not tolerant of wild animals living in the same areas that we do, but unfortunately as we continue our merciless expansion and development, animals have little choice but to attempt to carve out a life for themselves in the same areas as humans. This is not working out well for animals around the world.
However, for the long tail macaques that end up at Matang, we now have an option for their future that offers a much more enriching and stress-free existence than caged captivity. It also means that each new arrival has hope for continued life at an island sanctuary, after simply going through a quarantine and sterilisation procedure at Matang, rather than getting stuck in ‘holding’ for an indefinite amount of time. This has been the future we have been striving for, as soon as we understood the problems facing macaques and the inevitability of their influx to Matang, and we are finally en route to achieving it.
Thanks to all our past volunteers for your work in keeping the macaques’ lives enriched while they have been stuck in the quarantine area of Matang over the years (future volunteers will have this task too of course!), and thanks to everyone that has donated to our new UK charity recently. Here are some photos of happy macaques enjoying island life, taken by our newly donated camera traps!