Very few Singaporeans can say that working with primates is something they aspire to do. However, primatologist Andie Ang is the only person bold enough to forgo a typical white-collar job for a life in the jungle to hang out with monkeys.
She ended up in this unusual line of work due to early exposure to monkeys. At 10, she was given a male vervet monkey from South Africa called Ah Boy. She loved it like any pet, showering plenty of love and attention, even allowing it to groom her (as monkeys do). But over time, as Ah Boy grew to his full size, he had to be chained up at home for fear he might scratch or injure someone.
Ang realised how cruel it was to domesticate her pet monkey when it should live wild and free. At 15, she knew it was time to send Ah Boy home. So, with the help of Singapore-based animal conservation group Acres (Animal Concerns Research and Education Society) and generous donations from friends and family, the monkey was repatriated back to Zambia in southern Africa to be with his kind.
Those fruitful years left a deep impression on Ang, who pursued a degree in life sciences at the National University of Singapore (NUS). She obtained a PhD in biological anthropology from the University of Colorado Boulder.
Over the last decade, Ang's research has taken her all over Asia. She studied Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys in Vietnam, Indochinese silvered langurs and black-shanked doucs. In Thailand, she studied white-handed gibbons; in Indonesia’s Sumatra, she studied East Sumatran banded langurs.
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Save the langurs
As Singapore’s leading primate researcher, her current area of interest is the study and conservation of the Raffles’ banded langur, also known as the banded leaf monkey, an adorable looking but critically endangered species with fewer than 300 left globally.
During a walk with Ang at Thomson Nature Park — where most of the langurs reside — she shares that the local langur population has grown from 40 to 70 in the past 10 years. “The small population and slow growth are due to the lack of females and too many groups of bachelors. Typically in one group, one alpha male lives with a group of females and their offspring. Opportunities for other males to mate are meagre.”
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Another growing concern is that their genetic pool is relatively poor. Based on the faecal samples she collected, the DNA analyses show that they are all highly related, which may contribute to congenital disabilities and shorter mortalities. Ang and her team are currently looking at introducing banded langurs from Malaysia — the only other place where this species is found — to boost its genetic diversity.
To learn more about this elusive monkey, Ang recently published a book, Raffles’ Banded Langur, documenting the family tree of four groups of langurs in Singapore to promote greater awareness and protection for this dying species.
Residential primate expert
As one of the few female primatologists in the region, Ang also holds several professional appointments. As a full-time job, she works as a research scientist with Mandai Nature. She heads the Raffles’ Banded Langur Working Group, studying population genetics, behaviour and dietary profiles.
In addition, she is the president of Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore), a voluntary role where she oversees outreach and building programs to promote awareness and wildlife protection. As a National Geographic Explorer, she uses her celebrity to reach a more regional audience through voluntary outreach programmes, talks and media engagements.
She is also the deputy chairwoman for the Primate Specialist Group under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC). It is a volunteer role where she helps to provide resources, write advisories and coordinate efforts within Southeast Asia in dealing with primate habitat issues, illegal wildlife trade and social media abuse.
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Ang also works closely with government and non-government agencies in Singapore and the region on long-term research and conservation of endangered species. Part of her scope is also to advise on urban planning matters to prevent encroachment on monkey territory.
A considerable part of her job is to request funding for her continued conservation work. To date, she has acquired about 30 grants, the largest of which is from Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund (WRSCF) by Mandai Nature, which is currently funding her research on the Raffles’ banded langurs. She has also received grants from National Geographic, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, and Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) Grant for the Environment.
Her efforts were recognised with the Conservationist Award by the American Society of Primatologists in 2019, Singapore Women’s Weekly’s Women Of Our Time in 2019, Singapore Tatler Generation T Honouree in 2018, and Prestige 40 under 40 in 2018. Ang was also a finalist in the 2014 Rolex Awards for Enterprise, where she was part of a Rolex Perpetual Planet campaign to promote her conservation work.
Life in the jungle
To discover everything she can about the Raffles’ banded langur, Ang spends much of her time in Singapore’s dense forests (together with research partner Sabrina Jabbar) watching the monkeys and collecting faecal matter to analyse their DNA, dietary habits and migration patterns.
Her fieldwork is nothing dangerous like Sigourney Weaver’s character in the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist (where the actress portrayed American primatologist and conservationist Dian Fossey). However, she was very close to being bitten by a pit viper in Singapore. A lot of the time, especially on her regional trips, she finds herself the only woman amongst men.
“There are a lot of female field researchers in the world there, but very few are Asian. I think there is a certain perception that women don't have as much stamina as men when it comes to fieldwork. The men track fast, and the women often trail behind. No matter how fast I try to be, I’m still the slowest and feel bad for slowing them down,” says the diminutive 37-year-old.
She recalls her time in the Vietnam jungle, where she could not shower for days. “In remote areas, there are no shower facilities, and all the boys shower in the open using water from a well. Once they told me there was a secluded river bank where I could shower privately, but I soon realised they were being sarcastic because there was a row of coffee shops across from that river. I only washed my hair for seven days and wet-wiped my body!”
A large part of Ang’s job is also educating the public on how to deal with monkeys (predominantly macaques) invading public spaces and terrorising residents – a fundamental problem of late. “There are only two reasons why monkeys would move out of their habitats — to look for mates or food. That’s why it’s important to keep your distance and not feed them, as this makes them associate humans with food, which may sometimes cause aggressive behaviour,” she says.
“Most of the time, macaques in their natural habitat mind their own business, feed on natural food resources, play with and groom each other – they never attack people. Unfortunately, this typical behaviour does not get reported in mainstream media.”
“To quote (English primatologist and anthropologist) Dr Jane Goodall: Only if we understand will we care. Only if we care will we help. And only if we help shall all be saved,” says Ang. “Collectively, we need to learn to appreciate our local biodiversity and its roles in the ecosystem and forest regeneration. We also need to find ways to live in harmony with wildlife. After all, the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, the food that we eat and the climate that we live in all come from nature.”
In this interview with Options, Ang shares more about her scope of work and efforts to promote harmonious coexistence between man and monkey. To learn more, you can also tune in to Expedition: Earth — a 12-episode podcast series by National Geographic that delves into the stories of National Geographic Explorers. Ang appears in episode two, where she talks to fellow National Geographic Explorer Lilly Sedaghat about how to live in balance with wildlife as Singapore transitions from a garden city to a city in nature.
If you were not a primatologist, what would you be doing?
I was gearing up to become an engineer. I studied math, double math, and physics. Still, after discovering that NUS offered a course where students could study life sciences without any prior background in biology, I jumped at the chance and switched majors at the very last minute.
Of course, there was a lot of backlash from my parents. But after much convincing, they allowed me to pursue my passion under one condition – that I don’t take a cent from them when I start working. If I can’t earn enough to support them, the least I can do is not spend their money. Slowly, my parents understood that this work was meaningful and serious. They saw the value in my work when they read a feature about me in the newspaper.
What is a general day like for you?
Every day is different, but typically I would be going to the field by 7.30 am trying to find langurs, collect faecal samples and record data till about 11 am. Lunch breaks tend to be very long because that's when the langurs take naps, so I head home to freshen up and return at about 3.30 pm to 7 pm when they are most active.
On other days, I could be busy in meetings, giving talks or at other engagements with government agencies like HDB, NParks, PUB or LTA to consult on development plans in and around natural areas. In between, you’ll find me preparing reports, writing research papers, and so on.
How did the National Geographic partnership come about?
When doing my PhD, I applied for grants and approached National Geographic for funding to install rope bridges in Vietnam for the native colobines to cross. I managed to get the funding which also inducted me into the family of National Geographic Explorers. The recent podcast I did with National Geographic was a fantastic initiative because it brought together explorers from the region, allowing us to connect and see whether there are synergies we can tap on. Without that, I wouldn’t know who the other explorers are and what they do.
How did you get so prolific at applying for grants?
During my master's programme, I learned a lot from my advisor in NUS, who taught me how to manage my finances and apply for grants, from the style of writing to determining the target audience. The highest I've gotten so far was $350,000 from Mandai Nature — for the current Raffles’ banded langurs project — which covers the salary for two people to manage the project, among other things.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that getting larger grants is not just about protecting habitats and conserving wildlife. Still, more social aspects, like how will this biodiversity benefit the community? There are always challenges with asking for money. But if you can read your grant audience well and understand their priorities, you can tweak your project to fulfil those objectives; you have a higher chance of getting it.
What is the latest on the langurs’ project?
We are continuing with research and monitoring the trends in the population size. But the next phase is to focus on the conservation aspects. Translocation from Malaysia is to be considered, but it's a long process and is quite complicated. It's not just taking one animal and putting it into another place. Basic biological needs need to be fulfilled, such as the dietary requirements of Malaysian langurs, as they may not eat what the local langurs eat.
Then, there are the political aspects, too. You can't just go in and tell them I’m going to take some monkeys now. We have to work with the relevant authorities and draft an agreement.
From a technical standpoint, the other challenge is how do we physically get the animal down and off the trees. Langurs are extremely shy, fast and live at least 10m above ground. If you dart them, they will leap away and may fall to their death. There are just so many things to think about. Sometimes I wish the animals could just come here on their own!
What is your ultimate goal?
My hope is that endangered species can no longer be endangered, so we don't have to care about them anymore. I don't need to be bothered about trying to protect the habitats because they are in a state where they can manage on their own without interventions.
Then there is the issue of coexistence between man and animal, which I think is a more sensitive and urgent issue. Now that we are becoming a city in nature, there are going to be more interactions with wild animals. I hope that people start by respecting and appreciating our biodiversity. If you understand and empathise with their situation, you won’t feel like the monkey is coming to your home to steal your food. We must remember that long before houses were built, this place was a forest and their home.
What do you think will be the future for monkeys in Singapore?
We're all working together — community agencies and different civic groups — to educate people about nature and wildlife. I can't say where we are headed, but I am very positive that we are taking steps forward rather than back with all the support and networking. The hope is to coexist, where people respect and appreciate our wildlife and understand how to live in harmony because we are sharing the space.
Photos: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore; Sabrina Jabbar; Andie Ang; Facebook/Jane Goodall Institute Singapore