It’s All Monkey Business For Andie

Asian Scientist Magazine had a chat with Dr. Andie Ang, who was recently appointed president of the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore), on her upcoming projects in primate conservation.

AsianScientist (Jun. 5, 2018) – When Dr. Andie Ang was ten years old, she was given a juvenile wild vervet monkey by friends of relatives who were sailors to Africa. Unaware of the differences between wild and domestic animals, Ang raised the monkey, whom she named Ah Boy, bringing him around on her shoulders and feeding him home-cooked food.

Over time, Ah Boy grew bigger and increasingly miserable chained up at home. It was this episode that sparked Ang’s life calling as a primate conservationist and researcher. With the help of a Singapore-based animal conservation group, Ang successfully raised funds to repatriate Ah Boy back to Zambia in 2004.

As a nod to her efforts in primate conservation in the region, Ang was appointed president of the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore) in May 2018. Prior to that she was vice president of the non-profit organization.

Ang, who received a PhD degree in anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder in the US, also holds professional appointments as chairperson of the Raffles’ Banded Langur Working Group, member of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group, and vice president of the Southeast Asian Biodiversity Society, among others.

In this interview, Ang shares with us her vision for the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore), the work she is doing with her latest research conservation grant from Wildlife Reserves Singapore, and her efforts in helping the critically endangered Raffles’ banded langur via an upcoming volunteer recruitment drive.

1. Congratulations on being appointed president of the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore). What are your plans for your tenure?

We have a new vision for the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore), which is, ‘People living in harmony with nature and animals.’ I hope to further advance this vision through programs such as a series of public lectures, forest walks and Roots and Shoots outreach.

2. Where are you based currently?

I am based in Singapore, and I travel around the region—particularly Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand—for the Raffles’ banded langur conservation project.

3. What inspired your interest in primates and the Raffles’ banded langur, in particular?

When I was ten years old, I was given a wild vervet monkey from South Africa as a pet. The juvenile monkey was taken illegally by friends of relatives who were sailors to Africa. Not fully grasping the differences between a wild animal and a domestic pet at the time, I raised my pet monkey—Ah Boy—like I would a pet dog, bringing him around the neighbourhood on my shoulders and feeding him home-cooked food.

Ah Boy monkeying around. Photo credit: Andie Ang.

Every day, he would climb onto my shoulders to groom my scalp, pulling apart my hair and meticulously carrying out a search, much like how monkeys groom each other and search for parasites and dirt particles in the wild.

As my pet monkey grew bigger, I saw how miserable he was chained up at home, without his rightful freedom to live in the forests among his friends. With the help of Mr. Louis Ng from the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES), we raised funds and repatriated Ah Boy back to Zambia. Ah Boy is the inspiration for the ACRES logo and also my motivation to learn about monkeys and help them.

4. You recently received a research conservation grant from the Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund. Could you share with us more about this grant?

The Raffles’ banded langur (Presbytis femoralis femoralis) is a species of critically endangered leaf-eating monkey in Singapore, with only approximately 50 individuals left in the wild and none in captivity.

The Raffles’ banded langur. Photo credit: Andie Ang.

The Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund (WRSCF) will support research into and conservation of this species through a grant from 2016 to 2018 for the implementation of the first phase of the Species Action Plan. The second phase, which will run from 2018 to 2020, will also be funded by WRSCF.

5. Please share with us your journey towards becoming a primate conservationist.

I started learning about monkeys during my final year project at the National University of Singapore. I studied the hand-use preference of primates when retrieving food items at the Singapore Zoo, looking at proboscis monkeys, white-handed gibbons and slow lorises. More than 90 percent of humans are right-handed, so what about monkeys?

Humans exhibit individual-level and population-level right-handedness. This means that most human individuals show a preference, whether it is left or right preference (individual-level), with more than 90 percent of humans being right-handed (population-level). However, this is not the case in non-human primates—there is no strong evidence for a preference to left or right in our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees.

In my study, I found that [non-human primates exhibit no left- or right-handedness], except for slow lorises. Almost all the slow lorises I studied at the zoo show an individual-level preference (either clearly left or right), but as a group, there was no population-level preference (50:50 in terms of the number of left-handed and right-handed lorises).

I also looked at wild white-handed gibbons in Khao Yai National Park in Thailand to compare my results against those I collected from the zoo gibbons; again, they did not show a preference—they were ambidexterous.

Subsequently, for my Masters project, I researched the local critically endangered Raffles’ banded langurs, because I wanted to learn more about them and contribute to our native wildlife before studying primates in the region.

What makes the Raffles’ banded langur special is that this species was first known to science through Sir Stamford Raffles’ writing in 1822, based on a specimen collected in Singapore.

6. What research did you carry out at the University of Colorado?

For my PhD degree in anthropology, I studied three species of colobine monkeys (leaf-eating primates) from six sites in Vietnam: the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus avunculus), the black-shanked douc (Pygathrix nigripes) and the Indochinese silvered langur (Trachypithecus germaini).

I selected these three species of leaf-eating monkeys to answer scientific questions on population genetics and diet in endangered species, using molecular tools to complement field observations.

My project depended heavily on collecting fecal samples! From the fecal samples, I extracted genomic DNA from the monkeys, the plants they ate, parasites and gut microbiome. All this information helped us understand whether there was inbreeding in the monkey populations, their plant diet choice, parasite load and gut microbes. In total, we collected 395 fecal samples from the three species.

One of our key findings was that the largest population of critically endangered Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys exhibited zero mitochondrial genetic variability, the lowest ever reported for any primate species in the wild. The study was also featured in New Scientist.

Wildlife Reserves Singapore funded my projects on the Raffles’ banded langur in Singapore, and also a component of my PhD dissertation project.

7. You’ll be conducting your fifth volunteer recruitment drive on June 10, 2018. What should our readers know about it?

The Raffles’ banded langur is critically endangered in Singapore with a small population size and restricted distribution. In order for conservation actions to be implemented, population estimates and distribution of the Raffles’ banded langur need to be updated through field surveys.

The general public can contribute by participating as a volunteer, going to nature areas to collect observation data on the monkeys. We have been carrying out this citizen science effort since August 2016, recruiting volunteers every six months.

We will hold our fifth volunteer recruitment drive on June 10, 2018, sharing information on what data needs to be collected and how to do so. Results from previous rounds of citizen science surveys will also be presented.


Photo: Gina Goh, Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore)
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Juliana is the founder and CEO of Wildtype Media Group, Asia's leading STEM-focused media company, spanning digital, print, custom publishing and events. Brands under Wildtype Group include Asian Scientist Magazine and Supercomputing Asia, award-winning titles available in print and online. Juliana regularly moderates panel discussions and gives talks on science communication.

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