Thursday, January 28, 2010

Asia for Animals Conference

A few weeks back, I went to the Asia for Animals conference, which was held in Singapore and hosted by ACRES, a local animal welfare organization. The conference was held downtown at the elegant Furama Riverfront Hotel.

You can click here to see the website for the conference- the website has some pretty artistically done animal photos.

My main reason for attending the conference was that a preconference on the first day was devoted entirely to human/macaque conflict, which is of specific interest to me, as I see the Bukit Timah monkeys interacting with humans every single time I go there. The majority of the problems revolve around food- food in houses, food eaten by children walking down the street, food in plastic grocery bags, discarded food in trash cans, people feeding the monkeys from cars (thus encouraging them to approach cars in the future), etc.The Bukit Timah monkeys sometimes threaten people who have food, and even snatch food bags from time to time, but I've never witnessed an instance in which a macaque actually injured someone. They also cause problems among the people who live next to the park and in the monkeys' territory. The monkeys sit on the roofs of their houses, sneak in through open windows, raid trash cans that have been left unlocked, and wreak havoc on laundry that has been left outside to dry. Below are some pictures of the BT monkeys in action.It was interesting to hear the talks about human/macaque conflict. Some talks addressed potential solutions. A Hong Kong government official discussed the success they've had with monkey security guards- people who are hired to patrol high-conflict areas, and chase the monkeys back into the forest when they start to inch out into the city. Other people talked about sterilization as a means of controlling macaque populations- a method of which I am not fond. Monkey feeding bans (such as the one in Singapore) and controlled provisioning were also addressed.

I thought the most interesting talk of the day was one given by a man who works on cracking down on the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia. He works for TRAFFIC, which is a division of the World Wildlife Fund. His talk was horribly depressing but very educational. I learned that illegal wildlife trade is the second-largest threat to endangered species, beat out only by habitat destruction, and that macaques are the most frequently trafficked primate. Some of the macaque trading is legal- macaques are shipped to the U.S. for biomedical research, and for the testing of things like cosmetics (I won't get started on that rant...). There are even legal macaque farms, which raise macaques for export.

However, much of the trade is illegal, and macaque farmers have a hard time competing with people who illegally catch and sell wild macaques (farming macaques requires a much greater investment), so farms are often operated illegally. Some farms have legitimate papers, but they catch their animals from the wild and then pass them off as legally farmed macaques. Others don't bother with the farm front, and just smuggle the wild-caught macaques across borders. I had no idea that the magnitude of the problem was so great, but the point was really driven home when the speaker showed pictures of a recent bust in which 950 illegal macaques were seized in Malaysia.

He also discussed the plight of Indonesian macaques. In Indonesia, it is legal to keep macaques as pets, and they're sold at local markets for as little as US$5. People who can barely afford to feed themselves sometimes end up with pet macaques that end up living horrible lives, being cared for by people who have no concept of the needs of a monkey. Indonesian macaques are also officially classified as pests, and it's legal to kill them if they raid your crops.

After lunch (all the food was vegan! I was right at home), there was a discussion. People from all over Asia shared their macaque problems- crop-raiding macaques stealing food from impoverished people, rhesus macaques (which are much larger than S'porean long-tailed macaques) accidentally killing people by knocking large flower pots off of balconies, and more. Hearing the problems that other cities deal with made me appreciate our relatively polite, little macaques. The discussion was intended to lead to some potential ways to address human/macaque issues, but mostly it involved a long discussion of the state of the problems, without yielding many real solutions.

Human/macaque conflict, like many human/animal issues, is delicate because it sometimes involves weighing the comfort or livelihood of the people against the welfare of the animals. While I have a lot of sympathy for people who are having their crops raided by rogue monkeys, I find that I am far less sensitive to people who illegally traffic wildlife- I think because, in many cases, they're not trafficking animals "just to get by," but are doing it because it's a lucrative business in which they stand to make big profits. I think there's a major difference between taking action against monkeys that are stealing your family's food, and horribly mistreating animals just so you can make some extra cash.

All in all, it was an interesting day, but it was also emotionally taxing.

The second day focused on animals in captivity, and while I thought the first day was emotional, this was something else entirely. Everyone knows how much I love animals- the fact that I desperately tried to save our sad little bathroom gecko is just one example. So it was very hard for me to sit through the next day, and the numerous examples of the awful ways that people treat captive animals.

The hardest part was a video made by ACRES as part of an undercover investigation into animal welfare in Malaysian zoos. I was shocked by what I saw- big, intelligent animals such as chimpanzees kept in appalling conditions, sick animals, animals chained to the ground, zookeepers actually caught on tape abusing the animals, and more. By the end of the video I was crying, and I would have been mortified to be crying in a conference hall, but when I looked around, I was quickly reassured that I wasn't alone. Zoo Negeri Johor, in Johor Bahru, just across the causeway from Singapore, was one of the zoos with the worst conditions. If you're ever in Southeast Asia, I recommend avoiding Malaysian zoos like the plague- come to Singapore; our zoo isn't perfect, but it's on the right track- the animals are healthy, and the enclosures are more naturalistic and humane. And I seriously doubt that the keepers are abusive.

After two emotional days, I went back to my healthy, wild monkeys with a new appreciation.

(If you're an animal lover like me, and you want to do something for the animals of Zoo Negeri Johor, you can follow this link to get the address of where you can send letters, asking for an improvement in the conditions of the animals at the zoo. And don't ever go to a zoo in Malaysia).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

R.I.P. Roland

We often get little geckos that come into our apartment and hang out. They're cute and we don't mind having them. Usually they don't stay more than a couple days, but a few weeks ago one showed up in our bathroom and stuck around. We called him Roland (yes, after the gunslinger in the Dark Tower series. Nerd love.) He had been in our spare bathroom for over a week when we stopped seeing him and assumed he'd moved on. Another week went by and Bryan was moving the drain hose for the washer, and found Roland in the lint trap! Bryan thought he was already dead, but he turned out to be just barely alive. He was hardly moving, and unlike healthy geckos which have big fat tails, Roland's tail was shriveled and sad. We tried our best to take care of him, offering him all the food we could think of (applesauce, Bac'n Bits, cilantro leaves), but he just wouldn't eat. We set out water for him, but he didn't seem interested. We looked up gecko care online, and found that sometimes when geckos are shedding (as Roland was), they need wet paper towels to help the skin come off more easily, so we provided some of those. Every time I would peek in the bathroom to check on him, I would say "Bryan...I think he's dead," and then I'd stare for awhile and he would show some minor sign of life and I would yell "Never mind!!! His foot just moved!" He hung in there for about five days, but alas, eventually he succumbed. Bryan fulfilled his man-of-the-house duties by flushing Roland while I shouted a eulogy from the next room. And that's the pathetic story of Roland the gecko.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Things I Find in the Woods Part Three

When I was with the monkeys one day, I noticed a tiny movement out of the corner of my eye and got out my binoculars to scope out a nearby tree. I almost dropped the binoculars when I realized that the movement was a snake in a tree- a female pit viper to be more exact. The snake was so far away that I couldn't believe that I had noticed it, and I was bummed that no one was around to witness my amazing feat of wildlife-spotting. I ended up crashing through the underbrush to get a picture of the snake, but I couldn't get very close. I love how the snake is totally comfortable on its precarious perch.

A couple of caterpillars...
Some strange sort of larvae...
I saw this millipede on the path, and later I left Bukit Timah and went to NTU (a trip involving two buses and an MRT ride). I was sitting in the lab, and I looked down and saw the millipede on the floor! Apparently he hitched a ride on my boot.Bryan met up with me at the end of the day one day to see the monkeys, and we found a huge snail.I know I've posted pictures of colugos (aka "flying lemurs") previously, but I love them so much that I'll share a couple more. I still get really excited every time I get lucky enough to find one of these extremely well-camouflaged creatures. The first picture didn't turn out very well because I was trying to take it in the rain, but I'm going to post it anyway, because it's a baby colugo AND a baby macaque!! It was total adorable overload- the baby macaque was romping around in the tree, and ended up almost on top of the colugo before the little macaque noticed it, went wide-eyed, and then scampered off to find its mother.Colugos move in a bizarre way, even when they're not gliding from tree to tree. Here's a video of one climbing a tree.

An atlas moth isn't as awesome as a colugo, but it's still pretty cool in its own right.It's been awhile since I posted a picture of a monitor. I see them so much at Bukit Timah that they're becoming like squirrels to me- I rarely take photos of them anymore. But occasionally I think one of them looks extra interesting. I like the way the one in the top photo looks totally relaxed with his legs kicked back like a mellowed-out dog. He kind of blends in with the pavement too.
And of course there are the monkeys, but I think they deserve their own separate post, so I'm working on another blog post to update everyone on my adventures with the macaques! There's never a dull moment, that's for sure. Here's a little preview- my buddy Punk, looking like he's posing for his photo.

Singapore in National Geographic

This month's National Geographic has a fascinating article on Singapore. The author succinctly and accurately describes much of the Singaporean experience. In true National Geographic fashion, the article is accompanied by some fantastic photos. I highly recommend checking it out!

Click here for the article.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Infamous Merlion

The merlion is one of the symbols of Singapore, and this has mystified me since we arrived. I kind of figured it was the misguided result of a late-night meeting of the Singapore Tourism Board ("Hey Jim, I told the boss we'd come up with a new and exciting mascot for today's meeting and we still have no ideas except a stupid lion or a boring fish" "Don't even worry about it, Bob. I have something WAY better than either of those."). After a little research, we discovered that there was some logic behind the wacky icon that I love so much.

In the early days, a settlement on Singapore was called Temasek which means "town of the sea." In later days the island was named Singapura- the lion city. The merlion is a bizarre nod to Singapore's roots- quite literally a hybrid of yesterday and today. Merlion Park, where the alabaster monstrosity perches, spewing water from his mouth, has become quite the tourist hotspot. It was well past time for us to make our pilgrimage. Naturally, a photo shoot was necessary.There was even a baby merlion!!An observation area offered great views of the Esplanade and the Singapore Flyer, the world's largest ferris wheel (or as the commercials refer to it, "the world's largest observation wheel," which sounds infinitely lamer to me).There are lots of great sculptures around downtown too, and we passed some them on our way to and from Merlion Park. But first ALIENS TOOK OVER THE CITY!!!!!!!!!JK, that's just the ultra-modern Singapore Supreme Court building. Here it is with the old Supreme Court building.Seriously though, there were some neat sculptures. My favorite is Fernando Botero's stocky songbird. It's on the riverfront near Dali's "Homage to Newton," which I have posted photos of previously.I also really like the details on the "Progress and Advancement" sculpture, which illustrates S'pore's humble beginnings flowing into its present-day cityscape.These bright silver businessmen are scattered around randomly- I swear they look like friendly Cylons. I thought they were cute, and I think I ended up flirting with one of them...You'd think that with a PhD and two Master's degrees between the two of us, we'd have gotten over giggling at butts. You would be wrong.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I'm Huge in Singapore

In the U.S., I'm a pretty average girl. Guys hit on me from time to time, and I politely reject them, feeling somewhat flattered. When I walk down the street, I generally don't draw much attention, especially when I'm decked out in my daily uniform of jeans and a t-shirt. And that's OK with me- if I wanted attention, I'd wear clothes that were ironed and spotless rather than rumpled and pulled from the top of my hamper- maybe I'd even put on some makeup.

In Singapore, it is a different story entirely. I feel like a minor celebrity when I walk down the streets. Heads turn, jaws drop, and men approach me to flirt shamelessly. I once received applause from a group of construction workers. I've never felt very flattered by this behavior, because I think I'm being noticed just for being different rather than for being stunningly beautiful. I do my best to be inconspicuous, but it seems that no matter what I do, I end up drawing unwanted attention. A few examples:

One day I was walking home from the grocery store. I had my iPod cranked with my headphones in and I was overladen with groceries, including a super jumbo pack of toilet paper. I was moving quickly, just wanting to get home, when a man stepped into my path, waved at me and motioned for me to remove my headphones. I reluctantly did so, hoping that he just wanted directions or something. Wrong. He began flirting relentlessly (did I mention that I was carrying a super jumbo pack of TP?). I kept walking while declining him repeatedly, each rebuke sharper than the last- "I have a boyfriend," "I'm not interested," "Please leave me alone!" Of course he followed, and even offered to carry the toilet paper! I put my headphones back in, and he trailed along behind me, asking invasive questions like "Where do you live?" as if I would be foolish enough to answer. He kept it up until I started saying "!!!!" My yelling started to draw some attention, and much to my relief he turned around and walked off dejectedly.

A few weeks later, I was again carrying groceries home when a man came up to me on the street and said "Hey sweetheart, where are you from?" Now I abhor being called sweetheart by men that are hitting on me- I think it's condescending and presumptuous. I was irritated by his question and fed up with guys like him, and I dished out what I believe to be my harshest rejection yet- no words, just a disgusted sound and an eye roll. That didn't stop him from shamelessly saying "LOOKIN' GOOD!" before going on his way. I am now convinced that men find something alluring in a woman carrying groceries.

Waiting on the MRT one day, I had my nose buried in a book when someone said "Excuse me!" and I looked up. I was immediately sorry when I saw the eager expression on the guy's face. I put a finger on the line I was on and coldly said "Can I help you?" He proceeded to chat incessantly without any encouragement from me until I told him that I really needed to get some reading done, and went back to my book. When the MRT came and I had to pause in my reading, Alex (he had told me his name several times) started up again, and said- "Oh, there are two seats over there!" I ignored him and sat down on a seat with people on either side of it. Undaunted, he stood in front of me and kept up a steady monologue aimed in my direction. Just before his stop, he asked me for my number. I said no, and he said he just wanted to be friends. I told him I didn't have a phone, or an email address, and I was virtually impossible to get ahold of. The guy that I had sat next to (in an attempt to escape my unwanted suitor) was shaking with suppressed laughter. I breathed a sigh of relief when overeager Alex finally exited the train.

The worst experience I ever had with a guy was when we first arrived in Singapore and Bryan was working and I still had my days free. I decided to go check out Japanese Garden on my own, and I took along a book, expecting a peaceful afternoon. I couldn't have been more wrong. As I walked into the garden, I saw someone off to the side of the path, and I gave a courteous smile (I have long since learned not to smile at strange men in Singapore. Perhaps I should have known this before, but what can I say? I'm a happy person; it comes naturally). This guy took my smile as an open invitation to stalk me relentlessly. As I walked onto a bridge to feed the fish below, I sensed that I was being followed. Sure enough, when I stopped he was there, asking me a lot of questions. After attempting to kindly reject him several times, I resorted to pretending I didn't understand what he was saying- a technique I have employed many times with varying degrees of success. It didn't work on him, so I just turned and walked away. He followed, and I called Bryan, hoping that my phone conversation would bore him. No luck- he walked away and waited for me to hang up, and then approached me again. I ignored him and walked to a crowded area where I sat down on a bench and began pointedly reading my book. He stood nearby, irritating me with his presence, until coming and sitting in front of me. I told him I was waiting for my boyfriend, who would be here soon. He didn't take the hint, and was so bold as to reach out and touch my red-polished toenail and say "I like this." I freaked out, jumped up and walked away, making a beeline for the nearest bathroom. Once inside, I peeked out and saw him waiting there. I waited a very long time until he wandered off, appearing to look for me (he must have assumed I had sneaked out somehow), and when he was turned around, I ran across the park to the MRT station. It was an unpleasant and somewhat frightening experience, and nothing nearly so bad has happened since. Although it made me angry, I think it also taught me a valuable lesson about how to deal with persistent men in Singapore.

I've learned a few tricks to help me avoid unwanted confrontations. I've found that eye contact, whether intentional or unintentional, can be perceived as encouragement. I often wear big sunglasses that make my gaze direction ambiguous, and sometimes I wear a ring on my left-hand ring finger, and start playing with it when I see men eyeballing me.

I don't want to give Singapore's men a bad name- for the most part, the men here are very courteous and have been helpful with things like directions. Older Chinese men are always genuinely kind to me, and are interested in what I'm doing here and what I think of Singapore. The men that hit on me tend to fit a stereotype- young, unskilled laborers with nothing better to do. And with the exception of the extra-creepy guy at Japanese Garden, they're generally harmless- whenever I've been hit on, it's been in a crowded place in broad daylight, and they don't try to touch me or violate my personal space. They're really more of an annoyance than a threat.

Perhaps I'm being too hard on these guys. After all, who can resist a face like this?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Borneo Day Five: Happy Birthday, Bryan!

Bryan's birthday was on our last day in Borneo!! For his birthday activity, we woke up bright and early and went to get a boat out to one of the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. The park is made up of five islands off the coast of Borneo in the South China Sea. After much conversing with several men at the counter we got spots on a boat going to Manukan Island, with a promise that we would be picked up at noon for the 15-minute boat ride back to KK- we had a flight to catch at 2:55, so we were playing it a little close.

Bryan loaned me his hat to keep the sun off my face, as we had foolishly left the sunscreen behind in our early-morning, pre-coffee stupor. Not the cutest, but pretty silly. The boat ride was nice- we stopped at Sapi and Gaya islands on the way out to Manukan, and it was a nice way to get a little tour of the area. In the distance, we caught a glimpse of one of the area's notorious stilt villages. We also got a shot of Manukan Island as we approached. It was such a beautiful day!! Perfect for an outdoor adventure. I could not believe the sight of the water when we got to the dock. It was so amazingly clear, and there were tropical fish all over the place. It was truly astonishing. You could see into the water all the way to the bottom, so you could see the fish really clearly. We didn't linger for very long, because we planned on going for a short hike before going swimming and fish-watching.We headed away from the gorgeous water, and into the wooded part of the island. We had been wondering where the lizards were in Malaysia- we see lizards all over the place in Singapore: changeable lizards clinging to tree trunks along sidewalks, geckos in our flat, skinks and clouded monitors at Bukit Timah, and water monitors at Sungei Buloh; but so far in Borneo we'd only seen a few geckos one night on a wall outside a shop. It seemed that Manukan Island was where the lizards, at least the skinks, were hiding. Every few steps we would catch their movements out of the corner of our eyes. They were remarkably unafraid of people, not running away until we were close enough to reach out and touch them.Our hike in the woods led to a beach, and to lots more interesting insects, including these two shield bugs.We also found another unusual plant. I'm not sure what it is (it's a pandanus!  Thanks, Ivan!), but it reminds me of a nipah palm. The large picture is the plant we saw on Manukan, and the smaller photo is a nipah palm we saw on Pulau Ubin. Don't the two look related?After our hike, we went back to the beach and I went swimming and checked out the tropical fish. Bryan waded in a little ways and took some photos of the fish in the shallow water. The fish were really concentrated around the dock, which was covered in barnacles and sucker fish. It was jellyfish season, and the jellyfish were definitely out so that was a little disconcerting, but we successfully avoided them. As I got further out into the water, the fish got bigger and more interesting. I approached a stand of coral, and a big fish seemed to think I was violating his territory and made a beeline for my toes. He darted straight at my feet, swam back about a foot and made another pass at me. The fish was less than a foot long and certainly didn't look dangerous, so it made for a somewhat comical spectacle. There were lots of fish that I recognized- angel fish, zebra fish, blue tang, and of course the jellyfish- even though I was scared of them, they struck me as strangely beautiful- they're just so unlike any other creatures. My favorite fish was one I'd never seen before. It was rather large, perhaps 12 inches long with a robust body, and insanely vivid colors- iridescent purple on its body with bright turquoise fins. You can get a vague idea from the picture below- it's near the bottom left corner.While I was engrossed in gorgeous, brightly colored tropical fish, Bryan was closer to the shore, equally captivated by something else. When I got closer, I saw that he was staring at some little, dull brown fish. The fish were in shallow water, near the sandy bottom, being knocked back and forth in the waves. We had passed one earlier, giving it a wide berth, as we assumed it was dead. Bryan had discovered that if you got close to the fish, it would swim away! It seemed as though the fish were playing dead! It was pretty neat, but I wasn't anywhere near as excited about it as Bryan. Since he loved it so much, I'll post the video he took- you can see the fish, which looks like a brown leaf, moving with the waves, and then swimming away whenever Bryan walks toward it. The green lines in the video are from the bright sun reflecting off the water- our camera isn't broken.

From on top of the dock, we took some more pictures. It would be fun to get an underwater case for our camera, but I think I would be really worried the whole time that some water would seep into the case and destroy the beloved camera (a Panasonic Lumix). The water was so clear at Manukan that some of the pictures from above the water turned out anyway. The little fish were all schooling together, and we got to see a big fish hunting them, swimming through the middle of the school a few times and eating them by the mouthful. The tightly controlled response of the little fish was fascinating to watch, as they kept their school together and tried their best to avoid the big fish. The predator ended up looking like he had a force-field around him because the little fish wouldn't get anywhere near him. You can see the schooling fish in the upper left corner of this photo.Our boat was a little late getting going, and we started to worry about making our flight. I think our boat driver sympathized, and ended up driving super fast for us. The boat ride was jarring but really fun! Once back on the mainland, we caught a taxi ("teksi" in Malay- I love how a lot of Malay words sound like English words- bus is "bas," restaurant is "restoran," clinic is "klinik," etc.) and headed for the airport with plenty of time to spare. Our trip was really an adventure and we had a truly amazing time, but it was nice to be headed back to our place, where we could drink the water! Here's the birthday boy on the plane home, reading New Moon!!