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).


  1. The only Zoo in Malaysia I've bee to is Melaka. Of course it wasn't as fancy as Singapore Zoo, but relatively well kept and developing.

    My worst Zoo experience in Asia so far has been the Shanghai Zoo, not because of the facilities, but because of the guests, who were throwing things or spitting on animals, like monkeys or bears, to get their attention.

  2. Zoo in Johor Bahru is very much OK considering the VERY cheap price!!! It's unfair to compare Singapore Zoo which is FAR more expansive with Johor Bahru Zoo...

  3. I don't believe that it's unfair to compare the Johor Zoo with the Singapore Zoo on the basis of price. The Johor Zoo has a responsibility to give their animals safe and adequate living conditions. If they need to raise their prices in order to improve the living conditions, they should do that.

  4. If they increased the prices, no one would visit the Zoo, and they won't even get the money they get now. It is totally unfair to compare developed and developing countries; it is not only what it takes to maintain a good Zoo, it is also what local people can afford to pay for a visit. Of course, one can argue that Zoo are not justified anywhere!

    Sorry, Crystal, for getting political in you great blog! :)

  5. I agree that it's unfair to compare developing and developed countries- however, I think that Malaysia is getting to the point where they are developed in a lot of ways, and it's time for them to up their standards. They wouldn't have to raise the prices either, there are other options, such as lowering costs by keeping fewer animals so that they can focus on providing adequate care for the animals they do have. I understand that we can't hold zoos in developing countries to the same high standards as zoos in places like the U.S. and Singapore, but I don't think that's an excuse to allow the kind of conditions that exist in Johor.

    It's OK to get political- animal rights are tricky issues, and a lot of people have strong opinions.