Policymakers should factor nature into development projects earlier: Singapore primatologist Andie Ang

Across Southeast Asia, forest carbon offsetting projects also need to account for their inhabitants for lasting success, Ang tells Eco-Business, during a guided forest walk to spot langurs.

Dr Andie Ang JGIS primatologist
Dr Andie Ang leading a walk to spot langurs in a nature park in Singapore. Image: Eco-Business/ Liang Lei.

The walk at Thomson Nature Park, a 50-hectare plot fringing Singapore’s central forest reserve, started leisurely in sunshine and ended hastily in a downpour barely an hour later.

Such vagaries of weather are not surprising for conservationist and researcher Dr Andie Ang, who is usually at the park for fieldwork thrice a week.

Ang’s work revolves around the Raffles’ banded langur — a critically endangered primate found in Singapore and peninsular Malaysia. She is currently studying the feasibility of exchanging langurs between Malaysia and Singapore to improve their genetic diversity.

No langurs were seen on the media tour Ang gave on Tuesday to promote a podcast she recorded with National Geographic. There are about 70 langurs in Singapore, and Thomson Nature Park is said to be the best public area to find them.

The group did spot a family of about 10 macaques, a more common monkey found in the region. One of the females is an expectant mother, Ang pointed out. “Don’t fight,” she muttered at two tussling juveniles who got close.

macaques grooming

Long-tailed macaques at Thomson Nature Park in Singapore. Image: Eco-Business/ Firdaus Firlany.

Walking past a towering durian tree, Ang recounted how sheepish people were when she found them trespassing and picking the fruits illegally in the past.

Stepping off trail in nature parks and reserves is prohibited in Singapore, and so is foraging for food on public land. These are part of measures to get the nearly six million people living on the 700-square-kilometre island to co-exist with nature.

But more houses are always needed in the city-state, and new projects have been carved out of forested land. About 700 hectares of secondary forests in Tengah, an estate in western Singapore, will make way for apartment blocks in the coming years.

Another 30 hectares a few kilometres away in Dover will be shared between a housing estate and a new nature park. It would have been all housing estate had nature groups and the public not opposed the plan.

Ang, who is also president of nature group Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore), has been part of government consultations on such plans.

I asked Ang if leaving a portion of Dover Forest completely wild, instead of turning it into a nature park with trails and public amenities, would have been better.

“I think that is the wish of a lot of people too,” Ang replied.

Eco-Business had a chance to sit down with Ang after the walk to talk about primate conservation, protecting nature in Singapore and her advocacy work.

People are all talking about climate change today. How do you interest them in talking about primate conservation?

The climate crisis is something everybody is talking about now because it affects our daily lives. These days, we really experience how extreme the weather changes can be — suddenly it is hot, suddenly it is cold, periods of drought, periods of rain. I think people are more concerned about these.

Primates do play a role in climate mitigation. They can be seed dispersers when they eat fruits and drop the seeds in different parts of the forest. This helps with forest regeneration and improves ecosystem health. That is a direct contribution towards mitigating the climate crisis. A healthy ecosystem provides fresh air and fresh water too.

It is important to share this knowledge to the public. It is hard for people to draw the relationship otherwise.

There is a growing interest in carbon offsetting in Southeast Asia, for example, through reforestation or protecting forests at risk. Do you feel that biodiversity conservation is sufficiently accounted for in the projects?

They are sometimes looked at as two different things, but I think they should be discussed together. Why are we talking about carbon offsets or habitat reforestation, be it in our green or blue spaces, without looking at biodiversity? They are parts of the whole.

If you want to restore habitats, you need to have the inhabitants in there to preserve it for a long time. You can plant trees but they will not survive if the seed dispersers are not there, or if other components of the ecosystem are missing.

If you want to restore habitats, you need to have the inhabitants in there to preserve it for a long time. You can plant trees but they will not survive if the seed dispersers are not there.

In the bigger picture, we need habitat restoration, but we also need to look at the intricacies, the interconnectedness of it all. It is not really happening now.

Raffles banded langur Andie Ang

A Raffles’ banded langur, photo courtesy of Dr Andie Ang. The primate is only found in Singapore and southern peninsular Malaysia, and is considered critically endangered due to habitat loss.

If we want to restore habitats, we need to figure out what plants are being used. For me, the concern would be whether there are fruit plants for the fauna in the area, such as macaques or langurs. If the projects involve planting trees, are they looking at an assortment of different plants, and not just high-value or highly endangered species? If you are only focusing on those, then you are not helping the biodiversity in the area.

Let’s shift the conversation to Singapore. Some developments in the past years have clashed with nature, for example in housing projects in Tengah and Dover, as well as an eco-tourism project in Mandai. What are the main lessons we can draw from these cases to do better in the future?

One of the lessons is that engaging with the community is very important. In the Dover project, we found out that residents really wanted to keep the forest patch because they have been seeing it there for decades as they grew up. Hearing that it will be gone meant heartache for them. That is why we saw the plans change for Dover forest [from being fully residential to having a nature park carved out].

We need to have that kind of community engagement, to hear the opinions on the ground.

If you find out through an environmental impact assessment that there are areas of high ecological value…but you can’t keep the area untouched because you need to build a certain number of housing units, then that is such a waste.

Second, such engagement should happen early on. When a project is started, even without the detailed planning yet, we should already be engaging with the community and other stakeholders, rather than wait till there are details like how many housing units should be built and when the project needs to be completed. By then, there may not be sufficient runway to make meaningful changes.

For example, if you find out through an environmental impact assessment that there are areas of high ecological value because of high biodiversity or the presence of critically endangered species, but you can’t keep the area untouched because you need to build a certain number of housing units, then that is such a waste.

Are you worried that biodiversity will take further hits with future development in Singapore? There is a common mantra among conservationists here that nature in Singapore suffers from death by a thousand cuts.

We are always going to be worried. But we are also hopeful that it will not be as bad as in the past, because we are seeing progress, sometimes slow, sometimes at the appropriate speed.

There are plans to carve out forests because of development needs. But through engagements with government agencies and community groups, we are seeing that a relationship is slowly being built. There is a foundation already, and there is sufficient trust. Now it is more of whether different agencies can also be working together — it is not just the National Parks Board, there are other agencies involved in development works as well. So how do we share the information and collaborate in a timely fashion? That is what we are more concerned about.

Development is going to happen, for sure. Forests are going to be cut down, for sure. But are we able to identify the priority areas to keep, because we have already done the research to know what is important?

We need to meet the needs of people as well. So we cannot say we want to conserve everything, but we can share information to prioritise what to keep.

You are also the president of the Jane Goodall Institute in Singapore (JGIS). What role do you see the organisation playing for nature conservation here?

For the Jane Goodall Institute, based on the beliefs of Dr Jane Goodall, we believe in sharing information, educating the general public, especially from a very young age. For a lot of us city dwellers, if we don’t get exposed to nature early on, they may develop a fear of the unknown. They might be afraid to come across certain animals in a forest, and then we can’t really teach them about what is really threatening those animals and their habitats.

So for JGIS, we believe in education, in sharing stories, and in trying to activate youths to bring about change.

One of the biggest challenges is to change perceptions. People read in social media and the news that monkeys are aggressive, they are attacking people. When we talk about co-existence with primates, with monkeys, the first reaction is “but they are so aggressive, you should remove them”.

In this case, we are already starting with a negative perception, rather than a neutral one, of not knowing much about them, or a positive one, of wanting to learn more about the threats they are facing.

Isn’t it inevitable that with more urban development in Singapore, human-nature conflict will increase? Would changing perceptions be a growing problem?

We will have more human-nature interactions for sure, because we are greening the city, and also clearing habitats – these are the two main reasons. I would say that how the media reports on these interactions is important. If the headline is about monkeys attacking people, nobody would really pay attention to the backstory. They only remember that a monkey attacked someone.

But if the headline could be different, or the article went deeper into the backstory — why did this happen? Is it habitat clearance, was a monkey family group chased out? Was there rubbish with food lying around? Did someone try to chase them away, causing the monkey to react in self-defense? Those details could make a full story.

Most of the time, when we leave the monkeys alone when we spot them, they would just be minding their own businesses — they feed, they groom, they play.

Only about five per cent of interactions involve people feeding monkeys, or monkeys attacking people, but 95 per cent of the time, they are on the news. You don’t read about monkeys playing with their babies in nature parks. So the reporting bias would create the misconception that monkeys are always attacking people, and that is something we need to change.

Do you see a role for JGIS to take a stronger stand on development projects or conservation policy in Singapore? Changing mindsets seems like a longer-term measure, but what about the more immediate conservation needs when specific projects or policies come up?

This will require a lot of collaborative effort. We have a lot of different nature groups coming together to share what we can do, such as the Nature Society here, the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES), the Herpetological Society of Singapore and JGIS.

We have engagements with the government when it comes to policies and development plans. Different groups are being invited for engagement sessions. That is our way of contributing directly, based on our research and knowledge from the ground that we can share.

On the other side, we work with youth groups as well. They are the ones who are going to take over these things and make plans in the future. We are working on these two areas at the same time.

You have done a lot of advocacy work for biodiversity and primate conservation through talks, events and recently, in a National Geographic podcast. How has your experience been, and in your own assessment, how successful have you been with advocacy?

My role has changed from working on working on primates, such as data collection — a lot of it, to working with people. I have to share more about things that we can do to co-exist, and the threats that animals and their habitats are facing.

When I interact with people, I can hear more about their opinions and stories, and I am also learning about the approach we can take in order to co-exist.

What is the most important lesson you learnt from working with Dr Jane Goodall?

I learnt a lot from her, but one thing that stood out is that you are going to meet people who don’t share the same opinions or thoughts as you, or don’t believe in what you’re saying. Instead of trying to change their mindset, or tell them that they are wrong, Dr Goodall believes in sharing stories, to allow people to understand from their own point of view, whether they would like to pursue something or not.

Rather than me telling you that cutting down a forest is really wrong, or that monkeys are being run over by cars, or that you should do something to change it, I will put it this way: the forest was gone, and that was the habitat of the monkeys. What I saw was that a langur mum was trying to bring her baby across the road, but the baby was run over. It was an individual we have been following for two years.

The stories that we share can touch people’s hearts. They can then make decisions themselves on what they want to do.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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