Malene Friis Hansen, 26th February 2020. Twitter @MaleneFHansen
“Long-tailed macaques, the IUCN SSC PSG Section for Human-Primate Interactions, and I”
Back in May 2018 I had just come back from my last field period for my PhD, and although I was very happy with data collected and everything accomplished, I felt so much was missing and so many questions left unanswered. I know, this is a re-occurring thing in research, yet I was missing half of my project! – not according to my research proposal but according to what I had learned and experienced through my time at my field site.
For my PhD, I studied the population and behavioural ecology of long-tailed macaques in a Baluran National Park in East Java, Indonesia. In this national park the macaques inhabiting tourist areas were highly provisioned, and I investigated the effects of provisioning on the macaques.
I quickly learned that long-tailed macaques had a very low status across the world, even amongst primatologists, because they are not endangered. They are however, synanthropic and extremely interesting! They can exploit human-influenced areas like no other primate (except maybe the closely related rhesus macaque), and I believe we can learn much from them.
One of our findings was that we tend to overestimate long-tailed macaque populations because they are in our faces, they are right there all the time…. That doesn’t mean however, that they are abundant across habitats, it only means that they are present in human-influenced areas. In non-anthropogenic areas the story is often quite different… (see e.g. Hansen et al., 2019 on estimating long-tailed macaque density and distribution).
But having an opportunistic species in your face constantly must be annoying. So how do people feel about long-tailed macaques in these human-macaque interfaces? How do they perceive them? Why do they feed them? I knew how the management of the national park felt about them, but not how the tourists visiting the park felt, or how the local population felt. Furthermore, the local population was a myriad of religions and cultures, with a possible myriad of feelings towards the macaques.
Sadly, as a PhD student from science and not social sciences this was not a part of my PhD proposal and I was therefore not able to investigate it. Denmark can be a bit rigid 😉 I was researching a human-macaque interface without investigating one whole side (the human side) of the interface. I was missing half of my PhD!
Feeling slightly discouraged by not being able to include information from the human side, and by working with a Least Concern species that I felt was deeply misunderstood, I went to the EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) Conservation Forum in Estonia, where a colleague of mine decided to cheer me up by introducing me to Sian Waters. It worked! Meeting cross-disciplinary people like Sian and Lucy Radford (who was also there) helped me find my place in primatology and see more opportunities, and I haven’t looked back since. At that forum, we spoke macaques, and even imitated macaques….
During that time and after, Sian and Susan Cheyne were working hard to create the IUCN SSC PSG Section for Human-Primate Interactions. This was finally accepted at the 2018 IPS conference in Nairobi, Kenya. At IPS, I again spent the whole time speaking about macaques and human-macaque interaction with many interesting, supportive and brilliant researchers. After that I became a part of the section, and I was actually able to include many of my thoughts on human-macaque interfaces in my PhD, because of the network I had gained through the section. The section contains primatologists, anthropologists, conservationists and many more with decades (centuries) of experience between them. Having this network to discuss and collaborate with was and is invaluable. Being a part of it enabled me to study with Agustin Fuentes, have Erin Riley on my PhD assessment committee, and take courses in ethnography. – with the consent of my supervisors! I have also been able to begin my project for the future together with amazing collaborators. And guess what, it´s on long-tailed macaques! – across their range. – including the human side of human-macaque interfaces!
It will be a while though, as I am currently huge as a whale and beached on a sofa waiting for my first child to be born.
I am thoroughly excited for the time to come, as a mother, as a researcher and as a member of the IUCN SSC PSG Section for Human-Primate Interactions ensuring that this area of primatology receives the attention necessary to conserve, understand and respect both non-human primates and people.