Primate Conservation Limelight
DR. ANDIE ANG
Title: Research Scientist with Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund and President of the Jane Goodall Institute, Singapore
Country of origin: Singapore
Research scientist and primatologist Dr. Andie Ang is an ambassador of goodwill for nonhuman primates. In her native Singapore, she is inarguably the best friend to her country’s most critically endangered citizen: the Raffles’ banded langur (Presbytis femoralis femoralis), also known as the banded surili, banded langur, or banded leaf monkey. Only 60 individuals remain in Singapore; another estimated 250 to 300 individuals reside in Malaysia. All are in danger of becoming extinct. Ang is determined to save these rare and enigmatic monkeys from this irreversible fate.
As chairperson of the Raffles’ Banded Langur Working Group—a wildlife conservation group composed of members from government agencies, non-government agencies, and educational institutions in Singapore and Malaysia—Ang oversees the Species Action Plan for the Raffles’ banded langur. A grant bestowed to Ang from the Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund (WRSCF) allows Ang and her fellow conservationists to pursue their urgent mission to prevent Raffles’ banded langurs from vanishing from our world.
But it was a juvenile African vervet monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus), illegally captured in Zambia, brought to Singapore, and given to Ang as a pet when Ang was just ten years old, who led Ang along the path to becoming a research scientist and a tireless advocate for nonhuman primates. Ang had innocently named her pet monkey “Ah Boy” and loved and treated him as if he were a family dog or cat. However, as Ah Boy grew older, grew in size, and began exhibiting natural, wild monkey traits, he became increasingly agitated—and miserable. To keep him from attacking family members, he was kept chained inside the family’s apartment. Ang came to realize in her young girl’s heart that forcing a wild animal into a captive, domesticated—and unnatural—life was wrong. She knew that Ah Boy belonged in the wild with other vervet monkeys. So, with the help of a Singapore-based animal conservation group, she raised the necessary funds to repatriate Ah Boy to Zambia. After spending a readjustment period in the Munda Wanga Wildlife Sanctuary, Ah Boy was released into the wild with a mate and two offspring!
Her experience with Ah Boy caused Ang to switch, at age 18, from almost studying engineering to instead studying life sciences at the National University of Singapore. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree (2007) while learning about primate hand preferences at Singapore Zoo; earned a Master of Science degree (2010) while performing field research on Raffles’ banded langurs; and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology (2016) from the University of Colorado for her field research on Vietnamese colobine leaf-eating primates, with a focus on their population genetics, behavior, and dietary profiles.
In the course of her research, Ang has traveled throughout Asia. In Vietnam, she studied Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus avunculus), Indochinese silvered langurs (Trachypithecus germaini), and black-shanked doucs (Pygathrix nigripes); in Thailand, she studied white-handed gibbons (Hylobates lar); and in Sumatra, Indonesia, she studied East Sumatran banded langurs (Presbytis femoralis percura). But it is her Singaporean and Malaysian compatriots, those furry black and white monkeys with white rings around their eyes—Raffles’ banded langurs—who are closest to Ang’s heart.
Today, in addition to her role as a research scientist for WRSCF, Ang is president of the Jane Goodall Institute of Singapore (JGIS) (appointed in 2018); a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC) and the Primate Specialist Group of Asia (since 2015); and founder of Primate Watching Online Resource (2014).
To discover everything she can about Raffles’ banded langurs, and give them the critical assistance needed for their conservation and preservation, Ang spends much of her time in the jungle, collecting the feces of these elusive primates: their DNA is a treasure trove of information!
During a recent break from her field research, Ang graciously answered questions for New England Primate Conservancy (NEPC).
NEPC: What is the first primate you ever saw in the wild?
Ang: The first primate I saw in the wild was a long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis fascicularis) in Singapore, probably when I was 12 years old.
NEPC: As a research scientist for WRSCF, describe your typical day. What is the most challenging aspect? The most rewarding aspect?
Ang: Field observations and gathering genetic material through fecal samples define a typical day! I am in the field by 7:30 a.m. in search of the langurs. I follow them and collect field observational data, such as diet information and behaviors. After a lunch break around 11:00 a.m., I continue in the field from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m., collecting fecal samples opportunistically.
The most challenging aspect of my day is when I don’t see the langurs; the most rewarding aspect of my day is seeing the langurs—better yet, seeing them and collecting their poop!
NEPC: What is it about the banded langur that has left you so smitten? Is this primate, in fact, your favorite (if you had to choose a favorite nonhuman primate)?
Ang: The Raffles’ banded langur is only found in Singapore and southern parts of Peninsular Malaysia. It is a national natural heritage of both countries, making this primate really special for me. The langur is the first wild species I studied (if I exclude the white-handed gibbon in the wild in Thailand, which I looked at briefly for my B.Sc. project). Raffles’ banded langurs’ expressions, contemplative eyes, and charisma; the way they swiftly yet graciously leap from tree to tree effortlessly; their shyness and curiosity toward people—all these qualities left me attracted.
As for my favorite primate, I am unable to choose between the vervet monkey (my pet monkey species) and the Raffles’ banded langur; I will always have a soft spot for the vervet monkey, while my passion in primate research remains with Asian colobine primates, particularly the Raffles’ banded langur.
NEPC: How do you raise awareness for this (and any endangered) species? How do you convey a sense of urgency?
Ang: Quoting Dr. Jane Goodall: “Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. And only if we help, shall all be saved.”
I believe the first and most important step in conveying the message of nature conservation is to let people understand more about nature and wildlife. For example, for Raffles’ banded langurs, not many people in Singapore and Malaysia know about their existence, let alone the threats that these langurs face and why we should conserve them. Local communities may care more about wildlife that is not found in their own countries, rather than their native and national natural heritage. For example, many Singaporeans may feel sympathy toward orangutans in Indonesia who face threats from deforestation and may want to help, but these same people do not care about the Raffles’ banded langur, which is a critically endangered species only found in Singapore and Malaysia, because people do not even know what it is. Hence, raising awareness is crucial.
NEPC: As a member of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group (Asia), how do you interact with the IUCN?
Ang: I advise on Red-list assessments of Asian primates, and I offer recommendations on human-wildlife interactions.
NEPC: Describe the purpose of Primate Watching Online Resource.
Ang: It is a free web resource that acts like a Trip Advisor, but the focus is on primates: where to see each and every species of wild primates in the world. Much like how I described above about raising awareness of species and the importance of nature conservation, I founded Primate Watching to share information so that more people can learn more easily about primates.
NEPC: What initiatives are you working on for the Jane Goodall Institute of Singapore (JGIS)?
Ang: In collaboration with the Long-tailed Macaque Working Group based in Singapore, JGIS launched a three-year “No Feeding Campaign” aimed to minimize human-macaque conflicts in Singapore:
No feeding campaign launched to warn public against feeding monkeys, Channel News Asia, Singapore, November 2019.
Campaign launched to stop people from feeding long-tailed macaques, The Straits Times, Singapore, November 2019.
NEPC: What do you appreciate most about your current job and roles?
Ang: I sincerely appreciate the enormous support that people give me. Without them (family, friends, collaborators, partners, sponsors, etc.), all the work would not have happened. I also appreciate that I am doing exactly what I love to do (bonus if I can find and see the primates!), and working with like-minded people.
NEPC: When you think about your career to date, can you think of a time that you might consider your proudest moment or proudest accomplishment?
Ang: My proudest moment was when my parents felt proud and happy seeing my work being featured for the first time in the newspapers (2010).
NEPC: With more than a half-billion animals reported to have been killed in Australia’s 2019–2020 wildfires, do you have a message you would like to get out about the dire consequences of climate change?
Ang: It is not climate change that endangers the planet, it is the climate crisis that we need to address—immediately. According to the United Nations, approximately 83 million human beings are added to the world’s population each year. Along with better health care and nutrition, our life expectancy has also increased. Human overpopulation is, in fact, the environmental concern. Exponential human population growth exerts pressure on our planet’s limited natural resources such as water, food, and fuel, resulting in the loss of biodiversity through the need to clear forests to make space for homes, and also contributing to a higher carbon footprint.
NEPC: How or why is humor important in your work? (You exhibit a fine sense of humor in your TED talk!)
Ang: It can get depressing to see how bad the state of our natural world is when we witness the unsustainable exploitation of the environment and the atrocious acts done to wildlife. It can become difficult to keep doing what we do. Maintaining positivity, hope, and a wacky sense of humor is important!
NEPC: Any lessons or revelations you’ve learned about yourself through your primate research? Or, in other words, what have your nonhuman primate subjects taught you about yourself?
Ang: I don’t have many good traits, but two things I learned about myself through my work are that I am rather patient and hardworking!
(NEPC interjects: We believe Dr. Ang has many good traits!)
NEPC: Any advice to younger people embarking on a career who may be considering a vocation as a primatologist or wildlife researcher?
Ang: Recognize what your passion is and know what it really means to follow your passion. Because, along the way, you will definitely meet obstacles. Persevere, and don’t feel disheartened. Overall, don’t give up no matter how hard it is, because one day you might regret that you gave up your hopes and dreams.
NEPC: Other passions or interests you might like to share with readers?
Ang: I love playing tennis and mahjong and have a strong interest in naps.
(NEPC interjects: Coincidentally, Raffles’ banded langurs also enjoy naps!)
For further information about Dr. Ang, including a 2011 TED talk, visit:
Dr. Ang is the recipient of notable awards, most recently:
The Annual Great Women of Our Time Award for Science and Technology, for Dr. Ang’s work in environmental and wildlife conservation (October 2019); presented by Women’s Weekly magazine.
2019 Conservationist Award for Dr. Ang’s significant and continuing contributions in primate conservation (August 2019); presented by the American Society of Primatologists.
ARTICLES FEATURING DR. ANG
Singapore’s rarest monkeys need love and space to live, says local scientist devoted to saving primates
South China Morning Post, January 2020
Priming The World For Primate Conservation
Asian Scientist, January 2020
Photos of Dr. Andie Ang and of the Raffles’ banded langur courtesy of Dr. Andie Ang and used with permission.
By Kathleen Downey, January 2020