Singapore is at a crossroads in its management of wild monkeys, and to cull or not to cull these native creatures has emerged as a key question.
The good news is that public feedback on monkeys, mostly complaints and related to safety and nuisance concerns, fell sharply from 1,860 instances in 2013 to just 750 last year.
But that has stirred controversy over the cause, given that there has been extensive culling of the animals recently.
In 2013, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) killed about 570 monkeys, about a third of the estimated population at that time.
A similar divide over culling, which is the selective killing of animals to manage their population, has also emerged during debates over how best to deal with close encounters of the unwanted kind between humans and wild dogs and wild boar. As development continues apace to cater to a growing population, such encounters are set to grow.
When it comes to monkeys, the AVA's stance is that it carries out humane euthanasia of the animals as a last resort, and targets aggressive and nuisance-causing monkeys for safety, in response to public feedback.
It has also explained that relocating long-tailed macaques - the species of monkey in question - is not feasible as that simply transfers the problem from one estate to another.
Some residents in areas like MacRitchie and Bukit Timah, who previously had run-ins with the animals, told The Straits Times that they have seen significantly fewer monkeys in their neighbourhoods.
But animal welfare groups and monkey researchers in Singapore, as well as some of those residents, challenged the link between the culling and the plunge in complaints. They pointed to other possible reasons, such as the installation of monkey-proof bins in the estates.
In some areas, there were campaigns to get people to stop feeding the monkeys, which draws the primates to residential areas in search of food.
The Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), an animal welfare group, set up a hotline in 2013 for people to give feedback and get tips on how to prevent human-monkey conflicts.
Acres also piloted "monkey-herding" operations at several condominiums, working with the condominium guards to herd monkeys off residential premises.
Acres has also wielded the findings of a survey it commissioned in January this year to argue that only a minority of people support culling.
The survey, by consultancy firm Millward Brown Singapore, polled 600 Singaporeans on animal protection, asking, among other things, whether they thought monkey culling should be allowed. That question has been criticised by some as "leading".
Another criticism is that the survey was done online and respondents could choose to remain anonymous.
That being said, 42 per cent of those who responded wanted culling to be banned. Only 13 per cent supported culling, while the rest - 45 per cent - sat on the fence.
Test alternative methods
When it comes to the dramatic fall in the number of complaints about macaques, it is likely that both culling and other methods played a part.
But it is unclear how effective each of the methods has been.
With the monkey population and the number of complaints at a low, there is no time like the present to devise ways to assess each of these methods in turn.
One way to do so is to have a temporary moratorium on culling and to embark on a rigorous evaluation of alternatives.
The aim should be to see if more humane methods that do not involve killing the animals can achieve the same ends, and whether these should be given greater weight in future.
Acres, for example, saw some promising results from its programme to herd monkeys away from homes, but cut short its experiment due to lack of funds.
Between September and December last year, it worked with the Upper Bukit Timah condominium Summerhill's management and security guards to herd the primates away.
Advisory notices were distributed to residents on how to interpret monkey behaviour and prevent them from stealing food.
Acres executive director Louis Ng said he understands that no culling has been done at the condominium since the experiment started, but the monkeys are no longer causing trouble.
The group also found that fruit trees and improper garbage disposal were what attracted the monkeys to the premises.
The results, however, could have been compromised by the culling in other parts of the neighbourhood. More information is also needed on whether complaints were made to the AVA or other authorities.
Other tests could include correlating the installation of monkey-proofed bins to the change in the number of complaints in an area, in the absence of culling.