No, she's not feeding the monkeys

SINGAPORE - At the crack of dawn, she sets off for jungles on the island, handing out what looks like food to the macaques she spots.

Every other hiker who walks past would inform her sternly: "Miss, it's an offence to feed monkeys here."

Her reply: "These are just cotton swabs, I'm a researcher."

Meet Miss Amy Klegarth, 25, who is doing research on macaques, a species of monkeys living close to the edge of the jungle.

She is one of the three foreign students here on the Fulbright US Student Program, which provides grants for individually designed study or research projects.

Miss Klegarth, who is from Pennsylvania, US, told The New Paper she gets warnings about feeding the monkeys all too often.

"But I see it as a positive thing, that people are aware. This is the kind of community collective that should be going around. They should be adamant about it," she told The New Paper.

Usually, she hands out cotton swabs soaked in flavoured syrup to macaques, who will chew and then spit out the swabs. She then collects these chewed cotton swabs, from where she can extract the macaque's DNA.

One reason she chose Singapore for her research, which is also partly funded by the National Geographic's Young Explorers Grants, is because of the technology - the jungles here are covered by GSM networks.

For the past few months, Miss Klegarth has been going around almost every weekday to collect DNA samples of macaques on the island and plotting their location.

These DNA samples will help in her dissertation which involves the genetic flow of different macaque groups in an urban landscape like Singapore.

Miss Klegarth, who has been working with macaques for three years, collects stool samples - another source of DNA - as well, but those provide DNA of a "low quality", she said.

She chose to do her research on macaques as they were "highly social".

The New Paper tagged along for one of Miss Klegarth's sessions at Dairy Farm Nature Park and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve on Thursday morning and found that it was far from easy.

It involved trekking on steep trails in search of the hairy critters.

Luck

Spotting macaques involves luck, Miss Klegarth conceded. She found none at Dairy Farm Nature Park that morning.

Said Miss Klegarth: "Just yesterday, we were swimming in monkeys."

But her patience paid off as the team moved on to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

As Miss Klegarth rustled her bag of syrup- soaked cotton swabs, macaques both young and old started surrounding her.

Her love for these animals became apparent when she started introducing them one by one.

"This is Achilles. We are old friends," Miss Klegarth said, pointing to a macaque who persistently followed her on the trail, hoping to get another cotton swab.

The macaques at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve all have names, given by a group of Nanyang Technological University researchers, said Miss Klegarth.

The whole time she was at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, the macaques were never once hostile.

"They are a friendly bunch. They are not aggressive at all," Miss Klegarth said, comparing them with those at Upper Pierce and Rifle Range.

She said that the macaques at Upper Pierce are more aggressive as they are used to being fed illegally.

While Miss Klegarth acknowledged that these macaques could get aggressive, she said that sometimes, it is the way people react that leads to more aggression.

"I have been charged hundreds of times, but it never culminates into an attack," she said.

"It's definitely frightening and intimidating, but imagine a King Kong coming towards you. You will naturally feel threatened. The way the macaques respond is reasonable," she said.

When monkeys get aggressive, it's best to back off calmly instead of screaming in fear, Miss Klegarth said.

"The last thing you want to do is to freak out and let them know you are freaking out because they can sense that," she said.


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