Endangered species listing of long-tailed macaques: ‘shocking, painful, predictable’ (commentary)

Endangered species listing of long-tailed macaques: ‘shocking, painful, predictable’ (commentary)

  • “Conservationists such as myself are in shock as it reflects the utter failure of the state of things if even the most opportunistic and adaptable generalist primates such as long-tailed macaques are now being classified as endangered,” writes the author of a new op-ed.
  • During its latest assessment in March 2022, the IUCN declared the species as endangered due to the rapid population decline and the prognosis of decline if current trends of exploitation and habitat destruction continue.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Another primate species has now slipped into the endangered species category – the long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis). During its latest assessment in March 2022, the IUCN declared the species as endangered due to the rapid population decline and the prognosis of decline if current trends of exploitation and habitat destruction continue. In my previous Mongabay op-ed on the pig-tailed macaque, I highlighted how the long-tailed macaque might follow a similar trajectory after the pig-tailed macaque was classified as endangered.

Still, conservationists such as myself are in shock as it reflects the utter failure of the state of things if even the most opportunistic and adaptable generalist primates such as long-tailed macaques are now being classified as endangered. From my work across Southeast Asia and especially Indonesia I can see why this is the case. In Indonesia both the long-tailed and pig-tailed macaque are not legally protected and keeping them as pets chained up or caged or bluntly killing them for being “pests” is therefore not illegal. Wildlife markets from Medan to Jakarta openly sell infants in the hundreds in the most horrendous conditions after their mothers have been shot. I have seen firsthand how these babies were kept cramped in dirty cages on top of each other with some taking their last breath while covered in feces. This is all happening in the open as these two macaque species do not fall under the category of protected wildlife.

The failure to deliver conservation success beyond a few “priority” species is totally clear and there are a multitude of reasons why this is the case. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that conservation NGOs largely are forced to focus on endangered or critically endangered species such as orangutans and tigers, simply because projects that only focus on species that are listed as vulnerable or near threatened will not get financed, as donors want what is rare and sexy.

Juvenile long-tailed macaque, Kota Kinabatangan River, Borneo. Image by Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, species that are on the brink need all the attention they can get, but why at the same time do we let species that are perhaps taken for granted come to a point where even they become endangered? Shouldn’t we do everything in our power that species that are still common stay that way? We cannot say that anymore about even long-tailed macaques.

I myself am guilty of not appreciating them enough, justifying the one-sided focus by resting on the certainty that macaques are so abundant, and that the suffering inflicted upon them is largely an animal welfare concern, and not one of conservation. We are utterly ignorant of the fact that conservation needs to start while species are still abundant, yet we are in need of trying to please donors by “selling” attractive projects. Given the competitive nature of conservation grant projects that want to address issues revolving around the conservation of near threatened ones, vulnerable species won’t even be looked at. We conservation professionals are left with limited options since redirecting finance from species on the brink to more common ones would also not be a solution at all. Frankly the only solution is that much more funding needs to be mobilized towards more holistic conservation, and projects should get capacity to be framed around the ecosystem as a whole.

Further, in the case of Indonesia, the protected species status should be applied to all wildlife regardless of their conservation status. When the pig-tailed macaque was classified as endangered two years ago it did not get the protected status under the Indonesian conservation law. The country is still legally exporting thousands of long-tailed macaques every year for inhumane medical research to labs around the world, including the United States.

Sadly, rescuing all the macaques that are circulating in the trade across Indonesia and rehabilitating them is impossible: it would be thousands of animals just for the Island of Sumatra, and the rehabilitation of primates is notoriously difficult and costly. However, committed organizations such a Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN) have not shied away from tackling the crisis, and rescued hundreds of abused macaques and released them after appropriate rehabilitation in groups, or have given them sanctuary care.

The founder of Jakarta Animal Aid Network, Femke den Haas, treating injured macaques. Image courtesy of JAAN.
The founder of Jakarta Animal Aid Network, Femke den Haas, treating injured macaques. Image courtesy of JAAN.

However, rescuing macaques will have no end unless the influx from the wild is greatly reduced. This is only possible if the demand to keep them as pets is minimized through awareness campaigns that highlight that it is illegal (hopefully soon per the case in Indonesia) and dangerous for humans to keep primates as pets. Firstly, when macaques reach sexual maturity, they can become very aggressive and can cause serious harm to the “owner.” Secondly, diseases can get easily transmitted between humans and non-human primates with a real risk of a spillover of new diseases or obvious transmission of things such as hepatitis and herpes. Further, social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram need to be held accountable for the fact that they actively enable the trade in primates by being a platform where primates are sold, and where so-called “influencers” promote unnatural interactions by keeping baby primates such as macaques as pets. Some influencers in Indonesia even posted content of torturing baby macaques, until the team of JAAN together with the police busted them for animal cruelty. I call out all these so-called influencers from Indonesia to the United States (see Myrtle Beach Safari for instance) that ignorantly and knowingly promote the trade in primates, ranging from chimps to monkeys. Facebook needs to ban and remove content that promotes wildlife trade – period.

Last but not least, the law needs to be enforced and the wildlife trade needs to be made equal with drug trafficking across Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia. These countries are very hard on drugs, but wildlife crime is largely being shoved under the table. Besides the moral obligation to stop the wildlife trade, it is posing a significant threat not only to the populations of species that are traded but human society overall. The wildlife trade is posing a severe threat to public health with the risk of spillover of novel diseases, potentially causing immense damage to society with the accumulated cost to the economy being in the billions to trillions. Despite the wildlife trade being seen as the most likely cause for the current pandemic, billions do not flow into stopping it due to the risk of disease spillover, nor are the subsidies that enable large-scale ecosystem destruction redirected into sustainable and ecologically just pathways.

Long-tailed macaque. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
Long-tailed macaque. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

This commentary is not designed to give clear solutions, as they are beyond the scope of such an article, and the issue is perhaps even more complicated and complex as hinted above. Rather this is meant to highlight that even species once very common and extremely adaptable to land use changes such as the long-tailed macaque are now silently slipping closer towards extinction.

What does it take to wake up, I wonder? Has the ongoing pandemic not been enough to reflect upon our totally perverted relationship with our planet that we call home and the myriad species we share it with? For how long are we going to wear this crown of ignorance? If we can’t even value and appreciate the animals related most closely to us – the primates – then what about all the birds, snakes, fish, and insects that are silently disappearing as well? I guess the answer to the question is that everyone has to find it for themselves, and people reading this article are also not the ones that need to wake up to that reality. But I hope that us conservationists reflect on our way of doing things and together come up with ways to prevent species from even reaching the “priority” and “of global conservation” status. Further, this article is a deep apology to all the macaques we ignored while looking into their innocent eyes and closing our ears to their cries. Also, I want to thank JAAN and other lesser known groups for tirelessly tackling the macaque crisis in Indonesia.

In the words of Femke den Haas (Founder of JAAN), “I am sad and happy at the same time. Sad that the protection of macaques was neglected for so long. There has never been a good reason to allow the trade to happen. It could have been easily stopped if the government would have taken action. Yet the abuse and exploitation of the species was neglected so long despite our calls, our campaigns, their status never upgraded to ‘protected’ within Indonesia. So many cases of abuse, neglect, torture, wild captures, and no action taken. We have been running for years a program on a hot plate. The issue never stopped, we just kept taking in victims when we could. The fact the status is now endangered should finally push the Indonesian Government to take action – that’s what I am happy about. But again, the fact the species is now on the endangered list is just painful, and could have been prevented with serious action.”

 

Sinan Serhadli works across Southeast and South Asia for the People Resources and Conservation Foundation and together with local community groups on conservation and development projects.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: The director of Orangutan Information Centre in North Sumatra discusses omens and optimism for the Sumatran orangutan, listen here:

Related reading: The world’s largest social media company, Facebook, connects wildlife traffickers around the world, and how advocates are stepping up the pressure to address the problem:

Unregulated by U.S. at home, Facebook boosts wildlife trafficking abroad

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