Sumatra’s young primate whisperer brings bullhorn to macaque conservation

Sumatra’s young primate whisperer brings bullhorn to macaque conservation

  • Abdulrahman Manik, also known as Detim, has spent years saving monkeys from marginal lives on the sides of roads, where they forage for food and risk being struck by passing vehicles.
  • Manik’s father had originally planned to poison the monkeys on his farm, until he had a dream that told him to take a different approach.
  • Throughout Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia, many see the long-tailed macaque as a pest, but in 2022 the species’ conservation status worsened from vulnerable to endangered.

SIBAGANDING, Indonesia — After Abdulrahman Manik’s father passed away in 2019, the young man inherited a duty to protect wild monkeys here in the north of Sumatra Island. Years later, he’s a savior of scores of primates, and the star of a documentary nominated for awards at film festivals in Indonesia.

Na… eee…, naa… eee…,” Manik shouts as he approaches a group of primates, carrying several bunches of bananas.

Since around 2013, Manik has watched over hundreds of primates in this area. Some carry fresh injuries and trauma from harms inflicted by people; others are disabled after having been run down by passing cars while foraging for roadside scraps.

“It’s not just dangerous for them, but for passing motorists, too,” Manik, now 35, told Mongabay Indonesia.

The forest in Sibaganding no longer provides enough food for these wild primates. North Sumatra province lost 26% of its humid old-growth forests between 2002 and 2021, according to Global Forest Watch, a satellite monitoring service run by the World Resources Institute.

Manik’s father originally took a less charitable view toward the local population of long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) on the north shore of Lake Toba. As the forest around Sibaganding dwindled, the monkeys would descend on Umar Manik’s farm, helping themselves to the produce grown by the family to make ends meet.

Umar had resolved to set poison on his fields to eliminate the threat, his son recalled, until a dream changed his mind. In it, he was visited by a female apparition who told him to instead summon the monkeys with a buffalo horn.

Ever since, Manik has wandered out into the open with a buffalo horn to call in the monkeys for food. And every day he prepares around a dozen bunches of bananas for the animals.

Rahman Manik feeding primates at Sibaganding Monkey Park.

Monkey business

The long-tailed macaque is native to Southeast Asia and some outlying territories, such as Papua New Guinea and the Andamans, an archipelago in the northern Indian Ocean. The macaque is commonly regarded as ubiquitous and a pest, but the fate of the species is approaching crisis. In Bangladesh, the long-tailed macaque is considered extinct. Populations elsewhere are all believed to be in decline.

Troops of macaques are often seen foraging by roadsides in Southeast Asia, but researchers say this distorts anecdotal impressions of the health of the species. Passers-by may think legions of macaques exist in the wild, but researchers say their presence near human settlements reflects homelessness within the forests where they’ve always lived.

In a January 2023 article published in Oryx, Wanda Kuswanda, a senior researcher at Indonesia’s Ecology and Ethnobiology Research Center, and co-authors noted large populations of long-tailed macaques by roadsides near Parapat, the nearest town to Sibaganding.

“Foraging along the road also increases the chances of individuals colliding with vehicles,” the article noted.

The piece highlighted the extent to which local human populations regard the monkeys as pest and a threat to their livelihoods.

A long-tailed macaque in the Sibaganding Monkey Tourism Park.
A long-tailed macaque in the Sibaganding Monkey Tourism Park. Image by Barita News Lumbanbatu / Mongabay Indonesia.

“Further studies are needed to assess the population of long-tailed monkeys in several regions of Indonesia, especially in Sumatra,” the Oryx piece noted. “Given the endangered status of this species, studies are needed to determine the causes of foraging behavior near roads and entering community gardens.”

Internationally, the species is in increasingly poor shape. Macaques suffered extensive capture from their natural habitat beginning in the 1960s — mainly for animal testing as part of pharmaceutical research. A 2021 study published in the journal Primate Conservation cites estimates of almost half a million captured macaques between 2008 and 2019. However, this figure didn’t include trafficked wild monkeys laundered as captive-bred species.

In November 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted eight people from Cambodia, including two officials from the country’s forestry ministry, for smuggling around 3,000 long-tailed macaques into the U.S. for the illicit pet trade.

In March 2022, the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, raised the long-tailed macaque’s status from vulnerable to endangered, citing declining populations across the region.

A sign warning against feeding primates.
A sign warning against feeding primates. Image by Barita News Lumbanbatu / Mongabay Indonesia.

Conservation outreach

Manik serves as an outreach worker and has been recognized for his work with primates by the environmental department in Aek Nauli, a protected forest and ecotourism center around 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of Parapat.

In 2021, film director Onny Kresnawan released the documentary ParHerek, filmed over the course of four years, about Manik and the primates whose welfare became his purpose in life. In October 2021, Musa Rajekshah, the deputy governor of North Sumatra province, opened a premiere of ParHerek in the provincial capital, Medan.

“I didn’t expect this film to be like this,” Musa said at the time, adding that the provincial government would like to support more filmmakers in documenting North Sumatra’s environmental challenges.

Manik has expanded his vocation beyond simply feeding the monkeys. On his YouTube channel, he introduces viewers to the primates in his care, and the adventure trail-style structures of ropes and wires where the primates hang out. In one video, he introduces young Nelly, a black-furred gibbon known as a siamang (Symphalangus syndactylus).

“OK, friends, this is the progress of baby Nelly, she is already big and she’s now 5 months old,” Manik says.

“Hey, don’t take my phone, you’ll fall down,” Manik says playfully to Nelly’s mother, as she chances an arm at his smartphone.

Manik receives visitors and tourists to the site in Sibaganding. The entry fee of 100,000 rupiah ($6.80) goes toward buying the bananas, corn and peanuts that the primates eat.

He also offers a form of mediation between people and the wildlife they perceive as pests. When Manik heard about a group of irritated farmers who were planning on getting rid of the local monkey population because of the destruction of crops, he convinced them there was a better way to solve the problem. He persuaded some farmers to begin providing food for the primates in a designated space.

“They are like my own brothers,” Manik told Mongabay Indonesia of the primates. “When they are on the street begging for food it makes me sad.”

Banner image: The long-tailed macaque is native to Southeast Asia and some outlying territories. Image by Jorge Franganillo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here on our Indonesian site on May 8, 2023.

Marauding monkeys on an Indonesian island point to environmental pressures

Citations:

Kuswanda, W., Hutapea, F. J., & Setyawati, T. (2023). The endangered long-tailed macaque is considered a pest in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Oryx57(1), 12-13. doi:10.1017/s0030605322001302

Hansen, M. F., Gill, M., Nawangsari, V. A., Sanchez, K. L., Cheyne, S. M., Nijman, V., & Fuentes, A. (2021). Conservation of long-tailed macaques: Implications of the updated IUCN status and the CoVID-19 pandemic. Primate Conservation35, 1-11. Retrieved from http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/1200343/28485755/1638301171297/PC35_Hansen_et_al_conservation_M_fascicularis.pdf?token=7poMys%2FPmtdUuX7zV0B8SokUFQM%3D

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