Up close with the Dutchman

By Cheryl Poo

Primate study

The research on the proboscis monkey at Danau Girang is funded for three years by Yayasan Sime Darby, the corporate social responsbility arm of the Malaysian multinational, as part of its Big 9 Campaign that conserves eight other endangered species: the hornbill, pygmy elephant, tembadau, Sumatran rhinoceros, clouded leopard, orang utan, sun bear and Malayan tiger.

"The results of the work carried out will be presented and discussed with all stakeholders involved in the conservation of the proboscis monkey for further sustainability," said Yayasan chairperson Caroline Christine Russel.

Ultimately, the RM1.5 million (S$600,000) programme will enable the Danau Girang team to perform an in-depth study of the species that will result in a comprehensive proboscis monkey conservation plan for Sabah. It will promote the restoration and reestablishment of wildlife corridors along large rivers in Sabah.

The funds also cover Senthivel's fees at Britain's Cardiff University for a doctorate in conservation biology, molecular ecology, conservation genetics, geographic information system and management.

The DGFC works closely with the English university, enabling science students to do wildlife research training at the sanctuary.

Although the conservation plan outlines the possibility of translocating the proboscis monkeys, it would only be necessary if the research team finds "perverse habitats", like overly cramped spots.

"Or if we find pockets of population so small that it's not viable for healthy reproduction," Goossens explained. "We are still observing."

Like humans, animals need their living space. For these creatures, increase in contact means more inter-species fights and disease transmission.

"Our research is really still at its infancy stage. I hope we wouldn't have to transfer the monkeys anywhere," Goossens said. "But all of that depends on the information we gather from their samples."

The team will tag 10 monkeys with satellite collars and extract body samples from 100 proboscis monkeys for their research. They are targeting samples from 20 individuals from five areas: the east and west coasts of Klias Peninsula; Kinabatangan and Sandakan Bay; Segama river; Paitan, Sugut and Beluran in north-east Sabah; and Tawau.

"We want to learn how the proboscis monkey is using these areas," says Goossens.

So far, they have sampled five monkeys from Kinabatangan.

A 1985 study estimated the total population of the bulbous-nosed primate to be 250,000 but that figure has depleted greatly since. According to a 2011 publication, The Natural History Of The Proboscis Monkey authored by Dr Ikki Matsuda, John Sha and Henry Bernard, there are a scant 6,000 proboscis monkeys in Sabah, less than 100 in Sarawak, a little over 300 in Brunei and less than 5,000 in Kalimantan.

It's a startling reality for conservationists like Senthivel, whose own survey reflects that only 15% of the world population of proboscis monkeys live in protected areas.

Even as the research team attempts to better understand the species, they are only too aware that the ultimate impact of losing any one organism will result in rippling effects.

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