Nov 23, 2020
Photo by Sabrina Jabbar
Singapore’s super cute critically endangered monkey species has a new safe haven–and a new fresh baby.
Framed in the lens of my binoculars, a pair of dark, soulful eyes ringed with white peers nonchalantly back. I wonder if he realizes how much more exciting this encounter is for me than him.
After a two-week search in which I had almost abandoned hope, I’ve finally spotted a Raffles’ banded langur, an incredibly rare species of leaf-eating monkey that can still be found in modern-day Singapore… but only just. These creatures are as elusive as they are endangered. First identified by Sir Stamford Raffles more than 200 years ago, the monkeys were once found across the island. Now, rapid urbanization has seen the population shrink to just 67 individuals and their habitat reduced to Singapore’s Central Catchment Nature Reserve. But it’s hoped that their classification this year as a unique species–separate from similar langurs found in Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar–will help protect them.
“Studying these animals is very challenging,” says Andie Ang, chair of the Raffles’ Banded Langur Working Group and president of Singapore’s Jane Goodall Institute, whose research was instrumental in their classification. “They are so shy and there are just so few of them.”
The Raffles’ banded langurs are now qualified to be listed as critically endangered on the IUCN red list. It’s an important step in the ongoing fight to protect the remaining populations in Singapore and Southern Peninsular Malaysia from the twin threats of inbreeding and habitat loss, says Ang, arguably the leading authority on them, during a survey walk through Thomson Nature Reserve.
Only opened in October 2019, it’s 50 secluded hectares of delightful forest sprawl, bisected by a burbling stream and dotted with the overgrown ruins of an old Hainanese Kampong (village). The reserve and the adjoining Old Thomson Road, a tree-lined park connector, were created to form an important buffer between nearby urban areas and the adjacent Central Catchment Nature Reserve.
Containing a collection of figs, mature angsana trees, plus sea apple, saga and wild rambutan trees, whose seeds happen to be one of the langur’s favorite treats, the park and connector have become popular with the foraging monkeys and are now a key area for the group’s ongoing research.
Yet, “we only see them maybe once every three walks,” Ang cautions. “There’s no guarantees.”
Their evasiveness is something I learn with her that first day, and during a number of return visits to the park. While I might not meet any langurs, these trips throw up plenty of other special moments: mist draping the treetop canopy after early morning rain; a wild boar surprised while snuffling in the undergrowth; a vivid red banded woodpecker sporting a punk-rocker crest; a shaft of sunlight illuminating the roots of a fig tree; and a greater racket-tailed drongo belting out a song, its majestic tail draped beneath it.
They also involve plenty of encounters with Singapore’s other primate species, the more confident and visible troupes of long tailed macaques, who like nothing better than to groom each other in the sun by the side of the old road.
Indeed, these regular sightings convince me that it is macaques and not langurs that I hear crashing through the trees close to the road on my latest visit. After so many hours spent wandering trails of the reserve, I surely wouldn’t come across some langurs a few hundred meters from my bus stop and the prata house where I just ate breakfast?
Except, the face I’ve identified through my binoculars, confirms my persistence has finally paid off. I have found a family group of langurs happily foraging and playing in the treetops close to the busy cycle lane–a steady stream of lycra-clad cyclists and panting joggers, oblivious to my David Attenborough-moment.
Long-limbed, snub nosed, and covered in tufty black fur striped with white, they are unperturbed by my presence. One, a large male, scratches his stomach while reclining in the crook of a branch, 10 meters off the ground. After a few moments he decides to move on, his gangly arms and long tail helping him to swing effortlessly away through the thick canopy.
The rest take off too, and, in the company of two of Ang’s interns, Glendon Lee and Amos Chua, I try to keep up with the langurs as they race through the thick canopy and leap from tree to tree.
By following the sounds of crashing branches and their chirruping calls, we manage to stay on their tails. Two hours in, our perseverance is richly rewarded when we finally confirm that one of the adult langurs is actually carrying an adorable white-furred baby.
It’s a thrilling moment: the first new arrival this year and what you could say is the firstborn of a brand-new species. Take that, David Attenborough.
By bus: 138, 138A, 167, 169, 860, 980
Alight at Upper Thomson Road (Aft Tagore Dr, Bus stop ID: 56061)
Or 138, 167, 169, 860, 980
Alight at Upper Thomson Road (Bef Tagore Dr, Bus stop ID: 56069)
Nature Park Opening Hours:
7 a.m. – 7 p.m. daily
What you need:
- Binoculars (not essential)
- Insect repellent
- Rain coat
- Water bottle