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Archive for June, 2012

Monkey See Monkey Do

Singapore is consistently ranked as a city with one of the densest populations in the world.  Paradoxically, it is also one of only two cities in the world with a nature reserve consisting of rain forest;  Rio de Janeiro is the other.  Of the two, only Singapore’s is original, natural rain forest – Rio’s was hand planted to preserve threatened species.

Singapore’s jungle covers 163 hectares (403 acres, not quite two thirds square mile) of a hill in the center of the city / island / country called Bukit Timah.  (You can’t live in Singapore without learning at least a little Malay – bukit timah: hill of tin.)  There’s not a lot of jungle, but it’s the real deal.

A jungle wouldn’t be much of a jungle without monkeys, and monkeys we have.  Monkeys that will steal your groceries as you walk home from the market.  Monkeys that will root through your garbage can and make a monumental mess.  Monkeys that will steal the ice cream cone out of the hand of an unwary child – and then stand and lick it.  Monkeys that will earn you a fine if you get caught feeding them.  In addition to about 1500 long-tailed macaques, a tribe of about 40 banded leaf monkeys (larger and darker) lives very shyly deep in the jungle away from curious eyes.

“Bukit Timah Nature Reserve Visitor Center,” we told the taxi driver who pulled up to our condo.

“Where’s that?” he replied.  Hmmm.  I always worry when the taxi driver doesn’t know where we’re going; I’m certainly no good at giving directions. “Bukit Timah, is it? Some kind of park?” I had naively assumed that every resident of Singapore, taxi drivers included, must have gone to the nature reserve at least once.

We needn’t have worried.  He knew how to get to the nature reserve; he just wasn’t sure about the visitor center.  And Singapore drivers have sharp eyes once they get somewhere close to the target.  We got there without a single wrong turn.

Even though the visitor center looked like it was from 1975, it had interesting information on the flora, fauna, and biodiversity of the rain forest.  One exhibit displays the man-eating Malayan tiger, a fearsome presence in Bukit Timah until it was intensely hunted and finally completely eliminated in the 1930s.  Two of them are on exhibit, a little worse for wear after 80 years, but big enough to get your attention on a dark jungle path. A video of the Malayan culogo shows a vaguely bat-like creature stretching the membranes between its arms and legs and gracefully gliding from one tree to another.  We learn that the hottest, and least rainy days in Singapore are in June.  All this and more, but not a single word, as Nancy noticed, about the monkeys, Singapore’s largest wild animal.

Once a month, the Jane Goodall Institute Singapore, sponsors a “monkey walk” to find the monkeys and watch them in their natural habitat.  Tonight’s guide is a working researcher at the Institute. Starting from the visitor center, we walked with her along a pleasant path to a spot where monkeys regularly congregate in the trees.  On the way, we saw a mama culogo clinging to the side of a tree, cuddling her baby firmly within her “wings”.  The first monkeys we saw were a pair very high in the forest canopy.

Then, one brave soul worked his way down to a tree limb just a few feet over our heads.

As the afternoon faded into early evening, a few more monkeys showed up until we saw a dozen or so. They ignored the three-foot long water monitor and the two large turtles in the nearby pond.

The monkeys sat quietly grooming each other, fussing over the babies, nibbling fruit in the trees, slowly moving from one tree to another, gradually working their way away from us and toward their nightly roost.

By 6:30, our necks were sore from looking up, and we’d had enough.  It was time to imitate monkey social behavior and find a place to have dinner with new-found friends from the walk.

We all followed the trail back to the nature center, working our way from one familiar landmark to another.  Just like the monkeys. And we finally came to a very familiar place.  In fact, it was exactly the same spot we’d stood to watch the monkeys!  We’d just discovered that in the jungle,  it’s easy to go in circles even if there are no tigers to avoid.

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