The pendulous nose Proboscis Monkey smells problems...
The location of Klias Peninsular in Sabah.Pulau Tiga where the first Survivor series was filmed is up north
The fact that the Proboscis Monkeys (nasalis larvatus) have not yet become a “show-piece ” for tourists was one reason I decided to visit Kg Masiguan, a sleepy Bisayan village by the fringes of Padang Teratak, a huge brackwater lake in the Klias Peninsular of Sabah.
Forking out RM120 to charter a fibre-glass boat, I threaded my way out of the narrow canals into the open waters of the lake where I spotted several floating huts, which the Bisayan fishermen call the sulap. They serve as “rest-houses” for fishermen taking a break while fishing‚ mostly for prawns‚ in the huge lake.
Kg Masigua, a typical Bisayan village by the lakeside in Padang Teratak
As my boatman‚ Jauhari steered the boat into a canal‚ I heard a crashing sound high up in the canopy. Ah! That must be the Proboscis – the noise from the outboard motor must have disturbed the primate’s peace.
I instructed Jauhari to switch off the engine and take to the paddle to get closer to the nipah fringed banks.
There were movements in the branches and my eyes followed, trying to track down the Proboscis of which I had only ready in journals, and have never seen one in the wild.
“Tuan, ada satu (there’s one),’’ Jauhari said in Malay with a strong Bisayan accent, pointing his finger in the direction of a leafy tree.
A Proboscis Monkey, challenging our encroachment into its territory. These primates are totally protected and are not known to survive in captivity.
Standing up in the boat with my camcorder in my hands, I looked fixedly at the tree. There it was – the bizarre and grotesque-looking creature with its “trademark” looks - the huge and flabby pendulous nose that covers half its face!
“Itu jantan (it’s a male), ” Jauhari whispered, and touching his nose said, “Hidung dia lebih besar. (The nose of the male is bigger.)”
A close up of a Proboscis Monkey.
I got the impression that male was staring at me and poised to spring to another branch. And when I did‚ I was more amazed and fascinated by its agility than its elongated and rubbery nose which seems to mismatch its body shape.
In a flash the “Flying Dutchman” (the Bisayan call it Monyet Belanda or the Dutch monkey) that was within the view of camcorder was missing‚ and I was reduced to watching a female proboscis rocking herself back and forth in the treetops.
She catapulted out of the branches with arms outstretched--in a parachute free-fall stance--to sail across to another tree. She was followed to exactly the same place by the rest of the harem‚ and finally a male which leaped from branch to branch with the agility of a gymnast and a kind of grace which belies its clumsy appearance.
Once you get the hang of it‚ unlike the dusky-leaf monkey‚ or the macaques‚ which can hard the detect amongst the trees‚ the Proboscis‚ because of their bright orange-gold fur and size‚ are quite easy to spot – even from a distance - if you are alert.
The floating rest house (called sulap)is where the Bisayan fishermen take a break.
Reading about these magnificent primates before you venture out to see them in the wild helps‚ especially when you do not have a nature guide to provide you a running commentary!
To the villagers‚ who make a living catching or trapping fish and prawns from the huge lake‚ the Proboscis Monkey is just another animal of the wild with no significance.
Since the mangrove and the peat swamp forests are the Proboscis Monkey’s primary habitat‚ the UNDP-GEF Funded Project on Peat Swamp Forest (PSF) Conservation and Associated Wetland Ecosystems (Malaysia) has picked the Proboscis to “lead the way” in the project’s PSF awareness and education initiatives in the Klias Peninsula.
My job, as media consultant to the Project’s awareness raising programmes, is to draw up an action plan and it was the reason I was in Padang Teratak to evaluate the region’s eco-tourism potential as how the local community can benefit from it.
If Padang Teratak’s nature tourism sector is developed with local involvement‚ conservation would also have the potential to raise local income levels and create additional employment- something which the project has in mind.
The villagers of Kg Masikua are already looking forward to the day when their area which boasts the largest number of Proboscis monkeys‚ will be an “alternative nature tourism hot spot.”
The lake in Padang Teratak...a favourite stop over for the migratory milky stork..
And Padang Teratak’s Proboscis colony - as well as other species dependent on peatland‚ including the local inhabitants‚ comprising mainly of Bisayan farming communities‚ are covered in the project’s five year study which ends in 2007.
The study does not discount the possibility of recommending the designation of Padang Teratak as another wildlife sanctuary – like the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary and the Klias Wetlands- for both the Proboscis and bird conservation.
Too little is known about this primate. Unlike its more famous cousin‚ the Orang Utan‚ which has been studied‚ both in the wild and captivity‚ the Proboscis will usually die soon after capture -- literally starving themselves to death even in large enclosures‚ no matter how lush or lavish their living area is.
Which is why these monkeys cannot be seen in zoos and receive much less attention ‚ even among scientists and researchers‚ compared to other primates.
They are best left to themselves in the mangrove and peat swamp forests of Sabah‚ Sarawak‚ Kalimantan and several smaller surrounding islands where they constitutes a valuable part of Borneo´s natural heritage together with its more famous cousin‚ the Orang Utan.
But with their feeding and nestling grounds disappearing rapidly to land clearing and development‚ anxiety is creeping in‚ compelling conservationists to take a more serious look at future of the Proboscis in its habitat.This part of Borneo is the only region in the word where the Proboscis are found.
To make matters worse, the primate’s habitat is being slowly‚ but surely gnawed away by poor land use‚ overdose of chemical fertilizers and ill-advised land management practices. The very nature of the nutrient poor peat soil means extensive use of chemical fertilisers which in the long run‚ are certain to harm the lake’s rich resources and the ecosystem eventually.
But the Bisayan people, like Jauhari, who aspires to be an eco-guide, need to be told how to protect their precious land from further exploitation.
These were some of the questions that raced through my mind as I followed the Proboscis trail around the lake in the boat‚ reducing the engine to a hum whenever we chanced upon a troop of the primates‚ either frolicking in the trees or feeding on the mangrove (Sonneratia) leaves‚ though sometimes they settled for small fruits and the buds of nipah palm.
According to studies‚ an adult can munch up to 1‚800 of the bitter tannic mangrove leaves. Their partitioned stomach is equipped with fermentation chambers in which‚ as with cows‚ the digestion of the leaves is facilitated by special bacteria.
My boatman who sounded excited about the prospects of Padang Teratak becoming a nature destination said the proboscis monkeys often ventured close to the villages‚ not to forage for food but mostly out of curiosity. But the villagers do not live in fear of the proboscis; nor do they poach or hunt them down.
He said the primate did not disturb them. “Dia bukan macam kera (they are not like the macaques)…nakal atau curi makan (mischievous or steel food).”
While they all have red hair‚ the male is nearly twice as large as the female‚ pot-bellied. The nose‚ particularly in males‚ has developed into an oversized organ which‚ besides being used in sexual display‚ also functions as a voice amplifier.
Studies suggest that the male Proboscis Monkeys have large noses because they provide a large surface area from which to lose excess body heat in the humid warmth of the tropical swamps. This organ is so large that‚ during feeding‚ the monkeys have to push it aside with one hand!
When fleeing from predators in panic‚ the mature and dominant release trumpet-like yells to scare away any pursuer. During these warning calls the red nose - which dangles placidly at other times - swells grotesquely into a horizontal position.
Proboscis Monkeys live in two types of groups -- the bachelor group and the harems. Bachelor groups will consist of around five to ten male monkeys with no dominant leaders. Such groups do not usually interact much‚ with each monkey finding its own food and taking care of itself but the group will explore the forests together.
A dominant male will be the “head of the family”‚ becoming a master of about 10 females and their babies. It will also try to father as many children as soon as possible‚ for older adult males will be displaced by mature males from the bachelor groups. When this happens‚ the older male will be banished from his harem and all dependent infants in the harem will be killed by the victorious male.
This is done by the new dominant male in order to get the female monkeys pregnant with his off-springs more quickly.
The way Proboscis Monkeys take care of their young is also rather unique. All mothers within a family group with dependent toddlers will take turns to take care of the young toddlers while the other mothers hunt for food.
Another unique characteristic is their unusual affinity for water. According to the villagers‚ the proboscis‚ usually in late evening‚ are known to play in the water before they retire to a suitable location to nest for the night‚ not before making a roll call -shrieking loudly at each other !
Under the Malaysian law, the poaching of a proboscis monkey carries a RM100‚000 fine and/or a 10-year jail term. To date, however, no one has been prosecuted under this provision.
But it is the primate’s habitat destruction more than its poaching is worrying.