Peter Ong is a man of many hats; this Malaysian tenor is an award-winning musical theatre performer, and Executive Producer of PAN Productions. Peter also helms Project Monyet, an initiative t0 document all primate species in Malaysia. It recently concluded an exhibition featuring images of fourteen primate species in Malaysia.
We speak with Peter to hear his thoughts on the state of Malaysia’s primates and environment, and what we can do when our natural heritage is under threat.
How did Project Monyet take shape? What do you hope to achieve with it?
Project Monyet started when Jane Goodall visited Malaysia in 2017. She asked an innocent question, ‘What is the state of primates in Malaysia?’ and I had no clue.
I thought surely the answers exist online, then I learned there is so little information on the state of our primates! Primates are our closest living relatives, yet so little research has been done. As a nation, we’re trying to develop a flying car, but we don’t even know what’s in our jungles.
When I got in touch with researchers, I found more questions than answers. I asked what I could do. They said ‘We could use some images.’ I thought to myself ‘How hard can it possibly be?’
It turned out to be hard because we have so little information. About four species of our primates are data-deficient, meaning there has been no research done on them. I had to get in touch with orang asli (indigenous people), researchers, people who live on the fringes of the jungle. Find out what primates they’ve seen. That gave birth to Projek Monyet.
What do you aim to capture with your photographs in Project Monyet?
I want Malaysians, especially urban Malaysians, to be curious about what’s in their backyard — our natural resources, the creatures we share our land with. We take so much for granted, especially in our natural world. I was just as guilty of not knowing we have 25 species of primates.
I hope people get more involved, by volunteering in NGOs or donating to them. We must shake off this apathy that is gripping urbanites. Every choice we make in our daily lives impacts the environment. Be more conscious about reducing, reusing and recycling. It’s our collective responsibility.
I would urge more Malaysians to be a little bit more curious. Let’s start with curiosity.
When we speak of Malaysia’s primates, most people think of the orang utan. But we have much more biodiversity than that.
You’re right. When people talk about primates of Malaysia, the first thing people think about is the orang utan. Sometimes the common macaques, like those in Penang Botanical Gardens and Batu Caves. These are the only two species that people think of , but we have 25 species in Malaysia.
For example, the Selangor Silvered Leaf Langur was only recognised as a separate independent species in 2014. New discoveries are constantly being made, and that’s because we don’t have enough primate researchers.
Could you tell us more about the Selangor Silvered Leaf Langur?
Here’s an interesting fact: the babies are born bright orange (adults have grey fur). It’s [theorised] that they’re bright orange so the females can keep track of the babies! If the baby strays off, a female will pick them up. They’ve been known to pick up other females’ kids as well. That’s interesting, the way their society evolved.
Many langur babies don’t live until maturity under the care of a human.
Unfortunately, as with the dusty-leaf langur, people want them as pets. They’re called leaf monkeys for a reason; their main diet consists of leaf, tree bark, flowers, and raw fruits with very little sugar content. People assume that all primates can digest what we do. These leaf monkeys have evolved four stomach chambers (like a cow), to help them digest all the fiber they need for survival. Humans give them infant formula, and fruits which are not native to Malaysia (apples, oranges). Many langur babies don’t live until maturity under the care of a human. They bloat and die, that’s really sad.
To get that langur or gibbon baby, poachers wipe out the entire family, because no mother willingly surrenders her child. Let’s say the father survives. Gibbons are monogamous, he will not mate again for the rest of his life. This causes their population to drastically decrease in the wild. That’s why all five gibbon species in Malaysia are endangered. This has to stop.
They’re lovely to look at, you can find them so easily in the wild. You can see siamangs on the way up to Gentings, or Bukit Tinggi. There are silvered leaf monkeys in Bukit Melawati in Selangor. There’s nothing so majestic as seeing an animal thrive in the wild.
You have stated we need much more studies and research on our primates. Why is that?
Yes. I’ve been stressing that the point of the exhibition is that we need more research done on our primates, and their habitats. Unfortunately not many Malaysians are encouraged to become researchers.
If we’re proud to call ourselves Malaysians, we need to do a lot more than say it.
We have an abundance of wildlife diversity and beauty. Every time I go into our forest I’m blown away by the many things I’ve encountered. We’re proud Malaysians, but what’s the point when we can’t even look after our own land, waters, and the animals that share it with us. What’s the point when our rivers are silted, trees are felled (illegally I might add), and wildlife is poached without any care. If we’re proud to call ourselves Malaysians, we need to do a lot more than say it. We need to walk the talk.
Be more proactive, find out more about our own lands, the animals that live in it, how we can protect and conserve them. If we can’t look after our home, we don’t deserve it. That’s my thought anyway.
What are the key lessons you have learned in the process of documenting Malaysia’s primate species?
I think the biggest discovery is how much I’ve grown personally. I’ve met amazing people. Researchers and NGO workers doing everything they can to save the wildlife, despite little support from urban Malaysians. Villagers who live with the jungle are some of the most generous people. I’ve learned so so much from them, and come to appreciate Malaysia so much more.
I enjoy listening to the calls of the gibbons in the jungles now. I yearn to go back to the jungle to hear their sounds. I enjoy watching leaf monkeys crash from tree to tree as they jump across huge chasms. To see a gibbon swing from tree to tree in a split second, it’s phenomenal.
I highly encourage every Malaysian to go out , learn something new, and keep that sense of wanting to find out more alive.
Do you have recommendations for people interested in volunteering for rehabilitation efforts?
There are NGOs that are involved with primates. There is the Malaysian Primatological Society, the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, and the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok, Sabah. There’s also Semenggoh Wildlife Centre not far outside of Kuching, Sarawak, and Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary in Sabah.
Just go into the jungle and discover the amazing things that we have.
Where can people find future Project Monyet updates? Any plans after this exhibition?
I’m trying to find the remaining 11 species to photograph. It’s getting harder. I’m at the stage where the primates that are left are either data-deficient or the research is outdated. I need to do some serious research to find out where they are.
Contrary to popular belief, a lot of our wildlife are supremely shy. It makes it such a challenge to photograph. You’d be lucky if you saw anything. Gibbons flee at the sight and sound of humans. They become quiet, you don’t even see them. It takes days to get a good clean line of sight of this primate. Sometimes even longer, to get just one usable shot.
A Project Monyet exhibition with the complete 25 species would be nice. In the meantime, I hope to share with as many people as possible, on Facebook or Instagram.
Malaysian Primatological Society | Facebook
An NGO that coordinates primate-related studies and conservation work, supporting and facilitating various projects.
Langur Project Penang | Facebook
An outreach research project on the ecology, behaviour and road ecology of langur monkeys for the development of a sustainable langur conservation in Penang.
Primate Watch Malaysia | Facebook
A page on primate projects in Malaysia by four postgraduate students based in Universiti Sains Malaysia
Gibbon Protection Society Malaysia | Facebook
Public education of threats faced by gibbons in Malaysia.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre | Sabah Wildlife Website
A rehabilitation centre for orangutan
Project Orangutan | Volunteer
Conservation organisation with volunteer project at Matang Wildlife Centre, Sarawak
Self-funded volunteer trips at rehabilitation centres: Sepilok, Bukit Merah
If you have a skill set that you believe will directly benefit Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, do contact them directly.
More Spaces to Volunteer:
Free Tree Society (Bangsar nursery, and Taman Tugu forest park) | link
Folo Farms (Johor) | link
Kebun Kebun Bangsar | link
Wildlife, Animal Sanctuaries and Zoos:
Borneo Rhino Alliance | link
Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre | link
Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers | link
Rimau | link
WWF Malaysia | link
Zoo Negara | link
Fuze Ecoteer | link
Global Environment Centre | link
Malaysian Nature Society | link
Rimba Research | link
Sahabat Alam Malaysia | link
Sabah Wetlands Conservation Society | link
Treat Every Environment Special (TrEES) | link
Tropical Rainforest Conservation & Research Centre | link
Warisan Sungai Klang | link
Water Watch Penang | link (donations or reduce personal consumption of water)
Juara Turtle Project | link
Lang Tengah Turtle Watch | link
Marecet | link
Marine Research Foundation (internships only) | link
Sea Turtle Research Unit (Seatru) | link
Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia | link
Langkawi Lassie | link
Noah’s Ark Ipoh | link
PAWS | link
Kuala Lumpur Eco Film Festival | link
PACOS Trust | link