Saturday, June 3, 2023
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Brunei Town
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No monkey business

Daniel Lim

With the many species of monkeys roaming around the nation, both in the lush rainforest that is home to rich biodiversity as well as unknowingly venturing into human habitat, having a proper knowledge to deal with them can be a lifesaver, especially for those who encounter macaques involuntarily.

This was well detailed as part of the Monkey Guard Training Programme held for five days in Panaga and its vicinity by monkey guard experts from the Jane Goodall Institute Singapore (JGIS).

The contingent was invited by Brunei Shell Petroleum Company Sdn Bhd (BSP) and Panaga School, with an aim to disseminate information not only about monkey guarding but also highlight the key behavioural signs as well as proper etiquettes for people to follow when encountering a wild monkey.

Monkey guard programme lead from JGIS Sabrina Jabbar explained ways that macaques express themselves when they feel threatened, irritated or stressed.


While for humans, grinning or smiling might be a sign of joy or happiness; for macaques, grinning is a show of fear when they feel threatened or believe themselves to be in danger.

“Fear grinning is typically the first sign that people might see whenever they come too close to macaques.”

Various types of monkey species can be found in the vast biodiversity of Brunei. PHOTO: DANIEL LIM

The general process to de-escalate the situation, as highlighted by Sabrina, is to maintain a distance of two to three metres and not copy the behaviours expressed by the macaques.

“Maintaining a safe distance means that both the human and the monkey have a comfortable separation to either move forward or retreat. Copying the grin can dangerously escalate the situation as it signals the macaques that you are also threatened and ready to fight if necessary.”

She added that walking in between females with babies can quickly escalate certain situations where the alpha male may become agitated by the lack of a visible sight line to the whole troop. In all situations, it is essential to keep calm at all times as signs of duress can quickly spiral out of control for both parties, she said.


Also seen sometimes as ‘cooing’, lip-smacking is also a sign of macaques communicating that they feel threatened.

“It is important to note that these signs are not only shown to humans as when they feel threatened but also to each other when signs of submission are observed,” Sabrina said.

Similar to fear grin, maintaining a distance of two to three metres is recommended as well as avoiding eye contact or mimicking the monkey’s behaviours.

These behaviours are also exhibited among monkeys not only as a form of communication but also reconciliation among the social hierarchy within the monkey troop.


One of the more expressive methods that monkeys use to convey the feeling of being threatened or alarmed is by raising their eyebrows as well as arching their bodies to make themselves more visible to the threat.

“When they raise their eyebrows and arch their bodies, they are physically making their face and bodies more prominent and larger in size,” she said.

In addition to maintaining a two to three-metre distance from previous behaviours, try to avoid actions that indicate the intention of hitting or taunting the monkeys as it can also escalate the situation.

“Try not to stare at the monkeys, as constant eye contact can further agitate them. You would not like people to be staring you down, and neither do the monkeys,” Sabrina said.


Much like human beings, monkeys as well as other animals yawn from time to time. This can also be one of the danger signs that monkeys use when threatened.

“The sleepy yawn can be easily identified when the eyes are not fixed on anyone along with a sluggish and disinterested body posture. In these times, there is no need to react; just maintain a safe and respectable distance.”

It is when the eyes are “fixed on a target”, combined with movements and behaviours that show irritation such as lunging, is when the sleepy yawn turns into a warning yawn. “When the monkey starts to open its mouth to show its teeth and fangs along with movements such as lunging, it is important to widen the distance with the monkey immediately,” said Sabrina.

Other tactics to follow include not taunting them and trying one’s best to not run, and when attempting to retreat slowly, avoid letting one’s back face the monkey.


In addition to the monkey guard programme’s aims to create a safe and healthy barrier between people and monkeys by equipping trained groups and individuals with the right knowledge and skills to co-exist with them, there are other subtle ways that the community can easily adopt by slightly changing one mindset.

Another situation highlighted by Joe Kam, another monkey guard from JGIS, was what to do when spotting monkeys or wild animals on the road.

“While common courtesy, especially for those who are wary of animals, is to swerve around them. This inadvertently sends the wrong message as monkeys and other wild animals will think that the roads are safe and that all vehicles will avoid them,” said Joe. In fact, those who are not conscious of animals or are easily distracted can lead to roadkill having a cascading effect.

“Animals, especially monkeys, are a very social and emotion-driven society. When one of their relatives is involved and killed in an accident, much like humans, they will mourn for the dead.”

This can lead to the monkey troops staying close to the roadkill, which can occur on the road and can lead to more roadkill not only from the monkeys in the troop but also from foraging animals that are searching for meals.

“To combat this, it is important to subtly send a message to them that the roads are not a safe place to be. This can be achieved by slowly inching the vehicle close to the monkeys or animals without showing signs of swerving until they leave the road,” Joe advised.

Another basic behaviour etiquette that can be adopted is to deliberately feed the monkeys, which can attract the whole monkey troop to the area, to identify unnatural food sources such as food waste generated by the community that is left in the open.

This can be resolved by monkey-proofing trash bins, such as using bungee cords on trash bins with lids.

These, along with the monkey guard programme which aims to create a safe and healthy barrier that reduces and risk of conflict between people and monkeys, can go a long way in ensuring that the balance of the environment and ecosystem is maintained.

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