When famed primatologist Jane Goodall visited Kuala Lumpur, she had asked her host Peter Ong, “What is the status of primates here in Malaysia?” The award-winning tenor and opera producer suddenly realised credible information was genuinely scarce. As a founding member of the Malaysian edition of Goodall’s Roots and Shoots youth movement, he took a page out of their playbook and set out to find out himself.
See, the Root and Shoots programme was founded in 1991 under the Jane Goodall Institute to mobilise young people to create positive change for people, animals and the environment. And as far as leadership by example goes, Ong stepped up, grabbed a camera, and headed into the depths of Borneo. Enlisting the help of local guides, he photographed elusive monkeys and apes, allowing Malaysians to glimpse the real cost of trading rainforest for plantations. His work is titled Project Monyet and these are his hopes and aspirations.
When did Project Monyet kick off?
This is my second year. It initially began as Google search for info on Malaysia’s top primates. There were hardly enough answers to my questions. I couldn’t even find out for certain how many primate species we had left in Malaysia. So I got in touch with researchers who said they needed more photos. So that’s what I decided to do and managed to shoot 14 species last year. We have 25 species in total. The problem is a lot of them are endangered and of which at least four are data- deficient. This means no studies have been done on them at all.
What is the most surprising aspect of this adventure for you?
When I first started I thought it would be quite easy! But I soon realised no two parts of the jungle are actually the same. Some are swampy, others are mountainous with steep ravines. And it’s insane how much biodiversity is in our jungles. Borneo’s jungles are twice as old as the Amazon’s and we don’t really appreciate that. Another surprise was discovering there were so many people working to reverse the current situation. Its been a life changing and life affirming experience for me.
What’s threatening our wildlife?
Poaching, the illegal wildlife trade, deforestation, all of these things are huge threats to our wildlife. Just last year there was one report in the papers, about a few tons of pangolin scales and body parts being confiscated. And consider this, we have about 150 tigers left in the wild while in the US, there are more than 5,000 tigers in captivity. Orangutans are still being traded illegally. In the Bali airport, there was a drugged Orangutan in someone’s suitcase.
How would you like to grow Project Monyet in the coming year?
I still have 11 monkeys to shoot and we don’t even know if some of them are still around. There’s no statistics at all. But I’ve been very fortunate to have youth volunteers and I would like more Malaysians to get involved. Talk to any other amazing Malaysian NGO and be a part of the solution. We have to do this for ourselves because no one else is coming to our rescue. Just read up and be better informed. That’s my hope.