Aini Hasanah A Mutalib: Championing primate conservation

Networking, knowledge exchange, and collaboration are all important aspects in helping the Malaysian Primatological Society (MPS) meet its objectives, shares Aini Hasanah A Mutalib, the society's secretary-general, and chairperson of the 29th Congress of the International Primatology Society (IPS)

You co-founded MPS seven years ago. What were your motivations behind it?
Malaysia is a beautiful country with a rich, biodiverse landscape including 26 species of primates, some of which are critically endangered. To protect these primates and ensure their survival, there must be a strong collection of voices.

We started having discussions on the possibility of forming a society in Malaysia during the IPS Congress in Hanoi in 2014. These discussions were between delegates from Malaysia and Indonesia. It was agreed that the collective voice of primatologists would be best heard through an established society.

This was the reason behind the establishment of MPS in March 2015. MPS is inspired by and runs under the umbrella of IPS. We are a non-governmental organisation registered and established with the Registry of Societies Malaysia.

What do you hope to achieve at the IPS Congress next year?

Hosting this congress in 2023 in Kuching will bring most primatologists from around the globe to Sarawak, and also open up opportunities for all delegates to build their networking and expand their research network as well as participate in fascinating pre-training courses and post-congress tours.

The congress will help to raise awareness and promote the conservation of all primate species, ongoing conservation efforts as well as generate collaborative networking efforts with other non-governmental organisations in Malaysia and elsewhere on primate research, education and outreach programmes.

We hope that primatologists from Malaysia, South-east Asia and around the world will actively participate in the conference. The event will also be an opportunity for primatologists from the Global South to attend, and expand their research networks.

At the IPS Congress in Nairobi in 2018, MPS bid to host the Congress in Malaysia in 2022. What clinched the bid?
We were up against China. In our presentation, we highlighted the beauty of diversity and unity that exists in Malaysia. We also pointed out that Malaysia boasts the highest number of biodiverse landscapes and habitats in the world, in addition to the rich heritage, traditions and customs of its multi-racial population living in harmony.

I must say, a lot of hard work, preparation and passion went into our presentation. The result should also be attributed to the dynamic collaborative network between government agencies comprising the Malaysia Convention & Exhibition Bureau, Sarawak Convention Bureau, and Sarawak Forestry Corporation with MPS, as well as a Malaysian PCO Place Borneo.

Another reason for our victory was our geographical location. The last congress in South-east Asia was in Hanoi in 2014. I believe having an IPS congress in this part of the world will be perfect for our friends in South-east Asia to experience IPS again, without having to travel far.

How did you feel when the congress had to be postponed a year due to the pandemic?
I felt a bit bummed, but I believe everything happens for a reason. It is vital to remember that safety is always our first priority, hence, I feel the postponement was the best solution during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the height of the pandemic, communication and outreach programmes such as webinars went virtual. I must stress that while the mode of communication had to become digital, our programmes continued on as normal.

Please share some of MPS’ activities.
We run our own outreach programmes, focusing on primate conservation and sometimes we collaborate on activities with other NGOs. We are also working towards publishing a series of storybooks called Primates of Malaysia, targeting children in primary schools. These books will highlight the problems that primates face, conservation efforts in Malaysia as well as threats to the primate world.

We currently have seven research projects related to primate conservation. One of these programmes is a collaboration with our lifetime member in Bangladesh, Tarik Kabir, who is working on a community-based conservation project on the endangered Western hoolock gibbon.

Our other projects such as UNGKA – Small Apes of Malaysia Research & Outreach, and Project SoundsKape aim to minimise the threats to gibbon habitats by actively involving the local community in forest restoration, protection and collection of population data, which we can use for the preparation of a National Conservation Action Plan for Small Apes.

Other active projects include the Langur Project Penang, which is a citizen science-driven outreach research project on the ecology, behaviour, and road ecology of dusky langurs for the development of sustainable langur conservation in Penang; the Macaca Nemestrina Project, which studies the ecology, reproductive biology, social system and behaviour of Southern pig-tailed macaques in their natural habitat; and Night Spotting Project which is an outreach research project to study the nocturnal mammals of South and South-east Asia.

What are some of the challenges you face as an association?
Recruiting and retaining members is a challenge. We try and get members involved in our projects and activities so that they find value in the organisation. We also keep members updated on our activities through social media.

We hope that the upcoming Congress in Kuching will shed light on our work and increase the awareness of our projects, and in turn, spark interest among the public to become members of MPS. We currently have 57 members made up primarily of researchers, scientists and primatologists. However, we welcome people from all backgrounds to help grow the society further.

Another challenge is obtaining funds to run activities and outreach programmes. Our source of income primarily comes from annual membership fees, as well as a number of project grants. However, that is insufficient to run activities all year long. That is why MPS has to carry out fund-raising activities, donation drives, and collaborate with like-minded partners who support us in kind, such as providing us with a venue when we conduct public awareness programmes.