She was only 10-years-old when she was gifted a unique pet: a small, golden-furred, blue-skinned, vervet monkey.
The monkey, whom she named Ah Boy, had been illegally taken from somewhere in Africa by sailor friends of her relatives.
In 1998, a young Andie caresses Ah Boy, her pet vervet monkey.
Ironically, it was that act of keeping a wild monkey as a domestic pet that pushed her to become who she is today: Dr Andie Ang, primatologist.
Today, the 34-year-old is a research scientist with the Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund. She chairs the Raffles’ Banded Langur Working Group and is also currently President of the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore).
The multi-hyphenate reminisces how, as a child, she did not fully grasp the difference between a wild animal and a domestic pet. She treated Ah Boy like a puppy, and even brought him out for walks.
But, after spending time with him every day for almost seven years, she grew to realise how miserable he was, chained up at home. She eventually repatriated him back to Africa.
Incidentally, it was her relationship with Ah Boy that sparked a lifelong love for primates and conservation, and motivated her to study animals in the NUS Faculty of Science.
“It was difficult,” admits Andie, who, prior to NUS, had never attended a biology class. “I didn’t even know what DNA was. Everyone else would be talking about molecular analysis, and I’d be like, “Huh? What’s ATCG?”
Thankfully for Andie, her batchmates didn’t leave her behind. “The other students were very supportive,” Andie recalls. The friendly learning culture was one of Andie’s favourite parts of her school life.
Andie also benefited from the Faculty of Science’s emphasis on hands-on experience.
“During semesters, we visited areas like Sungei Buloh, and even went to Johor,” Andie shares. There, the students were equipped with skills beyond that learned in the classroom.
In her third year at NUS, Andie applied for a summer course that brought her out into the field at Tioman Island in Malaysia.
Andie explains how the skills picked up during outdoor sessions were essential, “We gained hands-on experience in conducting surveys, gathering data, and writing reports. We took what we learned during lectures and applied it in the field, and this resulted in tangible reports.”
Andie and her team set up camera traps high in the canopies, to better understand the animals that depend on these trees.
Additionally, while it was tough, Andie was able to rely on the guidance of her professors.
“I’m really grateful to my Honours Project supervisor, Professor Rudolf Meier,” the bright-eyed Andie says earnestly. Even though Prof Meier already had the maximum number of three Honours students under his supervision, he agreed to take in Andie as his fourth.
“He taught me how to apply for grants and how to network. He was instrumental in helping me get my first research grant,” Andie recalls. The grant funded a year-long NUS Honours’ research project that allowed her to study the hand preferences of primates, where she investigated whether certain primates were more inclined to use their right or left hands, in comparison with the right-handedness in most humans.
And Prof Meier’s care for his student didn’t end there - he eventually helped Andie secure a fellowship for her Masters, for which she initially did not qualify as her results fell short.
Andie reveals, “I graduated with second-class lower honours - 0.02 points away from second-class upper honours.”
“I come from a low-income family, and without the fellowship, I couldn’t have continued my education,” Andie says. “But once again, Prof Meier fought for my case. He appealed on my behalf - and I eventually got the fellowship!”
Andie is grateful to Prof Meier for his help in allowing her to chase her dream of being a research scientist.
To date, Andie has collected valuable data on Singapore’s animals, from the food they eat to the types of trees they seek shelter in. That data is then passed to relevant government bodies like the National Parks Board to use when reforesting urban areas, or enhancing current forests.
As chairperson of the Raffles’ Banded Langur Working Group funded by Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund, Andie also works to conserve the critically endangered black-and-white monkeys native to Singapore. There are currently 60 Raffles’ banded langurs left in Singapore.
Andie (bottom row, second from left) sits with the Raffles’ Banded Langur Working Group. The team work to preserve a national treasure very few know about.
“Even though their forests, like Thomson Nature Park, are protected, their population size is small, and they are genetically very similar - many of them are related to each other, like half siblings, half cousins,” Andie says.
She replies that such low genetic diversity becomes a problem as inbreeding is detrimental to future langurs’ immune systems.
So while it may sound like a long shot, Andie hopes to one day foster the genetic exchange between Singaporean and Malaysian langurs.
Her dream has not come without its challenges. The trailblazer says, “In general, field researchers have to have a lot of patience.”
This is especially true for Andie, as the Raffles’ banded langurs are notoriously shy and elusive.
Andie revealed how she had worked for months to get Singapore’s langurs comfortable around her presence.
“For six months, I wore the same black clothes and black bag, and tied my hair back into a ponytail, so that they could recognise me,” she explains.
But she laments, “Singapore is so hot - one day I cut my hair, and the next time I went back, the langurs spotted me, made alarm calls, and ran away!”
It was another month before the langurs began warming up to her again.
Today, although work takes up much of her time, Andie still manages to find free hours which she dedicates to a special project: maintaining a primate-watching website.
With a sparkle in her eyes, Andie says, “My lifelong hobby is primate-watching - my retirement dream is to see all 514 species of primates.”
During a recent visit to Kibale, Uganda, Andie caught a glimpse of our closest extant relative: the chimpanzee.
She adds, “www.primatewatching.com is a website where I document the experience of going to see the primates - how to get to certain locations, photos and videos, and information on relevant experts and researchers.”
“Think of it as TripAdvisor for primates,” she laughs.
To date, Andie has received multiple awards, such as the Great Women of Our Time Award (for Science and Technology), given by The Singapore Women's Weekly magazine, and the 2019 Conservationist Award, given by The American Society of Primatologists.
Her advice to those who wish to be a wildlife researcher/conservationist is simple, “Recognise what your passion is, and know what it really means to follow your passion. Because along the way, you will definitely meet obstacles. Persevere, and don’t feel disheartened.”
“Overall, don’t give up no matter how hard it is, because one day you might regret that you gave up your hopes and dreams,” she adds.
One thing she does not regret giving up, is Ah Boy.
A since-repatriated and contented Ah Boy scans the Zambian horizon for adventure.
Since being repatriated to Zambia, the sweet vervet monkey has met a mate, had two kids, and has been released from the rehabilitation sanctuary, back into the wild.
It seems that all’s well that ends well - not just for Andie, but for Ah Boy, too.