For the love of animals — issue #42

For the love of animals — issue #42


I was always more of a people person. A friend now jokingly calls me an animal activist because of all the animal content I send her on Instagram (and the occasional rant on the welfare of stray cats). I am far from being an activist, but I can definitely say I’m into animals now more than I am into people.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love telling human-centred stories. But if I were to be completely honest, my dream is to live on a farm surrounded by animals. Other than the joy that being in the company of cute, majestic, or downright funny creatures brings, I think living side by side with animals can teach me a lot about respecting nature and living within a larger ecosystem. I also imagine being awed each day by the sheer beauty and diversity of the animal kingdom.

Animals must have also inspired my ancestors, since so many Malay proverbs and folktales reference animals. Judging from the specificity of some of these, people in the past knew about animals in a way we no longer do. I assume this comes from having a more direct relationship with their environment, and being more attuned to their surroundings. One of my favourite animal-inspired proverbs is “Setinggi-tinggi terbang bangau, hinggap di belakang kerbau juga (no matter how high the stork flies, it still lands on the buffalo’s back)”, to mean that no matter how far someone travels, they will always return to their place of origin.

Have you got a favourite animal-inspired story or saying? Feel free to share it with us at We love hearing from our readers.

Something is brewing: we're building a membership community.
We’re launching a membership subscription this June! Some of you already know—we sent a survey late last year to find out what you’d like in a membership, and those insights helped us greatly!

For the past 6 months, we’ve been working hard to find ways to connect more deeply with you and the community that supports us. We want to do this sustainably, keeping our core stories free, while providing more behind-the-scenes content, and finding opportunities to connect with our community beyond likes and reactions on social media.

It’s a big move, so we have some additional announcements to make. To facilitate this transition, we’ll be moving all of our content and subscribers from Mailchimp and Medium, to Ghost. Ghost is an open-source platform used by many organisations and publishers to host websites, and publish content and newsletters.

How does this affect you as a subscriber to our newsletter? It doesn’t—nothing will change on your end except that from June, some of the content we’ll link to in this newsletter will be members-only. All the usual good stuff you’ve come to expect from notes from the equator will still be free.

With regard to data privacy, we’ve taken all the necessary precautions to ensure that Ghost is approved for use according to Singapore’s PDPA requirements. Like with all newsletter hosting platforms, only your name and email addresses will be transferred to Ghost.

We’ll be writing a longer, more explanatory email next month to keep you updated on what’s happening, and what’s next! We’re very excited to share with you what’s been brewing, our reasons for doing so, and how you can be more involved as part of our community. Until then, hold on tight!

Team Kontinentalist
Cover image of the featured story, which illustrates monkeys sitting on a treetop, looking forlorn and neglected.
Long-tailed macaques are regularly traded for medical testing—yes, those monkeys you often see in nature around Singapore. Without them, it’d be impossible to have the sort of rapid developments in vaccines, including that of COVID-19, that we’ve seen in recent years. However, the greater the need for their demand, the more macaques are shipped around the world, and the way it’s done is not always legal.

Our latest story, Exploiting the legal system: Alleged corruption in Cambodia’s monkey farms taints global wildlife trade, is a high-effort investigative piece into the intricacies of this issue. We collaborated with Anton L. Delgado of Southeast Asia Globe, who did most of the on-the-ground investigative work, interviewing relevant personnel and experts whose insights were included in our story. This piece builds on Anton’s exposé of an alleged international smuggling ring in November 2022.

On Kontinentalist’s side, most of our work revolved around data analysis. We analysed and visualised official trade data from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Waild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The collaborative process was slightly different this time, and admittedly took a while to get used to. Anton was slated to write the story draft, and we would then go in and insert visualisations where they were necessary.

So here’s how the story flows:

One of the first visualisations we created showcased the relationship between Cambodia and the United States with regards to the macaque trade. Cambodia is one of the world’s most prominent exporters of long-tailed macaques, and most of their business is taken up by the US.
Screenshot of flourish global data visualisation.
A globe visualisation demonstrating the highest number of recorded trade flows between importer and exporter countries. For Cambodia-sourced macaques, the US was involved in the highest numbers of trade flows every year. View the full interactive visualisation here.

Long-tailed macaques have been the most traded primate for decades because of their use in biomedical research. When COVID-19 happened, it resulted in a surge of demand for these monkeys, and Cambodia ended up cornering the market. From the CITES trade database, we extracted the recorded trade flows of specifically long-tailed macaques with Cambodian origins, and pulled out the purpose of these trade flows.
Screenshot of macaques data visualisation.
This pictogram demonstrates that most Cambodia-sourced macaques are traded for medical, including biomedical research, purposes. View the full interactive visualisation here.

But for many of these macaques, the US is only a stopover point. The country typically re-exports these macaques not whole, but in the form of specimens—usually either tissues from organs or fluid content, such as blood and spinal fluid—to other parts of the world, mostly across Europe and Canada. Once again, this data was obtainable from the CITES trade database, by filtering out only long-tailed macaques of Cambodian origin, exported from the US.
Screenshot of a data-visualisation on frequent importer of Cambodian macaques.
From the US, macaques are often re-exported to other countries as specimens. Specimens in grams or millimetres are often organ tissues and blood or spinal fluid respectively. The United Kingdom is the highest importer of these specimens from the US. View the full interactive visualisation here.

As demand for macaques surged, Cambodia began exporting a lot more macaques in response. However, macaques in farms don’t breed that fast—this led to suspicions that wild monkeys were caught and trapped in this global trade, and exporters were using the legal trade to mask illegal operations.

In a leaked 2014 letter from the CITES Management Authority in Cambodia, this was emphasised.
Screenshot of an infographic illustrating the disproportionate number of macaques bred to the number of exported macaques.
Details of the 2014 letter emphasise that in order to export that many macaques, the number of bred macaques must also increase drastically, which does not make sense.

For this portion of the story, we used ai2html to create this piece that breaks down the contents of the 2014 letter into short paragraphs and illustrations. Our illustrator, Griselda, made the numeric comparison clear and visible by putting them in between the text, with the box sizes corresponding to the number of macaques. The frames on the left and right show wild monkeys in a forest landscape, all staring at the boxes in the middle. We did this to allow the reader to better visualise the numbers, and hence better comprehend the issue. In comparison, if these numbers were recorded only in text, it might be easy for the reader to glaze over them and not realise what the letter implies.

Investigations by US prosecutors found that there was smuggling involved. In November 2022, two Cambodian government officials were charged with wildlife trafficking. Ironically, these officials were from the Cambodian Forestry Administration—which enforces CITES within the country.

To date, controls remain unchanged, and the issue clearly involves some very powerful people. On top of that—and perhaps what’s even more worrying—talking about Cambodia’s illegal dealings in the macaque trade is becoming increasingly taboo among wildlife conservationists. Without the ability to discuss the issue even in environmental spaces, it might be an uphill task to change what’s happening to the long-tailed macaques.
Writer of featured story behind the scenes, Gwyneth.
...more from us
Cover image of 'More than monkey business' story. An illustration of two macaques sitting on a tree looking down at humans walking by.
The news makes macaques out to be dangerous, but what if humans just left them alone?
Cover image of the 'Persons of the Forest' story. An illustration of an Orang Utan lying on a barren deforested land, with a single human walking away with its infant.
Deforestation is robbing orangutans of their natural habitats, but that is not the only threat they face.


Stuff we love
Venture into the deep sea and discover what sea creatures reside the deeper you go.
Some animals are so endangered that their remaining members could fit into a train carriage.
Mass extinctions are not new, but climate change is pushing animals to the brink of extinction, faster than ever before.
See animal faces appear and disappear based on the rise and fall of their populations.

Did you know?
Photography record of a Eastern Chinese tapestry from the 10th-12th Century, featuring a dragon, deer and tiger against swirly floral patterns.
Asian proverbs of animal identity
Animal-based proverbs tell us a lot about how various cultures view different animals, with some even assigning human traits to them. For example, the Chinese idiom “shēng lóng huó hǔ (lively dragon and animated tiger)” describes a lively feeling, while Malays use “Harimau mati kerana belangnya (a tiger dies because of his stripes)” to refer to a downfall caused by one’s pride. Many cultures also use the animal parent-offspring relationship to show the transmission of certain traits. “Those who are born from a lion will be lions” is a popular Turkish and Uzbek saying, while there is a similar Tamil idiom: “A tiger does not give birth to a cat.”