Coconut-collecting macaques are prized down south, but their numbers are declining
Published: 25 May 2013 at 00.00
Monkeys scrambling to the tops of tall palm trees to collect coconuts, or performing tricks to help their masters earn a living, are a popular tourist attraction in the southern provinces.
A macaque is trained from an early age. AMNART THONGDEE
But there is so much more to the value of the monkeys than is immediately obvious to tourists visiting the region, which is a major producer of coconuts in Thailand. A well-trained macaque, therefore, is a prized possession.
To many families, the monkeys are their primary source of income upon which all family members depend.
However, with the number of macaques in the wild dwindling, Boonlert Phetnachak, 62, a former kamnan at tambon Bangmak in Chumphon’s Muang district, has decided that he must do something to reverse the trend.
Four years ago, he bought five male and female macaques from the province’s Phato district and released them into the community forest covering 20 rai near Ban Don Yai in tambon Bangmak.
He hopes this will help to increase the macaque population and produce enough monkeys to help the local residents pick coconuts and sustain their way of life.
With the help of villagers who look after and feed the monkeys, the number in the community has now increased to more than 30.
Mr Boonlert says most of the declining number of wild macaques live in forest reserve areas and natural parks.
The macaques are protected animals and breeding them without permission is prohibited by law, limiting their chances of propagation.
It was for that reason he decided to release macaques into the wild, hoping they would breed naturally. His efforts are paying off.
More than 10 young macaques are now being trained to collect coconuts and his village has become a tourist attraction.
A monkey with the coconuts it picked from a tree.
He said macaques raised to pick coconuts are expensive, costing 20,000-30,000 baht each.
“Beasts of burden, such as cows, buffaloes and elephants are rarely seen now, particularly in the South. Only coconut-picking macaques are still around,” Mr Boonlert says.
“A specific law on monkeys should be passed and a special agency set up to improve the breeding of them.”
Somjai Promthong, 64, is the proud owner of two coconut-picking macaques in Muang district.
He says male macaques are preferred to pick coconuts over females because they are larger and stronger.
Macaques should be trained at a very young age of about five to eight months so they can get used to being around humans and the reins tied around their necks, he said.
“Macaques of the breed from forests in La-un district of Ranong are intelligent and easy to train, unlike those from Prachuap Khiri Khan,” Mr Somjai says.
Features of the best type of macaque are strong and healthy hands and feet as well as a strong set of teeth needed to bite through the stems of the coconut fruit.
Coconut-picking macaques are at their most productive when they are between five and seven years of age.
They are past their prime when they reach the age of eight on average and the pace of their work starts to slow, Mr Somjai says.
But how the monkeys operate also depends on how well their owners look after them, he adds.
“Some owners give their monkeys excessive amounts of energy boosters to drink, which could have side effects such as shortening their life span,” he says.
It is also important for the owners to have the skill and experience to train the monkeys in order to achieve the best results.
Some monkeys can work freely among the tree tops without their owners holding the reins to control them. The monkeys will continue to work on their own until they finish picking all the coconuts, he said.
“Such intelligent monkeys are highly prized and cost at least 50,000-60,000 baht each,” Mr Somjai says.
A medium-sized monkey aged three or four can pick 500-700 coconuts per day, while a large, fully-grown macaque aged five to seven can collect between 900 and 1,000.
A macaque can earn anywhere between 500 baht and 1,000 baht a day for its owner, he adds.
He says his monkeys help him earn enough money to support his family and pay for the education of his children.
“I have two monkeys working for me. I have two children. One of my children has already graduated. The other has almost completed his education,” Mr Somjai says.
Phisarn Phumsang, chief of the natural resources division at the Provincial Office of Natural Resources and Environment in Chumphon, says macaques are among 201 protected species of mammals under the 1992 Wild Animal Preservation and Protection Act.
The law prohibits hunting, trading and smuggling of the protected species. Penalties are a jail term of up to four years and/or a fine of up to 40,000 baht.
The law also bars the breeding of the protected animals without permission. Penalties are imprisonment for up to three years and/or a fine of up to 30,000 baht.
However, a more lenient regulation issued by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry is now easing the restrictions on breeding.
“Training of macaques to collect coconuts has been part of the local way of life of southern people for a long time. It is hard to enforce strict legal compliance against the practice. A better option is to allow owners to register their monkeys,” Mr Phisarn says.
Boonkuea Thongthae, a specialist at the Chumphon Horticultural Research Centre, said the centre is the only one in the country which researches and compiles comprehensive data on coconuts as well as coconut picking.
He said most coconuts sold and used in household cooking around the country are picked by macaques in the South.
“It is rare to find farmers in the South using a long pole to harvest coconuts from tree tops,” Mr Boonkuea says.
He says the trade in coconuts has become a well-organised business with monkeys and their owners being hired to pick coconuts, while traders buy the fruit from plantations and truck them to factories producing coconut milk.
Mr Boonkuea says a monkey and its owner make 1 baht for each coconut picked and taken to a pickup truck (70 satang for each coconut picked and 30 satang for each coconut taken to a pickup).
A monkey can pick several hundred coconuts a day, making the owner several hundred baht in income.
He said it is estimated that about 1,000 macaques are raised to pick coconuts in Chumphon.
A boy raises a young macaque as a pet before it is ready to enter the coconut picker ‘school’.
A trained macaque picks coconuts from a tall tree in Chumphon. A full-grown macaque can collect between 900 and 1,000 coconuts a day, helping to sustain the local economy.
Local community experts train the macaques to pick coconuts in Ban Don Yai in tambon Bangmak of Chumphon’s Muang district.