If you caught my recent vlogs about our day at the Phi Phi Islands, you will have seen that we encountered some gorgeous long-tailed macaques on Phi Phi Don. We had a great time interacting with them and watching as they dove for the bananas thrown from our boat by our tour guide. I mentioned, however, that this really wasn’t a good idea and that by feeding them we were actually endangering them. But how, specifically, are monkeys endangered when well-meaning humans feed them? And why is monkey feeding something that both tour companies and individual travellers should cease?
Before I go on, you should probably take a look at my vlog of my experience to see what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’ve put it here for your convenience. The monkey action starts at around 3:50.
You can hear me absolutely cooing with delight while I watched these gorgeous little guys catching the bananas in the trees, as well as jumping into the water below and swimming to the ones they had missed. When one of them jumped onto our boat we were all thrilled, and understandably so: long-tailed macaques are fucking adorable (when they’re not biting you that is – we’ll get to that in a second).
But my video is proof of how even a diehard vegan can forget themselves and be distracted by uber cuteness. I already knew that the treatment of primates is a serious issue in many parts of the world, and on my old site I had previously written a post about not getting your photo taken with baby gibbons or slow loris (I am yet to republish that post on my new site here, but I do plan to at some stage). It was during the research for that post that I discovered a little bit of information about not feeding wild monkeys, but it wasn’t enough to really feel like I could back my arguments up. It certainly wasn’t enough for me to avoid getting distracted by their cuteness while on the boat. Truth be told, while we were watching the monkeys get fed, a part of my mind was going, “…we probably shouldn’t be doing this”. But a louder part was just going, “Monkeys! Look at their gorgeous little faces! OMG, THAT ONE IS SWIMMING!”
After this experience, my conscience told me that if I was going to put up a video of monkey feeding the least I could do was to research this properly. In this way, a) I myself would be able to avoid contributing to this again and b) I could explain to you why you should avoid it too, instead of just saying, “Feeding monkeys is bad, mmmk”.
When I first began looking into this properly, the number one reason that emerged for not feeding monkeys was that it generally causes aggression. If monkeys become used to expecting food from humans, they can become very demanding and aggressive, possibly even attacking humans to get food. When this happens, local authorities will generally euthanise them. So feeding them actually puts their very lives at risk.
In 2012 I visited the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali, and while it is a very beautiful place and the monkeys are damn cute, our guide Wayan gave us several strict warnings before we entered. We were to never put our hands in our pockets, as that would cause the monkeys would think we had food. It is possible to buy food there to feed them with, but Wayan also recommended against this, as she felt that if we were walking around with bananas in our hands it would place us at too high a risk for a monkey mobbing. We were also not to try to touch the monkeys at all and we were not to freak out and panic if one jumped on us.
Wayan explained that if a monkey took it upon himself to climb up us or jump onto our shoulders, and we panicked and frantically attempted to get him off, the other monkeys would perceive this as an attack. She said they would then team up on us – one monkey on your back is cute, but ten of them attacking you is something different altogether. In fact, while we were there we witnessed a monkey climbing on a man and Wayan had to step in and warn him to stay calm. Since going there I’ve heard many people talk of being bitten by the monkeys at the Sacred Monkey Forest; apparently the bites are very painful and can easily become infected.
I think that Wayan’s concern was more for our safety, rather than the monkeys’, but the point is that monkeys can get aggressive very easily. If they think they own the place, they do.
Whilst in Bali we also visited another forest at Alas Kedaton, where we did have the experience of feeding monkeys, and we managed to attract one of the alpha males for a photo op. Our guide there called him “big boss monkey” for a good reason – he was. I cringe looking at that photo now but there’s a lesson in it. In order to capture the shot I had to sit quietly on the seat holding peanuts in my hand, while little dude helped himself. There’s no two ways about it; he was in charge of the situation, not me. Not that I necessarily believe I should have been in charge either – as a vegan, I don’t believe humans should dominate animals – but the fact is, it wasn’t a peaceful interspecies interaction. It was more of a “You have food, I’m taking it” interaction.
Another example of a place where monkeys can basically do whatever the hell they want is the Thai town of Lopburi. I have never been here, but several of my friends have written about their experiences. In Lopburi the humans and monkeys are said to coexist side by side, and the monkeys have free run of the town. At first it seems charming but scratch the surface and things become a little more serious. My friend Anna from Slightly Astray details in this post how she and her boyfriend were climbed upon by monkeys again and again, until finally she was bit on the wrist. Anna ended up requiring a month’s worth of rabies shots as a result.
You can also hear our guide in my video above instructing us all not to move when the monkey jumped on the boat; thanks to my experience in Bali, I understood at the time that he was issuing this instruction to avoid the monkey biting one of us. I’m sure, however, that most of my fellow tourists had no comprehension of this.
I may have laboured the point a little here but what I’m trying to express is: it’s not difficult for them to become aggressive. And once they’re deemed too dangerous to be around humans, they are at risk of being killed by local authorities. Which is not at all fair, since it’s our fault they became aggressive in the first place.
There are other ways in which monkeys are threatened when they become reliant on humans for food.
Naturally, wild monkeys will travel over 15 kilometres every day looking for nourishment. This level of activity is important in maintaining their health. However, if they know that food is readily available in one spot, they will not leave. They will also lose important skills required for finding their own food in the wild, or young monkeys may not develop these skills highly enough.
Monkeys who gravitate to areas of human habitation, or who remain close by, are also put in danger by the very virtue of being around humans. Living too close to us makes them susceptible to being hit by cars or being attacked by dogs, among other things.
Having too much interaction with humans also makes monkeys vulnerable to poachers and those involved in the trade of exotic wildlife. As I wrote in the post I mentioned earlier about not getting your photo take with baby gibbons, some species are taken from the wild as a novelty in order to make money for their captors. Others end up in the exotic pet trade or in even worse situations. When monkeys begin to associate all humans with the provision of food, they will too easily trust those who have sinister intentions for them.
There is also the issue of what it is we are feeding them. Did you know bananas are actually bad for monkeys? Cartoons have lied to us – bananas are awesome for humans, but feeding them to monkeys is the equivalent to filling them up on “cake or chocolate”.
The diet of a wild monkey includes other fruits and seeds, leafy vegetation, insects and small animals. But modern-day bananas have been cultivated in such a way that they now contain a high level of sugar, and this can cause digestive issues and diabetes in small primates. If the bananas have been grown with pesticides, they are particularly unhealthy and pregnant females who have eaten only bananas can suffer miscarriages or deliver malnourished infants. Bananas can also lead to dental problems, which can lead to infection or death.
Obviously, a fruit that has been engineered by humans over centuries should not be the staple of a wild animal’s diet. Better that they use their instincts to find sources of nutrition that their little bodies evolved to thrive on.
Finally, interacting with wild monkeys can also lead to disease being transferred from one species to another.
For most of us, the idea of diseases jumping between monkeys and humans is fairly disturbing. After all, who wants to catch a disease from a monkey? Ew, right? I mean, just think. What kind of germs and sicknesses are those little guys carrying in their soft fur and tiny sharp teeth?
The truth is, however, that monkeys are far more vulnerable to catching a disease from us. Yes, illnesses have spread from monkeys to humans before. Yes, it’s still a serious enough issue that a bite can transmit something very severe. But there are more monkeys getting sick from humans than humans getting sick from monkeys. This is often seen with pet monkeys (and is yet another reason why they shouldn’t be kept as pets! FFS) but wild monkeys are vulnerable to zoonotic disease as well.
Furthermore, wild monkeys are vulnerable to the bacteria that exist on our hands. These bacteria may be harmless to us, but can cause health problems to them, and when we handle food that is then given to monkeys, the bacteria is transferred.
So, if there are all these great reasons not to feed monkeys, why is it so prevalent in so many tourist areas?
First of all, much of the above information is unknown. I didn’t even know most of it until I started properly researching. And like with elephant tourism and keeping cetaceans in captivity, unfortunately many people who participate don’t know the truth until years later.
Keep in mind also that tour operators are under demand to give their clients the most exciting day possible. Even if they do know some of the above information, they may not fully understand the severity of the situation, or they may feel the pressure to feed monkeys anyway, in the hopes that their clients give them good reviews online or recommend them to friends and family. In some parts of the word this industry can be ruthlessly competitive and you are often only as good as your last TripAdvisor review.
But what I would like to see is more tour operators publicly deciding not to participate anymore. To be honest, had we not seen the monkeys on Phi Phi Don, I still would have rated the day as fantastic. I don’t think I would have felt that there was anything missing from our time there. So I’d like to see some operators taking the brave step of choosing not to interact. Speaking for myself, I’d actually be impressed if I saw on somebody’s website a little passage explaining why they don’t participate in monkey feeding and I might be more inclined to go with them.
Fingers crossed this will be one of those issues that changes over the next few years. I would love to see this go the way of elephant tourism and see more and more travellers becoming aware of the perils of monkey feeding, and how it endangers the very creatures it helps us to adore.
Apart from the links given in this post, you can check out these articles for further reading:
Please Don’t Feed The Monkeys! – Great post by Earth Trekkers
Lopburi Monkey Town (Thailand) – More info specifically on Lopburi by Live Less Ordinary
Bananas Are Unhealthy For Monkeys, Say Nutritionists – More information about bananas in a monkey’s diet on The Dodo
Now I’d like to hear from you. Have you ever participated in monkey feeding? Were you aware of any of the information above? Do you have any ideas about how the tourism industry can change this practice? Let’s discuss it below.
This post is part of #WeekendWanderlust via Justin Plus Lauren