monkey festival (aka giant fruity monkey) in monkey city

So two weekends ago (when i first started writing this said “this weekend” #procrastination) I took advantage of the poor tidal conditions at my field site to gorge on street food in Bangkok and hit up Lopburi for the annual monkey party. I travelled with Amy, who also studies macaques, and one of her friends, Milan, joined us for festival day.

Arriving in Lopburi, we checked into the Sri Indra hotel, deliberately chosen for being right in the heart of the Old Town where most of the monkeys live. The hotel, and many other buildings, is enclosed in a cage, which keeps the monkeys at just the right distance from your window, close enough to watch and play a game of “slap finger” with.

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After dumping our bags and ogling our cute neighbours we headed out to explore the town. From the moment you step out on the streets, it’s apparent that this is indeed monkey city, monkeys everywhere, and not a tree in sight.

The streets are littered with corn and the skins of various fruits that are provisioned to the monkeys 3 times daily, and you will meet a new monkey with every step you take. There are monkeys on the sidewalk, monkeys in the middle of the road, monkeys on power cables, monkeys on cars, monkeys on buildings.

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I could find surprisingly little information about the monkeys of Lopburi, but I gather that there are about 3000 monkeys in the city, and can only speculate on how they got here. What I think is most likely, is that they were brought to inhabit the many temples in the city, and continue to live here long after the temples fell to ruins. Either that, or they were driven out of forests as the city was built, I don’t know.

The largest group of monkeys, 200+ of them, live around the Wat Phra Phang Sam Yot, the formidable ruins of one of the many Khmer temples of Lopburi, and the first thing you’ll see when you come into the Old Town. We decided to check it out before the madness of festival day, and here it is in the picture below.

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From a distance it looks pretty barren, but it is actually covered with monkeys. Big monkeys, little monkeys, hungry monkeys, tired monkeys, and you can clearly see the effects that living so closely with people have had on them. Many are severely obese, their folds of fat flubbering all around their bodies when they can be bothered to walk, many with tumours of various sizes, and in various stages of hair loss. Trust me Singapore, you have extremely healthy and beautiful monkeys.

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As expected, the monkeys are all ready to jump on you if you get too close, but also for some unexpected reasons. They are often not after food, but after your hair, which they want to use as dental floss. This gets pretty painful because they’re not dainty about plucking a few strands. Tooth flossing is a tradition in the Wat Phra Phang Sam Yot group, unique to the group, not even practised by the other monkey groups around Lopburi. Macaques never cease to amaze.

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We left the temple to explore more of the city, which is largely several more Khmer temple ruins, some with resident groups of monkeys. As evening fell, street food stalls began popping up magically on the sides of the streets in true Thailand fashion. I was surprised at first that there could be so many street food stalls in a town overrun by monkeys. The monkeys didn’t raid food stalls because stall owners consistently chased them away, and after awhile the monkeys just don’t bother (see, it can work). It’s also not the case of the monkeys already being provisioned enough because they are still not above snatching food from you once you’ve bought food from the stalls, so the standard rules apply, hold your food to your chest and all will be fine.

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In the absence of trees, the monkeys settled down on power lines and lamp posts to sleep for the night. It was pretty cute, also kinda sad.

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FESTIVAL DAY! we woke bright and early to check out the preparations for the big day. The festival was first started in 1989, by the owner of the Lopburi Inn Hotel, Khun Yongyuth Kitwatananusont, as a (huge) gesture of thanks to the monkeys for bringing in tourists dollars.

It was actually really touching to see the locals all pitching in and putting in so much effort to give these monkeys the best day of the year, it’s like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and every monkey’s birthday rolled into one. There were simple pleasures like bunches of leaves and tree branches brought in and set up around the temple grounds, and I suspect that for the yearlings, this might be their first contact with so much natural substrate. There were also really elaborate decorations being set up – holes were drilled in huge blocks of ice and filled with juice, Christmas trees were put up and decorated with fruit, candy, and jelly cups, platters of fruit, drinks, and cake were laid out on tables, existing statues were decorated with more fruit, and this year there was a even a jacuzzi filled with fruits, in place of the traditional fruit pyramid. All this time, hipster (you’ll see in a minute) monkey guards keep monkeys from prematurely ravishing the festivities. Some monkeys manage to get a lick in but considering that there are a bazillion monkeys and only a couple of guards, they do a pretty effective job.

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Told you they were hipster.

After everything was set up, the festivities began with someone dressed as Hanuman dancing around the temple grounds, trailed by a procession of happy-old-men drummers and fruit-laden golf carts. After all that, the monkeys are finally invited down to indulge in their party. The man who started the festival was there too, and I spotted him yelling “maa maa maa!” at the monkeys which means “come come come!”, while barring people from getting too close to the monkeys’ treats. It wasn’t as crazy as expected, the monkeys ate fairly politely, and the older ones especially seemed pretty over it, continuing their general lazing about.

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Still, the monkeys get the job done, and by evening there wasn’t too much left.

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All in all, Lopburi was a very eye-opening experience. It wasn’t my favourite way to see monkeys, so far removed from any forest edges, showing too many ill-effects of living too closely with people. At the same time though, I think it’s admirable that they’ve managed to thrive in a dusty concrete city, and even managed to develop and maintain their own special traditions, adaptable and tenacious as always. Even more, I love the willingness of the people to co-exist with them. The people know the mischief that monkeys can get up to, but they make efforts to get along, focusing on their own behaviour rather than fears that monkeys may do this or that. Food stall owners always tell us how to carry our food, home and hotel owners install grilles and nets over their windows, shop keepers diligently shoo monkeys from places where they are unwanted. In our time there, I only saw one little monkey side a shop, and all he did was sit peacefully on the countertop. Lopburi seems like a place where co-existence is most likely to fail, the monkeys know almost nothing but people and people food, yet they are an accepted part of life, and even honoured with the best treat you can give a monkey, for one day every year.

Aside

I started this post 3 days ago, but the internet connection was hopelessly slowww. Bought a broadband subscription now so it actually loads pages that are not just in html 😀 So anyway…

Sawadeekaa (: Writing from my beach house (yup.) somewhere in Prachuab Khiri Khan, Thailand. I say “somewhere” because the house has no real address, there’s an address for administrative purposes but from what I gather it’s just an address to the general area. We were buying some furniture and appliances from Home Pro a couple of days ago, and had to draw a map for the home delivery guy. Must be standard practice because they had a form with a dedicated space for map drawing!  #experiencinglocalculture

I’m going to be here for the next year or so, on my quest for Permanent Head Damage, fully immersed in finding out how baby monkeys become masters at cracking shelled seafoods with nothing but humble stones and their god-given intelligence and dexterity, thus keeping family traditions alive, and restoring honour to the name of long-tailed macaques, who have for too long languished in the shadows of charismatic chimpanzees and capuchins and been maligned by people who destroy their habitats then fault them for being the brilliant and adaptable beings that they are. By now it should be apparent that I have just downed a cup of coffee, and am not a regular coffee drinker.

This is Kaimook, which means pearl, showing you one of the ways in which macaques use tools. This is what we’ve called “axe hammering”, where the macaque chips open oysters that grow on rocks, usually with the point of a smaller tool. Think of it like a person using a chisel or a pickaxe. This form of stone-tool use requires much more precision and control of the tool than, *ahem* what capuchins and chimpanzees do – placing a nut on an anvil and using a big stone to smash it. Macaques do that too with shellfish that aren’t attached to rocks, but this widespread use of axing is so far unique to macaques. This is actually really amazing, and these macaques will provide valuable information for scientists trying to understand how early human tool technology evolved from crude pounding tools to precisely flaked stone axes and spearheads. AREN’T THEY JUST GREAT 😀

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Since i’ve been here my days have started anywhere between 5 – 630am (explaining the new coffee-drinking habit) to catch a boat out to the island where the magical monkeys live. The island is officially called Ko Ram Island, and a Ko Ram is Thai for “serow”, a now endangered ungulate that was present on the island until the locals ate them all (is what the park head says). In tourist brochures the island is often touted as “monkey island”, and there are boat services that take tourists out to the island to feed monkeys (more on this in a future post). Here is a view of the island from the mainland, it’s the big one with the sun rising gloriously from behind it.

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There are about 60 monkeys on our side of the island, and I am in the process of recognising each one. My advisor has given them all Thai names, and so  I get to learn a few more Thai words at the same time. The adults are pretty easy, as they’ve all grown into their different face and body shapes, and sport facial hair of varying shaggyness, but the juveniles are as usual, the most difficult because they’re small and run circles around you. After 6 days of observation I’m at about 40%, pretty confident that i’ll get there soon! I’ve also been trying out my sampling protocols, and collecting preliminary data to see what needs to be tweaked and refined.

Gotta go code the video data that i’ve collected today, and hopefully will find the time and inspiration to journal the challenges and rewards of field research (: ta.

 

 

 

‘Uniquely Singapore’ facts about our monkeys this National Day

Long-tailed macaques may have been touted as the common monkey of South-East Asia, but the the ones we have in Singapore special for several reasons.

First of all,  Singapore is right smack in the middle of the specie’s natural distribution.

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(source: IUCN)

What this means is that Singapore’s macaques may hold the key for nerdy scientists to understand the evolution and dispersion of the species, and genetics research is ongoing.

That might mean very little to most of us, but what might interest us Singaporeans more is that long-tailed macaques were given their scientific name Macaca fascicularis by none other than Sir Stamford Raffles, in 1821, not long after he founded Singapore.

You’d think  fascicularis means “a long tail”, given that they are known for their long tails that are longer than the tails of other macaque species, but the term is actually Latin for “a small band or stripe”. I wonder what Raffles was thinking? Perhaps the first long-tailed macaques he saw had the little black whorls on their cheeks that some of them sport (most Singaporean macaques don’t have these though, it’s more commonly seen in the Burmese subspecies).

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Some biologists argue that the macaques we have in Singapore can even be classified as a unique subspecies based on various morphological differences. For example, our macaques are smallest of all the long-tailed macaques, but have the highest testes to body size ratio. People say our monkeys are getting bolder? I’d say they’re just a little ballsy (heh).

(bad) Jokes aside, our monkeys are unique when compared to other urban macaque populations.

Our monkeys  interact with people more peacefully than urban macaques elsewhere, although exaggerated and sensationalist media reports may make this hard to believe. Rates of aggression and contact are much lower than in places such as Bali, Gibraltar and Mt Emei, and are almost always instigated by people feeding or taunting monkeys . This is something to be appreciated, and we can keep it that way by continuing to behave calmly and appropriately around them.

Ongoing studies are also discovering that our macaques are extremely healthy for a population that interfaces so closely with humans. Parasite loads in their guts are unusually low for urban macaques, and we don’t see signs of obesity that is common in macaques that live so closely with people. Population densities remain well within natural ranges, unlike places like Hong Kong and Bali with highly inflated macaque densities.

So while we celebrate this National Day, let’s not forget these special simians that also call Singapore home.

20% of monkey population exterminated in half a year, is this the way to go?

The figures are out, AVA has killed 357 macaques in the first half of 2013, almost 20% of our local macaque population in just half a year.

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Click here for the full article.

According to the AVA, the increase in culling was done in response to increased reporting of monkey nuisances. The unprecedented number of monkeys culled however, appears to go beyond conflict management or even population control. With no checks that trappers are only removing nuisance animals, and with no regulations on the number of animals removed, it seems that the strategy AVA is going for is extermination. Extermination of a native primate species, and an important member of Singapore’s biodiversity.

Defendants of culling have been quick to point out that public safety is of utmost concern, and I fully agree. What I am saying though, is that public servants’ goals of ensuring public safety and the appeal for sustainable management strategies by researchers and animal welfare groups are not at odds, but are in fact one and the same.

Does killing monkeys indiscriminately really serve to protect public safety? Does killing address the root causes of human-wildlife conflict? Will killing bring about long-term and sustained benefits to residents? What else can be done, and why are these solutions better? Continue reading

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Sharing a birthday with the Royal Baby

The Royal Baby wasn’t the only one born on the 22nd of July 2013. Laney, a young female from the Hindhede group of macaques gave birth to her first born!

She seemed unsure of what to do with the umbilical cord (still attached!), which isn’t surprising since this is her first child.

I haven’t seen enough births to know how more experienced mums deal with post-birth stuff. Macaques usually have their babies before sunrise, so it’s almost impossible to witness.

First time mums often abandon their babies or fail to take care of them appropriately (think of human teen pregnancies), resulting in a high mortality rate for these first-borns.

Here’s wishing this little one the best of luck. I will name it as soon as I figure out if its a boy or girl. It’s name will start with L, same as its mummy.

a personal touch and the Kampong spirit

Over the weekend Louis Ng,  Dr Uma (both from ACRES) and I attended to macaque related calls from residents of Punggol 17th Avenue.

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I was apprehensive about trying to reason with these residents, i’ve had my fair share of unreasonable Bukit Timah residents, and these Punggol residents aren’t even those who chose to live near a nature reserve. I prepared myself for the worst, but it turned out more pleasant than expected…
Continue reading

conversation with a resident went something like this…

Resident: look that one got baby! quite cute ah. [takes pictures]

Me: Yea! Actually she just gave birth this morning, you can still see the umbilical cord. That’s actually her first baby too..

Resident: Wah how you know!

Me: Oh we’ve been studying this group for a few years now so we know each individual and have names for all of them..

Resident: You do this like a volunteer?

Me: Something like that.. actually i’m doing my PhD on macaques

Resident: [cuts in] Huh what macaques?

Me: These are macaques!

Resident: You mean the monkey’s name?

Me: The species of monkey.. these are long-tailed macaques..

We definitely need to step up education and awareness raising efforts!