In Western countries, when we talk about monkeys it’s often with the image of a cute monkey with a banana (usually a chimpanzee not a monkey!). “Cheeky” monkeys that look very similar to humans are naughty but lovable. Meanwhile, for anyone who lives or has visited Asia, the mention of ‘monkeys’ usually means one thing: macaques.
There are many species of macaque across Asia, and because they are so intelligent and adaptable, they are found wherever there are humans. They have adapted to live in our midst, root through our garbage, and snatch food right out of our hands. They are considered pests.
In Hong Kong, where space is already at a premium, macaques are in close proximity to humans, although happily they generally do not cause too much of a menace. Mainly rhesus and long-tailed macaques, they are not native to HK. The population has been rising steadily over the last 30 years, so in a commendable (and rare) positive effort, the HK government forestry department, the AFCD, actually tried planting 200,000 fruit bearing trees so that hungry monkeys wouldn't venture into human-occupied areas for food. This plan didn't work (many of these trees were planted in areas where there were no monkeys, and many didn't bear fruit for long) and so the AFCD began catching and desexing the monkeys in 2008. Since then there has been a decline in numbers.
This is the same AFCD that refuses to take the same approach for stray dogs in the territory, which are culled. Ironically, it's suspected the monkeys were originally released in HK as a way to get rid of the strychnos plant, which the monkeys love to eat but which is poisonous to humans. This plant is used to make strychnine, which is often used to kill stray (and even pet) nuisance dogs by angry (and criminal) HK villagers.
While it would be wonderful if HK's approach to all wildlife was as progressive, their approach to macaques is humane, successful and should be commended. In Singapore, a country with more than a few similarities to HK, the government undertook a macaque cull in 2013, with hundreds of monkeys killed despite strong campaigning from local NGO ACRES.
Over in Thailand, animals are commonly used as props for tourists to take photos with. They are often exotic such as colourful birds, mammals like the slow loris, or monkeys. Easily caught and domesticated, and exotic enough to attract tourists, no-one should ever support this or take photos with the animals (indeed, this trade is illegal in Thailand). They are also often found at temples and other tourist spots, where it usually crosses the line from fun to nuisance when food or other items are stolen by the monkeys.
But not all captive monkeys in Thailand are in trouble. Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand makes sure that all of their rescued animals are cared for equally at their rescue centre near Bangkok. This common species is often perhaps overlooked or undervalued, but not so with the WFFT, where they are given the same care and attention of any species. Macaques aren't scared of the water, so they can't have amazing tree-covered islands to themselves like the rescued gibbons do. Instead they are provided with amazing forest enclosures with endless enrichment, climbing towers and pools.
In Cambodia, Wildlife Alliance rescue victims of the illegal wildlife trade. Happily, monkeys are so intelligent and adaptable that they are one of the easier species to re-introduce back to the wild. If release would be unsafe for them, the next generation can be raised to easily survive in the wild. Meanwhile they receive the utmost care and attention, as you can see they are quite satisfied with the care they receive from vet Chenda!
While it is illegal to trade in wild animals there is a legal and more worrying problem which affects us all around the world.
How does this attitude to monkeys in Asia affect us closer to home?
There are 6 legal macaque farms In Cambodia, and reports from many NGOs such as the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) say there are many more. Even these 6 alone have the capacity to breed tens of thousands of monkeys, which are shipped to your doorstep.
These monkeys are sent for testing in the UK, the US and China, as well as all over Europe for cosmetics and other products. You can learn more about this from the BUAV and this short video they have made of their findings.
The idea that thousands of monkeys are shipped to Western countries for this purpose is sobering, and is a stark reminder once again to avoid such companies and their products wherever possible. None of us live in a vacuum, and this is why NGOs all over the world strive so hard to change attitudes and focus on the foggy idea of "awareness". All our actions and attitudes have an effect wherever we are.
You can follow the links below to easily search for companies that are cruelty-free, we can all do our best to vote with our wallets.
They may be too common to care about, they may be considered pests, they may be aggressive to tourists who wander their habitat holding food. But we must appreciate them.
After all, they are still wildlife.