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Constructed in the 14th century, the Ubud Monkey Forest in Bali is older than Indonesia.
The original mission of the 10-hectare (25-acre) site, which is home to three temples, lush forests and hundreds of monkeys, was conservation and prayer in accordance with the Hindu principle of ‘tri hata karana’: harmony between humans, god and the natural world.
But when mass tourism took off in Bali in the 1970s, the venue’s mission unofficially changed – to profit from tourists who like interacting, feeding and taking photos of the long-tailed macaques that live there.
Many of the 3,000 tourists who visited daily before COVID-19 found the experience anything but harmonic.
Attacks were common, even though the animals appeared well-fed.
“The monkey scratched her nose and lip, so she started bleeding … apparently, there are a record number of monkey bites occurring daily,” wrote NerdNomads.com, a blogger, of an attack in 2017.
“Monkey Forest was one of the more traumatising experiences from my time in Bali,” commented another visitor on NeverendingFootsteps.com, while an Australian woman had to pay $6,000 for rabies shots after being bitten in the neck in 2019.
Such reports disappeared when Indonesia closed its border to international tourists in April of last year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, now there are increasing reports of monkeys stealing food from neighbouring homes and stores.
Nyoman Sutarjana, general manager at the Ubud Monkey Forest, says staff are still feeding the macaques there and the primates’ dalliances are symptoms of a more complex mammalian condition: boredom.
“The monkeys like being surrounded by people,” he said. “It annoys them when no guests are coming, so they go outside.”
Similar problems have emerged at the Sangeh Monkey Forest in nearby Tabanan Regency.
One of 63 gazetted monkey forests, temples and feeding sites in Bali, it is home to 800 macaques who spend their days scurrying around a 17th-century temple, climbing giant nutmeg trees and, until the pandemic, gorging themselves on snacks handed out by tourists.
A recent report from the Associated Press claimed that the raids had become so frequent that villagers were living in fear of an “and all-out monkey assault”.
When Al Jazeera visited Sangeh earlier this month, some macaques were gorging themselves on bananas left by visitors. But they are also more aggressive than before the borders closed, repeatedly jumping onto the shoulders of anyone entering the site.
“It’s not normal behaviour. They’re doing that because they’re hungry,” said Femke Den Hass, a veterinarian from the Netherlands who’s been working to protect primates in Indonesia for 20 years through the Jakarta Animal Aid Network, an NGO she founded.
“Some people are donating food but it’s not enough, which is why the macaques are spending more time outside the forest looking for food.”
Hass says growing primate populations are also a problem and that the number of monkeys in the Ubud Monkey Forest had become too large to manage long before the pandemic.
“There were so many tourists feeding them that the population swelled, so management asked us to come in and help them sterilise,” she said. “We were looking at doing the same thing at Sangeh. But then COVID happened and now nobody has any money to pay for it. Sterilising a large number of monkeys is not a cheap thing to do.”
Conditioned to human foods
Not everyone in Bali considers monkeys sacred, particularly farmers dealing with crop-raiding macaques. In ‘The Not-So-Sacred Monkeys of Bali – A Radiographic Study’, published in 2010, more than eight percent of the monkeys x-rayed at Sangeh Monkey Forest had air rifle pellets lodged in their flesh.
“Monkeys on temple grounds have both a religious and an economic value and are thus protected,” the study’s authors noted. “However, when monkeys leave the temple and raid a farmer’s field they become an economic liability. Context and religious belief, therefore, define the value of the monkeys, and hence how they are treated.”
Their analysis does not bode well for the current situation.
Bali’s gross domestic product (GDP) shrank 9.3 per cent last year and more than 110,000 jobs have been lost, according to the National Statistics Agency. But with seven out of ten Indonesian jobs based in the informal economy, including thousands of Balinese farmers who used to make a living supplying produce to restaurants and hotels, the real economic fallout from the pandemic is much worse than the data suggests.
“Tourism is a fickle industry and when things change, what does that mean for the welfare of the animals tourists like to interact with?” said Erin Riley, a professor of anthropology at San Diego State University who has worked extensively in Indonesia.
“Primates become quickly conditioned to human foods,” she added. “If humans have perpetuated the situation, then it’s their responsibility to continue feeding them. I read that in Bali the villagers are feeding them now but one can’t expect that to continue forever. It will soon become a government issue that needs to be redressed.”
No Plan B
Reports of the raids and aggression have begun a discussion on Bali’s purported pivot towards sustainable tourism and whether it might be time for the island to rethink free-range monkey tourist attractions and let the animals forage in the wild as nature intended.
Riley says she does not know of a case anywhere in the world where macaque dependency on human food sources has been completely reversed. Forest restoration projects can encourage macaques to forage naturally again, as can planting crops that are of no interest to monkeys. Farmers in the Indian state of Assam facing a similar problem with elephants have had some success deterring the animals by planting chillies, pepper and lemon trees on the edge of their land.
“But this limits crop choice and the problem is that monkeys like to eat most of the foods we eat. So the most viable solution is to change human behaviour,” Riley said, identifying Central Florida’s Silver Springs State Park as the benchmark.
The park introduced a family of six rhesus macaques to wow visitors in the 1930s, but over the decades, they multiplied into a tribe of 200. The animals regularly ventured outside the park and sometimes bit and scratched pedestrians whose paths they crossed. In 2018, after a study concluded the risk from macaque bites was a “public health concern”, Florida passed a new law making it illegal for people in the state to feed the monkeys.
But human-primate mutualism is too deeply ingrained in Balinese culture, religion and economy to expect any kind of decoupling on the Indonesian island, Hass says.
“It would be great if everyone would just stop feeding them, but people are too accustomed to making money from them through tourism,” she told Al Jazeera. “And even if they did, the government would have to make sure the forests are big enough to carry all the food the monkeys need.”
Back in Ubud, general manager Sutarjana acknowledges there is no Plan B – only hope that Indonesia will reopen soon.
“Without tourism, the monkeys will suffer,” he said. “Because even though we are getting a monthly budget from the local government, the money will eventually be depleted.”