When Monkeys Move to Town

Loitering on sidewalks and begging at shops, macaques are familiar, but not always welcome, sights in cities across Asia

Radiating outward from the temples where they were sacred — or at least protected — monkeys have dispersed to become street urchins in Asian cities from India to Indonesia. City dwellers sometimes enjoy their antics, but having the animals around is not all fun. They raid agricultural fields. They beg for food, and they'll steal it if given half a chance. They hassle passersby. In one city in India, no less than 95 percent of those interviewed said they had been harassed by monkeys; some had been bitten. A young child fell to his death when attacked on a roof by a group of monkeys.

Monkeys have been tolerated and even welcomed in temples for hundreds of years. In many cases, however, entire cities grew up around the temples, and the monkeys could no longer retreat to the forest even if they wanted to. Already accustomed to being fed by people, they moved out into the cities. To a biologist, they are commensals, literally "those who share the table." Technically, the term means an organism that derives a benefit from its host (in this case, food) without having any effect on that host's survival.

The rascally behavior of today's urban monkeys is a far cry from the legendary exploits of Hanuman, the monkey god in Hindu culture. When Rama, the Indian prince, could not get to the island of Lankah (now Sri Lanka) when his wife was abducted there, Hanuman summoned his troop of monkeys to form a bridge from India to Lankah. Then his monkeys battled the forces of evil, and won. Rama and his wife, Sita, were reunited. Because of Hanuman, monkeys have been special for Hindus.

Most of these images are from Lop Buri, a town of 40,000 residents about 90 miles from Bangkok, Thailand. (The country is largely Buddhist, which means animals are tolerated to a greater degree than in Western cultures.) All the monkeys are macaques. The species of macaque to be expected in the Lop Buri area is the long-tailed, or cynomolgus, monkey. Some of those pictured here appear to be hybrids, however. Charles H. Southwick of the University of Colorado, who has studied macaques for 40 years, says it is common for people to acquire young rhesus monkeys as pets and then let them go when they grow too large. This could explain the hybridization around Lop Buri.

In a few cities monkey populations grow exponentially, even when some of the animals are trapped and relocated. In others, especially in Nepal, populations are stable, apparently kept in check by disease and limited food. The level of aggression varies widely, too. At Sangeh in Bali, monkeys will jump on people, steal handbags, even take their victim's glasses. (Having an adult macaque jump on you is no small matter. A full-grown male can weigh 40 pounds.) At other sites in Bali, however, the monkeys are well behaved (from the human point of view).

There are times when money looms larger than Hindu or Buddhist respect for animals. The rhesus monkey, a species of macaque, was once a mainstay of biomedical research. In the 1950s India alone was exporting 100,000 of the creatures a year to researchers in Europe and the United States. For various reasons, export was banned in 1978. Now the cynomolgus macaque is the leading choice for such research.

Their forest habitat may be dwindling, but the rhesus, the long-tailed and many other macaques are doing fine, living on urban detritus.

No matter what their faults may be, they are infinitely more interesting than pigeons.

By John P. Wiley, Jr.

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