Published in Washington, D.C.      January 12, 1998

Thailand's coconut-picking monkeys enjoy job security despite economy

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand

      In the heart of Asia's financial meltdown, a lot of monkey business is earning steady profits for hundreds of hairy primates, delighted owners, no-nonsense trainers and the nation's coconut industry.

      Despite collapsing currencies and mass unemployment in Thailand and elsewhere, the beasts still have jobs on sprawling plantations as one of the world's most unusual farm workers.

      Thais have taught pigtailed macaque monkeys to climb tall coconut trees and pick only the ripest of coconuts.

      The monkeys work for lower wages, and pluck more coconuts, than any human.

      "Several hundred monkeys are working, picking coconuts," said Wildlife Fund of Thailand (WFT) Secretary-General Pisit Na Pattalung.

      "They are trained. There are schools for monkeys where they are sent for three to six months," Mr. Pisit said in an interview.

      "I am for it. The monkey is not suffering. The mother is trapped and the baby monkey is taken away, but the mothers mate again. It doesn't kill the species, so it is OK."

      A monkey's owner earns the equivalent of two cents for every coconut that the animal twists off the top branches of a tall palm tree and tosses to the ground.

      "A monkey can pick 800 to 1,000 coconuts in a day, depending on its skill," said Mr. Pisit's WFT assistant, Honorong Yavalut. "The cost of maintaining a monkey is only about [60 cents] a day," which the owner pays to feed and cage the animal.

      He said the monkeys can be worth 200 dollars to 600 dollars after training. "They are used throughout Thailand, but mostly in the south, and just to pick coconuts, no other food."

      Asked whether the animals are ever abused by brutal trainers or owners, Mr. Pisit said a trainer "will never, ever, lay hands on his monkeys."

      A traumatized beast will not perform, he said, adding that angry monkeys are quick to bite.

      Mr. Pisit insisted that a kindly approach to teaching and caring for the creatures was the key to success.

      Monkey schools, which charge about 100 dollars, teach the animals to choose only fully ripe coconuts, and shun unripe green ones. Usually, they are at least two years old when training begins and males are favored because they are more obedient.

      A monkey can live 20 to 25 years and work half its lifetime.

      During the past few decades, loggers have harvested much of Thailand's forests, reducing the monkey's natural habitat. Ironically, the pigtailed monkeys might have become endangered if they were not prized for picking coconuts.

Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich

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