The next time you drink canned coconut milk, look at the label. If it’s produced in Thailand, the coconuts have most likely been collected by monkeys — specifically, southern pig-tailed macaques.
Learning the ropes: Noi Petchpradab can make about 1,000 baht a day hiring out his monkeys, but the big money comes from selling the animals.
Those recruited for labour in the southern province of Prachuap Khiri Khan, the country’s biggest coconut producer, work eight hours a day, six days a week.
In Bang Saphan district, Noi Petchpradab, who has trained monkeys to collect coconuts for four decades, yells a short “aow!” as a coconut drops to the ground, a signal for the monkey to move on to the next one.
When all the coconuts are picked from a tree, Mr Noi tugs the rope attached to the monkey’s neck, signalling it to climb down.
“I can’t help but wonder: who was the first person to think of training monkeys this way?” asked Mr Noi. “A human being would be exhausted after climbing one or two trees. Monkeys can climb all day long.”
While a day of collecting coconuts can bring in up to 1,000 baht, trainers are increasingly turning their businesses into tourist attractions.
For owners who are willing to take the leap, monkey shows which mimic animal circuses can generate hundreds of thousands of baht per month.
But while locals argue the monkeys have been helping their human friends pick coconuts for hundreds of years and consider it part of Thai culture, wildlife experts question whether the practice and the use of animals for entertainment — many of which do not involve captive breeding — violate the country’s new animal cruelty law.
Mr Noi’s monkeys work from 8am to 5pm, stopping only for a short lunch break and on rainy days and Sundays.
When they are not working, the animals are chained to tree stumps, which Mr Noi said is due to their aggressiveness. They are given three daily meals, consisting of rice mixed with Lactasoy milk.
The monkeys start training at one to two years old. They begin by learning to spin coconuts attached to sticks and plastic ropes using their two legs and a hand, mimicking the process of picking a coconut from a tree.
“People prefer monkeys that use both their hands and legs. Ones that use only their hands won’t be resold at a good price,” Mr Noi said, adding that a well-trained monkey can fetch as much as 70,000 baht.
He said some monkeys can start picking coconuts as early as one month after they start training on the ground. Due to their aggressive nature, the monkeys wear a muzzle during training.
“These creatures don’t bite like dogs. If you get bitten by one, they can rip your veins apart,” Mr Noi said.
Due to their ability to work for long hours, the macaques are capable of collecting 600-1,000 coconuts per day, compared to only 100-200 for humans. On a few occasions, he admitted, the monkeys are so tired from picking coconuts that they faint.
Apart from Prachuap Khiri Khan, other southern provinces such as Surat Thani and Chumphon are also home to several monkey training schools for coconut collection.
On the website of one training centre, monkeys are branded as “efficient industrial agriculture labour” and provide income to both the coconut farmer and monkey owner.
According to the website, the use of pig-tailed macaques is more beneficial and safer than using human labour, as they are “strong, enjoy climbing, are not afraid of heights, do not complain, do not call for higher wages … and are not corrupt. They do not require social security and accident insurance. Monkeys are therefore considered a ‘living machine’ that is very valuable for coconut farmers.”
There were few monkey trainers in Bang Saphan district when Mr Noi started his career 38 years ago, at the age of 23. Now, hundreds of coconut farmers have their own monkeys, although not all provide training.
Mr Noi uses his four macaques to collect coconuts at his 14-rai plantation, but he also uses them to work at other plantations and offers training for those who already own monkeys.
He has about a dozen regular customers, with two or three large plantations which each produce 7,000-8,000 coconuts per harvest. The rest of the plantations generate between 500 and 3,000 per harvest.
Prachuap Khiri Khan province has more than 410,000 rai of coconut plantations, and last year produced 293,022 tonnes of coconuts, according to the Office of Agricultural Economics. That is roughly double the amount of Chumphon, the second-largest producer at 193,237 tonnes.
The two provinces, along with Surat Thani, account for 62% of Thailand’s total coconut plantation area, according to 2012 data.
Coconuts are used as one of the main ingredients in many Thai dishes, and much of the crop produced in Prachuap Khiri Khan is sent to major canned coconut manufacturers.
Money earned from coconut-picking depends on market prices. In the high season, when prices can fetch up to 20 baht per coconut, Mr Noi can earn more than 1,000 baht per day by hiring out his monkeys. But with the current market price at seven baht, returns are lower.
The big profit lies in selling trained monkeys, said Mr Noi, who estimates he has sold 40-50 animals over the years. While he purchases the monkeys from a seller in Chumphon province for 6,000 baht, a well-trained monkey can be resold for tens of thousands of baht.
ENJOY THE SHOW
Sam, a 15-year-old pig-tailed macaque, is one of the main stars at a monkey show in Chiang Mai’s Mae Rim district.
Unlike the coconut-harvesting monkeys, Sam is fatter and non-aggressive, although he is still required to be on a leash at all times.
Mae Rim district houses two venues which advertise themselves as monkey training schools but are in fact shows where circus-like tricks are performed. Visitors pay 200 baht to watch the monkeys ride a bicycle, perform push-ups, shoot basketballs, collect coconuts and untie ropes from spectators' hands, among other things.
“Next the monkey will show you his amazing memory. Say a number and the monkey will pick it up for you,” says the MC in English.
Prasit Cheundang, the owner of the Monkey Training Centre in Mae Rim, said it takes years to train the monkeys to perform in shows, with all tasks being equally difficult.
“Some monkeys can be trained, but they just stop performing once they are in front of a large crowd,” he said.
Mr Prasit, 61, owns 30 monkeys, but only eight perform. The rest are “retired” at an average age of 20.
The native of Chumphon province’s Ta Sae district started his career as a monkey trainer when he was 14 years old. He would train other monkeys at his house, but would also take his own monkeys out to collect coconuts, at a price of 25 satang per coconut.
He later moved to Phuket to continue his training business. Fourteen years ago, he decided to start a show in Chiang Mai to earn greater income, which is now more than 100,000 baht per month.
On a busy day, Mr Prasit conducts more than 10 shows for up to 200 visitors, with each show lasting about half an hour. Visitors come from many countries, including China, France, Dubai, Bahrain and Israel. The constant flow of tourists means Mr Prasit has learned to speak Chinese and Hebrew.
“Due to my lack of education, I like this type of challenge,” he said while waiting for the next group of tourists to arrive. “I studied until the fourth grade and the only knowledge I have is of monkeys.” He admitted some foreigners express anger about the way the monkeys are used, but he denies that it is cruel. “Some of them would have died if they stayed in the jungle,” he said.
That most of the monkeys used to collect coconuts are captured from the wild as opposed to being bred in captivity highlights loopholes in the way the animals are regulated.
Overlooked: Edwin Wiek says monkey welfare is often ignored.
While Mr Noi acknowledged he purchases his pig-tailed macaques from poachers in Chumphon province, he denied that the mothers are killed in order to take away the babies. Instead, a bait is used to lure the monkeys into a cage. The monkeys are then separated by age (those used for training are about one year old) and sex. Females are never used, said Mr Noi, because they cause a commotion among the male monkeys, and also because they menstruate, which can be a burden during transportation.
Pig-tailed macaques are protected animals under the 1992 Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act and cannot be obtained from the wild.
Thiradej Palasuwan, head of the wildlife protection division at the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), said pig-tailed macaques are one of the 61 animal species allowed for breeding.
They can only be purchased from farms registered by the DNP.
Once the breeder issues documents indicating that a monkey is from the farm, the buyer can take the documents to the DNP, which checks the area the monkey will be raised in and issues a permit for the new owner. Since the law was enacted in 1992, the government held two rounds of registration for people to obtain legal permits for their monkeys — one in 1992 and another in 2003 — regardless of the animal's origin.
Authorities then performed checks at the owner’s residence to assess their capability of raising the animals.
But monkey owners often evade the law regarding ownership by using one licence for different monkeys, wildlife experts say.
“So they can have 15 monkeys on paper, but they also have 15 or 20 on other copies of the same paper,” said Edwin Wiek, founder and director of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand. “If the authorities enforce the law exactly to the letter, then eventually the care of these animals will become a burden. For a monkey, no one really cares if it’s correct or not. But if it’s a tiger, bear or elephant, that’s another thing.”
Mr Wiek said pig-tailed macaques have a lifespan of about 35 years, and the babies stay with their mother until two-and-a-half to three years old. They drink their mother’s milk for 18 months.
Based in Phetchaburi province, the foundation has 40 pig-tailed macaques whose owners gave them away after their “retirement age”.
“In terms of animal cruelty," Mr Thiradej said, "even though you don’t have a permit [to own monkeys], you need to make sure that the animals are taken care of and are not abused.”
‘IT’S NOT REALLY CULTURE’
Using animals for labour and entertainment is not illegal under the Cruelty Prevention and Welfare of Animal Act, which came into effect in December.
The law, however, prohibits cruelty against animals, which is defined broadly as an act which causes an animal to suffer physically or mentally. This includes overwork or forcing the animal to perform when it is ill, too old or too young. The maximum penalty for an act of animal cruelty is two years’ jail, a fine not exceeding 40,000 baht, or both.
The Department of Livestock Development is in the process of drafting a separate law, expected to be enacted within the next year, containing specific guidelines concerning the welfare of each type of animal. The list includes regulations on monkeys used to harvest coconuts, such as age guidelines and training restrictions, said Roger Lohanan, who is among the drafters of the legislation.
Chaichan Laohasiripanya, secretary-general of the Thai Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the use of animals for labour is acceptable as long as they are treated humanely.
“It will be a problem, though, if a person is able to prove to the court, for instance, that the animal is working for eight to nine hours a day without stopping,” he said. “Monkeys are living creatures that cannot speak, so they should not be overworked.”
Those using monkeys to collect coconuts argue it is part of a culture that has been around for hundreds of years.
But Mr Weik estimates there are at least 20 “illegal mini-zoos” operating under the guise of training schools in Koh Samui, Phuket, Chiang Mai and Pattaya.
“When you look at the monkey training, many of the schools claim that it’s the culture. But since most of them are using [the monkeys] as a tourist show, it’s not really the culture any more,” he said. “The elephant and monkey tourism businesses have shifted from mostly Western customers to a new market of Russians, Chinese and Indians who have different views on animal welfare or sometimes don’t have a view on it at all.”
Ashley Fruno, a senior campaigner at Peta Asia, condemned both practices as unethical acts that will “drive tourists away in droves”.
“The public is outraged to know that monkeys are taken from their families, kept chained constantly, and put into a life of labour in order to collect coconuts,” Ms Ashley said.
Trainers use the constant threat of physical punishment to force the monkeys to perform in shows consisting of uncomfortable tricks, she said.
“Monkeys do not voluntarily ride bicycles or walk on tightropes. They don’t perform these and other difficult tricks because they want to; they perform them because they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t,” Ms Ashley said.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Mr Noi prepared to use his day off to watch a local boxing match. Sometimes, a tour guide brings along some tourists to visit Mr Noi at his house to observe how he trains the monkeys.
“You can’t do this job unless you love it. It’s like people who raise fighting cocks and fish,” he said. “These monkeys — they are the smartest animals on Earth. I think in the future, they will definitely become [evolve into] human beings.”
Helping handlers: The owners of coconut plantations, like this one in Bang Saphan district of Prachuap Khiri Khan, usually employ monkey handlers to come in and help harvest their crop.
Good harvest: One of Mr Noi’s clients in Bang Saphan prepares her coconuts for sale.
On a tight leash: Macaques are often kept on short chains due to their aggressiveness.
Crowd pleaser: Above and below, monkeys perform at a ‘school’ in Chiang Mai province.
Making a show of it: Prasit Cheundang earns more than 100,000 baht a month from his school.