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Marauding monkeys on an Indonesian island point to environmental pressures

  • Beachgoers and residents on the Indonesian island of Batam have complained about packs of monkeys terrorizing them in search of food.
  • Conservationists say the problem is that the long-tailed macaques are being squeezed out of their natural habitat by deforestation, and have become accustomed to being given food by humans.
  • Visitors to Batam’s Mirota Beach often flout the “no feeding” signs, which encourages the monkeys; food waste in trash cans outside homes also draws the animals into residential areas.
  • Human-primate conflicts area common in other parts of Indonesia, including in Bali’s Monkey Forest, at the foot of Java’s Mount Semeru after a recent eruption, and in Sumatra and Borneo, where orangutans are losing their forest homes.

BATAM, Indonesia — The huts situated along Mirota Beach were filled with visitors enjoying the soft white sands, clear waters, and tranquil vibes on an October day. But that tranquility was shattered by the arrival of some increasingly common visitors to the beach: a pack of long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) in search of food. The monkeys emerged, one by one, from a cluster of trees located on a shady hill just a short distance from the huts.

Some of the visitors hurried away as the macaques approached. “I was so afraid, I just left all my stuff behind to be taken,” a visitor named Dilla said with resignation as she carried her baby away from the marauding monkeys.

Some visitors stayed to protect their belongings. But others stayed because they wanted to feed the monkeys, either for amusement or a misguided sense of charity.

The latter is one of the major reasons why the macaques keep coming back to the beach: there always seem to be some visitors willing to feed them. This not only causes them to expect handouts but also makes them less afraid of humans. Some of the macaques even climb on top of the huts so that they can look down into the visitors’ bags in the hopes of finding more food.

Mirota Beach is located on the island of Batam, part of Indonesia’s Riau Islands province, located a short boat ride away from Singapore. Home to large industrial estates, Batam isn’t known as a beach destination, but it has several nice ones, including Mirota, a two-hour drive from Batam City and frequented mainly by locals.

But the macaques are becoming a serious disturbance at the beach. Despite signs saying that feeding the monkeys is prohibited, many visitors do it anyway.

A beach official named Patra told Mongabay that visitors don’t need to panic and run away from the macaques as the monkeys don’t disturb humans unless provoked. “The important thing is not to feed them, that’s all,” he said, adding that feeding even a single monkey causes its entire pack to return. While they won’t attack humans, Patra said he’s often had to chase the monkeys away after they managed to snatch bags of garbage piled up in the trash cans near the huts.

Visitors at Mirota Beach, Batam. Image by Yogi Eka Sahputra/Mongabay Indonesia.

Residential raiders

The long-tailed macaques aren’t only troubling the tourists at Mirota Beach. Increasingly they’re venturing into Batam’s residential areas, causing concern among locals.

Decky, the head of the conservation unit at the provincial conservation agency, known by its Indonesian acronym BKSDA, said he often gets reports about the macaques showing up in and around people’s homes. Decky said the agency responds to such reports by catching and relocating the monkeys to more remote forests or islands.

“We also educate the public about not throwing away food waste carelessly, especially from housing located close to the forest or other habitats of the long-tailed macaques,” Decky said.

Given how difficult it can be to catch and relocate them, Decky said the BKSDA can only move a few macaques at a time, making this an inadequate long-term response to the growing monkey problem.

The reason macaques are increasingly coming into conflict with humans is that the forest cover in Batam keeps shrinking, making it more difficult for them to find food, Decky said.

“We haven’t really looked into it deeply but if we study the cause further it is probably similar to cases of human-animal conflict that happen in other places when the animals’ habitats shrink and their food sources become increasingly limited,” Decky said. “If they get more used to humans and their environments, they will also become more daring.”

Iwan Kurniawan, a researcher with the Aspinall Foundation, an animal conservation charity, said long-tailed macaques can be found all across Indonesia. Over the next five years, Iwan said, their population will likely shrink due to environmental pressures.

“That includes Batam, where the [environmental] pressure is heavy, leading to monkeys going down to the beach,” he said. “It’s similar to Java, where only 10% of our protected forests still remain.”

Iwan said that Indonesians sometimes see the macaques as pests because of how quickly they reproduce. He said that’s a consequence of their main predators, such as tigers and eagles, becoming endangered. Their high reproduction rate, coupled with their shrinking habitat, makes conflict with humans all but inevitable.

The reason macaques are increasingly coming into conflict with humans is that the forest cover in Batam keeps shrinking, making it more difficult for them to find food. Image by Yogi Eka Sahputra/Mongabay Indonesia.

Read the signs

There isn’t yet a humane and long-term solution for dealing with the macaques, Iwan said, which makes it very important to educate the public about not giving food to monkeys as that only exacerbates the problem.

Iwan said some Batam residents call the police instead of the conservation agency about monkeys near their homes. Sometimes this leads to the police shooting the animals rather than capturing and releasing them somewhere else.

“Even though these animals are not considered protected, the BKSDA offers better solutions so they don’t have to be shot and killed,” he said.

Iwan said it would be better to relocate the macaques to an uninhabited island, such as the Nusa Barung Island Wildlife Sanctuary in East Java. “Let them just enjoy their lives there, where their ability to reproduce is naturally restricted. The important thing is that we don’t just kill them. After all, they are also creations of the Almighty. We can’t just destroy them, we have to live in balance.” He suggested spaying the monkeys before releasing them as another way to keep their numbers in check.

Iwan noted that long-tailed macaques are susceptible to carrying diseases such as rabies. “Many people forget about this, but interacting with these monkeys can be very dangerous for humans,” he said.

The Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN) is a nonprofit that has long championed animal rights in Indonesia. Rifqi Ajir, a JAAN activist, echoed Iwan’s sentiment that the monkeys pose a serious danger to humans since they can transmit rabies and tuberculosis.

Rifqi said JAAN’s experience with similar cases had taught them that the monkeys will keep coming back as long as people at sites like Mirota Beach provide them with food. “The managers of these tourism sites must put up more signs, bigger signs, saying it’s forbidden to feed them.”

Long-tailed monkeys sift through trash bags for food. Image by Yogi Eka Sahputra/Mongabay Indonesia.

As for the macaques entering residential areas, Rifqi said they usually target the food waste found in trash cans. “One way to deal with this is to make the trash bins around housing estates difficult for the monkeys to open.”

Cutting off their food supply is the only way to reliably prevent the macaques from returning, Rifqi said. Even attempts to scare them off by firing a gun into the air become ineffective after a short time.

And shooting at the monkeys isn’t just inhumane, but also dangerous, Rizqi warned. “If one is hurt, for example, while being chased away by somebody shooting at them, the whole herd may retaliate. These long-tailed monkeys have a sense of vengeance and there have been many cases of them attacking people.”

Apart from that, Rifqi said, the BKSDA can relocate monkeys to other islands, but only those already surveyed as being a suitable spot for more hungry macaques. “If there are already other groups, but more are relocated, there will be clashes between them.”

Batam is far from the only place in Indonesia where man and monkey are increasingly coming into conflict. The eruption of Mount Semeru in East Java in December led to reports of macaques descending from the forests and approaching humans in search of food, as they had previously been fed frequently by tourists hiking up the mountain. The macaques of Bali’s famous Monkey Forest have also reportedly taken to raiding homes in search of food after tourists stopped visiting the holiday island during the pandemic.

And Indonesia’s orangutans have become increasingly threatened as their habitats have been lost due to mass deforestation. To protect the country’s primates, activists say the Indonesian government must make a serious commitment to protecting their habitats and reversing deforestation. Government officials have made lofty pledges in the past to tackle deforestation, but experts are skeptical about how sincere they are about living up to them.

Banner image: Long-tailed monkeys descended to Mirota Beach in search of food from the visitors. Image by Yogi Eka Sahputra/Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on Dec. 4, 2021.