The Ubud Monkey Forest in Bali was built in the 14th century and is older than Indonesia.
This 10-hectare (25-acre) site is home to three temples, dense forests, and hundreds of monkeys. Its original mission was to protect and pray in accordance with the Hindu principle of “tri hata karana”: between man and man. Harmony between God and nature.
But when mass tourism arose in Bali in the 1970s, the mission of the place changed informally-to profit from tourists who liked to interact with, feed, and take pictures with the long-tailed macaques living there.
Many of the 3,000 tourists who visited every day before COVID-19 found that this experience was by no means harmonious.
Attacks are common, even though these animals appear to be full.
“The monkey scratched her nose and lips, so she began to bleed… Apparently, the number of monkey bites that occur every day is a record high,” blogger NerdNomads.com wrote in an attack in 2017.
“Monkey forest is one of my most painful experiences in Bali,” another visitor on NeverendingFootsteps.com commented, while an Australian woman had to pay $6,000 to inject rabies after being bitten in her neck in 2019 vaccine.
When Indonesia closed its borders to international tourists in April last year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, such reports disappeared. However, there are now more and more reports that monkeys steal food from neighboring homes and shops.
Nyoman Sutarjana, the general manager of Ubud Monkey Forest, said that the staff there are still feeding the macaques, and primate flirting is a symptom of a more complicated mammalian condition: boredom.
“Monkeys like to be surrounded by people,” he said. “They are very annoying when there are no guests, so they go out.”
A similar problem also occurred in Sanji Monkey Forest in the nearby Tabanan Regency.
It is one of 63 gazetted monkey forests, temples, and feeding places in Bali. It is home to 800 macaques, who rush around a 17th-century temple every day, climbing up the huge nutmeg tree , And gobbled up snacks distributed by tourists before the pandemic.
A recent report by the Associated Press stated that attacks have become so frequent that villagers live in fear of “all-out monkey attacks.”
When Al Jazeera visited Sangeh earlier this month, some macaques were eating bananas left by tourists. But they are also more aggressive than before the border was closed, repeatedly jumping on the shoulders of anyone who entered the scene.
“This is not normal behavior. They do it because they are hungry,” said Femke Den Hass, a veterinarian from the Netherlands who has been working to protect Indonesian primates for 20 years through the non-governmental organization Jakarta Animal Aid Network she founded. .
“Some people are donating food, but it’s not enough. That’s why macaques spend more time looking for food outside the forest.”
Haas said the growing primate population is also a problem, and the number of monkeys in the Ubud Monkey Forest became too many to manage long before the pandemic.
“There are so many tourists feeding them that the population has expanded, so the management asked us to come in and disinfect them,” she said. “We are thinking about doing the same thing in Sangeh. But then COVID happened and now no one has the money to pay. Sterilizing a large number of monkeys is not a cheap thing.”
Adapt to human food
Not everyone in Bali thinks monkeys are sacred, especially farmers who deal with macaques that rob crops. In the 2010 “Not So Sacred Monkeys in Bali: Radiological Research”, more than 8% of the monkeys X-rayed in the Sanji Monkey Forest had air gun pellets in their bodies.
“The monkeys in the temple have religious and economic value, so they are protected,” the author of the study pointed out. “However, when monkeys leave the temple and attack the farmers’ fields, they become an economic burden. Therefore, background and religious beliefs determine the value of monkeys and how to treat them.”
Their analysis does not bode well for the current situation.
Bali’s gross domestic product (GDP) shrank by 9.3% last year, more than 110,000 jobs According to the National Bureau of Statistics, it has been lost. However, since seven out of ten jobs in Indonesia are in the informal economy, including thousands of Balinese farmers who used to supply agricultural products to restaurants and hotels, the actual impact of this epidemic on the economy is more than the data show. Is much more serious.
“Tourism is a fickle industry. When things change, what does this mean for the welfare of the animals that tourists like to interact with?” said Erin Riley, an anthropology professor at San Diego State University who has worked extensively in Indonesia.
“Primates quickly adapted to human food,” she added. “If humans keep this situation for a long time, it is their responsibility to continue feeding them. I read that villagers in Bali are feeding them now, but cannot expect this situation to continue. This will soon become something that needs to be corrected. Government issues.”
No plan B
Reports of attacks and aggressions have begun to discuss Bali’s so-called sustainable tourism fulcrum and whether it is time for the island to reconsider free-range monkey tourist attractions, allowing animals to forage in the wild according to nature’s intentions.
Riley said she did not know that the dependence of macaques on human food sources anywhere in the world had been completely reversed. Forest restoration projects can encourage macaques to forage naturally again, and can also grow crops that monkeys are not interested in. Farmers in the Indian state of Assam faced similar problems with elephants. They successfully stopped the elephants by planting chili, pepper and lemon trees on the edge of the land.
“But this limits crop choices. The problem is that monkeys like to eat most of the food we eat. Therefore, the most feasible solution is to change human behavior,” Riley said, using Silver Spring State Park in central Florida as a benchmark. .
In the 1930s, six rhesus monkey families were introduced to the park, which amazed visitors, but over the decades, they have multiplied to 200 tribes. These animals often venture outside the park, sometimes biting and scratching pedestrians on the road they cross. In 2018, after a study concluded that the risk of macaque bites was a “public health issue,” Florida passed a new law that made it illegal for people in the state to feed monkeys.
Hass said that the mutual benefit between humans and primates is deeply ingrained in Bali’s culture, religion, and economy, and it is impossible to expect any form of decoupling on the Indonesian island.
“It would be great if everyone stopped feeding them, but people are too accustomed to making money from them through travel,” she told Al Jazeera. “Even if they do, the government must ensure that the forest is large enough to carry all the food the monkeys need.”
Back in Ubud, General Manager Sutarjana admitted that there is no plan B-only hope that Indonesia can reopen as soon as possible.
“Without tourism, monkeys will suffer,” he said. “Because even if we get a monthly budget from the local government, the money will eventually run out.”