Wildlife in Asia: Cultural Perspectives

By John Knight | Go to book overview

6

COCONUT-PICKING MACAQUES IN SOUTHERN THAILAND

Economic, cultural and ecological aspects

Leslie E. Sponsel, Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel and Nukul Ruttanadakul


Introduction

In a fascinating novel, That You Shall Know Them (Vercors 1953), a journalist discovers human-like primates being forced to work in plantations in New Guinea. He believes that this is slavery because of their closeness to humans. He brings a female back to London where they have a child through artificial insemination. The infant is recognized as human by the state and church through registering the birth and baptism. Next he kills the child with strychnine poison, and then insists on being tried for murder to force a test case. In court the lawyers and the jury debate whether or not the infant he killed was human or a sub-human animal. Although fiction, the book is inspired by some facts. In parts of South and Southeast Asia macaque monkeys are trained to harvest tree crops. Whether or not this is humane might be debated by some of those concerned with animal rights, and Vercors was a pioneer in that arena.

In this chapter we attempt to integrate analyses of ecological relationships and cultural representations of monkeys in southern Thailand. We argue that the explanation of this phenomenon may be found in a combination of factors: economic opportunity; macaques as ‘weed species’ (as explained below); the appropriateness of macaques for arboricultural labour; and the cultural meaning of monkeys, especially in the local syncretic religions. The result is an evolutionary shift in types of relationships between humans and macaques, from an emphasis on monkey competition (crop raiding) and, in response, human predation on the monkeys, to a form of cooperation among the two species.

Curiously, this phenomenon has never been researched systematically in any detail; so far we have found only five brief anecdotal articles (La Rue 1919, Gudger 1923, Sitwell and Freeman 1988, Peffer 1989, Sirorattanakul 1997) and one more detailed article focused on the training of the monkeys (Bertrand 1967). This subject does not seem to have been taken very seriously but just dismissed as

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