A day in the life of the chained-up monkeys who pick coconuts

Koh Samui, Thailand - Monkeys in Thailand are being trained hard to pick coconuts and often live chained up their entire lives. Now, animal rights activists are fighting to liberate them, but traditions are proving hard to break in Koh Samui.

Monkeys in Thailand are being trained hard to pick coconuts and often live chained up their entire lives.
Monkeys in Thailand are being trained hard to pick coconuts and often live chained up their entire lives.  © Madaree TOHLALA / AFP

Nong has been walking in circles for an hour. Attached to his tight metal collar is a short 10-foot chain, tied to a bamboo pole.

The strong macaque monkey takes the chain in his hand, his facial expression revealing just how much he hates it.

Nong is four years old. He has lived with coconut farmer Lek and his family for two and a half years.

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The monkey's job is to pick coconuts from tall palm trees early in the morning, when the tropical heat on Thailand's dream island of Koh Samui is still bearable. In order to complete his morning tasks, he is put on a slightly longer chain for some time.

"For humans the trees are too high, it's too dangerous to climb them," says Lek. "This is why in Thailand it's our tradition to use monkeys for this work."

This has been the case for generations, he says. Like many others, Lek got his macaque from the mainland's monkey school in Surat Thani. The school trains the monkeys for their chained-up lives, teaching them to twist the coconuts until the branches fall to the ground.

"I trained my monkey myself," Lek says proudly. He doesn't reveal how exactly, but Nong hisses loudly every time the man approaches him and shows his sharp teeth. The farmer snaps at his macaque in a commanding tone until it is quiet.

"Sometimes I still need to hit him so he learns not to be so aggressive," he says.

Companies stop supplying coconut milk

Macaques are trained at monkey schools, where they are taught to twist the coconuts until the branches fall to the ground.
Macaques are trained at monkey schools, where they are taught to twist the coconuts until the branches fall to the ground.  © Madaree TOHLALA / AFP

Thailand is one of the largest producers of coconut milk in the world. But the use of monkeys to satisfy the demand is fraught with controversy.

Reports carried out by the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recently put the nail in the coffin. "The PETA report caused waves across the world," the Bangkok Post newspaper wrote back in 2019, when the first report came out. Supermarket chains from all over the world have stopped supplying Thai coconut milk.

A few weeks ago, HelloFresh announced it would no longer offer Thai coconut milk as part of its home deliveries. "We do not tolerate any form of animal abuse in our supply chain," a statement said.

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Though gaining particular traction in recent months, the issue is far from new.

Back in 2020, Bangkok announced plans to introduce a QR code system which allows consumers to scan a code on products containing coconuts to check whether monkeys were involved in their production.

PETA explained, however, that tracing the production back to the specific coconut is almost impossible, as there are so many farmers and brokers involved in the process.

Jason Baker, Vice President of International Campaigns at PETA Asia, says the use of monkeys in coconut production is often intentionally covered up: "They disguise this very well."

Monkeys endure physical and psychological cruelty

PETA has exposed the cruel conditions monkeys are subjected to, leading to multiple companies halting the sale of coconut milk.
PETA has exposed the cruel conditions monkeys are subjected to, leading to multiple companies halting the sale of coconut milk.  © MANDEL NGAN / AFP

The latest PETA report dates back to last year, for which the PETA team "investigated for six months in nine provinces, mainly undercover," according to Baker. "The bad news is: Nothing has changed," he says.

He explains that there are easy alternatives already being used in Indonesia and the Philippines, such as growing shorter coconut trees or planting new trees more often.

In Brazil and Colombia, farmers harvest the fruit using "humane methods such as tractor-mounted hydraulic elevators, willing human tree-climbers, rope or platform systems, or ladders, or they plant dwarf coconut trees," per the PETA website.

What is being done to the monkeys is "psychological cruelty," Baker continues. Most are separated from their mothers at birth and then chained up for life.

"They are deprived of everything that is natural for them. They can only go around in a circle all the time," he says.

The worst part, adds Baker, is not having any mental stimulation, despite the fact that monkeys are "highly social and intelligent creatures, very much like us."

What's more, the monkeys mainly used in the industry, the southern pigmy marmoset and the northern pig-tailed macaque, are classified by the World Conservation Union as "critically endangered" and "endangered," respectively.

Huge number of monkeys work in the coconut picking industry

The chains are kept short, as the monkeys are seen as aggressive animals who could attack humans.
The chains are kept short, as the monkeys are seen as aggressive animals who could attack humans.  © Madaree TOHLALA / AFP

Thai PBC World said last year that the endangered monkeys are still allowed to be kept as registered pets in Thailand.

But the farmers do not see their coconut pickers as pets at all.

"Dogs are domestic animals, but monkeys are wild animals," they say, which is why they are chained up to prevent them from running away. The chains are kept short, as the monkeys are seen as aggressive animals who could attack humans.

Only very few have a license. "In our local culture, there are no fixed rules and hardly any controls. What is legal and what is illegal is not clearly defined," says Pon, who keeps six monkeys.

Among them are baby Khaopod and 30-year-old Ker, who, despite being retired from coconut picking, remains chained up at the back of Pon's property.

"I would never give him away, I love all of my monkeys," says Pon. After all, she says, she plays with them when they show signs of being bored, such as spinning around or making repetitive moments.

It's unclear exactly how many macaques work in the industry, but PETA estimated the figure to be at least 1,000.

"It's his job to pick coconuts"

Like Nin, who is tied to a leash on his master Dam's truck.

Again and again he looks up at the sky, where birds and butterflies fly around, unchained. Dam takes Nin from the truck to tie him to an even shorter chain, while the monkey shrieks and screams in vain.

Does Dam feel sorry for the animal? "It's his job to pick coconuts," he says gruffly.

Things are slowly changing. Widespread media attention has led to many retailers making their stock more animal-friendly. Supermarket have prioritized animal welfare in some of their own product, as well as largely removing Thai products from their shelves.

Doing away with old-age traditions takes time, however, especially given that animal welfare is not the top priority in regions of the world where people can hardly afford to make a living.

Coconut-picking monkeys have a long road ahead of them.

Until then, Nong continues to walk in circles.

Cover photo: Madaree TOHLALA / AFP

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