Lopburi, Thailand, grapples with a surging monkey inhabitants

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Lopburi, Thailand (CNN) – It’s a Friday afternoon on a Thai public holiday in September, and local tourists are out and about in the small town of Lopburi.

The attraction? Around 4,500 crab-eating macaques roam the streets of this ancient capital, many of which occupy the crumbling Khmer-style Phra Prang Sam Yod – also known as the Monkey Temple – in the city center.

The primates, not yet eating snacks, wait for tourists to buy bags of fruit, seeds, peanuts, and – their favorite beverages – from one of the vendors lining the parking lot, railroad track, and nearby streets.

Patience is not the macaque style. Some quickly climb onto the tourists’ bodies to grab the treats and run.

Others secretly tear open the bags hanging on visitors’ hands and seeds fall to the ground as their cohorts rush in to get their share of the loot.

Nearby, a tourist from Bangkok rushes towards a monkey who has snatched his sunglasses, which the animal quickly drops when it realizes that it is inedible.

A macaque drinks from a plastic container in front of Lopburi’s Prang Sam Yod Temple in June.

MLADEN ANTONOV / AFP / AFP via Getty Images

But the salespeople are used to their tricks and have ways to keep them in check.

“How do we adjust? We just sell our things as usual, but if they approach and try to steal things, we’ll use a slingshot and pretend we’re going to fire a shot,” says Anekchart, a fruit vendor in near the temple.

“They’ll just run away. We don’t even have to put a shot into it.”

How did you get there?

Phra Prang Sam Yod was built in the 13th century in a wooded area. Originally a Hindu shrine in the classic Bayon style of Khmer architecture, it was later converted into a Buddhist temple.

As the city grew up around the site, the monkeys of the forest stayed behind.

And the locals didn’t mind. It was believed that the macaques were living representatives of the Hindu god Hanuman and thus were viewed as symbols of good luck.

But few feel that happy these days.

Although the monkeys have always been a part of local life and put the city on the global tourist map, the steady population growth has made their presence increasingly challenging.

Narongporn Doodduem, the regional director of Thailand’s Ministry of National Parks and Wildlife, tells CNN Travel that they only started tracking the population in 2018.

At the end of September 2020 there are 9,054 crab-eating macaques – also known as long-tailed macaques – in Lopburi province and 4,635 in the capital of the same name.

Narongporn says it is impossible to deny that population growth in recent years has “ruined the livelihood of local residents.”

Known for their bold behavior, the monkeys break into homes and businesses to steal goods, tear apart everything from windshield wipers to window panes, and leave traces of trash.

“People cannot even use rainwater collected from their own roofs due to monkey droppings, and many cannot grow plants because monkeys destroy them,” says Narongporn.

The Covid Effect

The coronavirus pandemic has just exacerbated this longstanding problem.

With Thailand currently closed to international tourists, the monkeys at the main tourist center – once used to daily festivals – now have to get by on what the locals and local weekend travelers give them.

“There are three main groups of monkeys,” explains Manus Wimuktipan, secretary of the Lopburi Monkey Foundation.

“They live in an abandoned cinema near the local Muangthong Hotel and in the tourist-frequented Prang Sam Yod area. In addition to these three main gangs, there are several small groups scattered around the city.”

Each group protects its territory as sharp as possible, he says.

That happened in March. According to Manus, “the incident happened because the monkeys from at least three gangs all saw one person bringing bottles of sweetened fermented milk in. And each group wanted them because they loved that type of drink. And that was the beginning of them fierce fighting. “

Officials say it is consumption of these sweet drinks and other junk foods that is a large part of the overall problem. And not everything is handed over to them directly.

“The monkeys have started waiting in garbage cans in shops and department stores where people dump all of this delicious food and snacks,” says Manus. “You became addicted to human food because it was delicious.”

A veterinarian sterilizes a monkey in Lopburi on June 21, 2020.

A veterinarian sterilizes a monkey in Lopburi on June 21, 2020.

MLADEN ANTONOV / AFP / AFP via Getty Images

These sugary foods and drinks not only rot the monkeys’ teeth, but also make them breed more frequently.

“I’ve been trying to educate tourists and locals about the importance of not feeding monkey food, which is high in carbohydrates and sugar – this has been a major contributor to the population growth in Lopburi,” says Narongporn.

“Of course, the monkeys could give birth once a year due to the limited amount of food they find in nature. But city monkeys are constantly consuming food and can therefore give birth twice a year.”

To tame the population, the province recently completed its largest ever sterilization campaign.

“This year we sterilized 1,200 monkeys in Lopburi (916 of them in town), a new record. Normally we would be doing around 400 monkeys a year,” says Narongporn.

They’ve had complaints for years, he says, but getting everyone on the same page in the most sustainable way to tackle the problem hasn’t been easy.

However, that year support was widespread.

“I’ve received a lot of resistance from monkey lovers every time we tried to sterilize monkeys,” he says.

“Some wanted to remove these monkeys completely from Lopburi town, but the problems are, where are you taking them? Who will take care of them? What to do when they die or spread disease? It would be like throwing your trash in.” someone else’s house.

“But now that has changed. I get a lot of cooperation from locals – also from the tourism industry – in order to solve this problem sustainably.”

Monkeys jump on tourists during the year

Monkeys jump at tourists during the annual “Monkey Buffet” in Lopburi on November 27, 2016.

TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AFP / AFP via Getty Images

Although the monkeys could cause trouble for the locals, they are still celebrated as a local icon.

Officials have confirmed to CNN Travel that the annual Monkey Buffet Festival will be held in Phra Prang Sam Yod on November 29, as the country has not reported any locally transmitted Covid-19 infection in several weeks.

As part of the festival, the city offers a wide variety of food and drink options for the monkeys, an event that in normal years attracts both local and international tourists.

Coexistence with the monkeys

The owners of this Lopburi auto parts store learned to live with the monkeys.

The owners of this Lopburi auto parts store learned to live with the monkeys.

Karla Cripps / CNN

Not everyone finds it difficult to live harmoniously with the monkeys.

The employees of an auto parts store across from the “Monkey Temple” have learned to adapt and are now welcoming the presence of the macaques.

When we enter the shop, several monkeys are sitting quietly on counters and shelves. A small macaque sleeps on a red towel on a counter.

Pathitpan Tuntiwong, 63, is the owner. Born and raised in the city, he says he feels sorry for animals.

His family feeds them daily and allows the smaller, weaker monkeys – “They have been thrown from their herds,” he says – to come into his shop during the day, some even hang on the shirts on the staff’s backs as they go about their work.

“We have taken away their habitat, so the problem persists,” says Pathitpan.

“Its population has grown rapidly. It has grown so much that people can no longer take it. I have lived in this place for over 60 years. I have gradually taken protective measures to keep them away from my home and to continually adapt .

“They just don’t know where to find a source of food. There are no trees, no sources of water. Their quality of life is poor. We’re helping as much as we can.”

A macaque feels at home in a Lopburi auto parts store.

A macaque feels at home in a Lopburi auto parts store.

Karla Cripps / CNN

While he is speaking to us, Pathitpan is interrupted in mid-sentence when a chaotic scene breaks out on the street in front of his shop. A pack of monkeys has jumped onto the back of an idling pickup truck and is quickly rummaging through a pile of large saucepans and other containers.

The truck occupants get out, swing the animals and try unsuccessfully to scare them off.

“You are clearly not from here,” laughs Pathitpan. “The people in our neighborhood know better than to drive down this street in a truck so laden.”

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