Animals: A life in a chain: monkeys picking coconuts in Thailand

Nong has been running in circles for an hour.

Animals: A life in a chain: monkeys picking coconuts in Thailand

Nong has been running in circles for an hour. A chain, which is only about three meters long, is attached to his tight metal collar and hangs on a bamboo pole at the other end. The powerful macaque takes them in hand again and again. His facial expression reveals how much he hates the thing.

The monkey is four years old. He lives two and a half times with the coconut farmer Lek and his family. Nong's task: early in the morning, when the tropical heat on Thailand's dream island of Ko Samui is still bearable, to pick coconuts from tall palm trees. For this he comes to a longer chain for a short time.

"The trees are too high for us humans, it would be far too dangerous to climb up there ourselves," says Lek. "That's why in Thailand we traditionally use monkeys to do it for us." It's been like this for generations. Like many others, Lek got his macaque from the monkey school in Surat Thani on the mainland. There, primates are drilled for life on the chain, learning how to twist the fruit until the rope breaks and they fall to the ground.

"But I trained my monkey myself," emphasizes the 47-year-old. He doesn't say how he did it. But Nong always responds with a loud hiss and bares his sharp teeth whenever Lek approaches him. The farmer barks at his macaque in a commanding tone until it is quiet again. He obviously forcefully drilled coconut picking into Nong's mind: "Sometimes I still have to hit him so that he learns not to be so aggressive."

Controversial use

Thailand is one of the largest producers of coconut milk in the world. The fact that monkeys are used in this important branch of industry is increasingly causing debate. In particular, several studies by the animal protection organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have caused a sensation - so much so that supermarket chains around the world have already banned Thai coconut milk from the shelves.

A few weeks ago, the German delivery service HelloFresh announced that it would no longer offer coconut milk from Thailand in its cooking boxes. "We do not tolerate any form of animal abuse in the supply chain," it said in a statement.

As early as 2020, the government in Bangkok announced that it wanted to provide coconut products with a code - to be able to see whether they were made without the help of monkeys. However, according to Peta, it is almost impossible to trace the production chain back to the picked coconut, since countless farmers and brokers are involved. "It's very cleverly veiled," says Jason Baker, vice president of international campaigns at Peta Asia.

"Mental Cruelty"

The last Peta report was from last year. "The bad news is that despite all the campaigns for the monkeys, nothing has changed," says Baker. There are alternatives that are used in Indonesia and the Philippines, for example: "In Thailand, you would simply have to grow types of coconut palms that don't grow as tall, or plant new trees more often." Brazil or Colombia, for example, would reap the rewards with tractor-mounted hydraulic elevators, cable systems or ladders, Peta said.

Baker is convinced that what is being done to the monkeys is "mental cruelty". Most are separated from their mothers as babies and are then chained for life. "They are deprived of everything that comes naturally to them. All they can do is run in circles." The worst thing is the boredom without any mental stimulation: "They are very social and highly intelligent beings who have a lot in common with humans."

In addition, the monkeys mainly used in industry - southern pig monkey (Macaca nemestrina) and northern pig monkey (Macaca leonina) - are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as "Endangered" or "Endangered". "However, the monkeys can legally be kept as registered pets in Thailand," broadcaster Thai PBC World said last year.

However, the farmers do not see their coconut pickers as pets at all. "Dogs are pets, monkeys are wild animals," they say. That's why they had to be chained: otherwise they would run away. The chains are so short because the monkeys could attack.

Very few have a license. "In our local culture there are no fixed rules and hardly any controls," says Pon, who keeps six monkeys. Among them are baby Khaopod and 30-year-old Ker, who is a retired coconut picker. He's still hanging on the chain, in a back part of the property. "I would never give him up, I love all my monkeys," says Pon. After all, she knows: "If they start running in circles or show repetitive movements, then they get bored. Then I play something with them."

"Picking coconuts is his job"

Exactly how many macaques work in the industry is unclear. Peta estimates the number to be at least 1,000. And indeed, when driving through the rural areas in the south of Ko Samui, plantations with coconut palms around 20 meters high are teeming. Wherever coconut shells pile up along the way, a monkey is not far.

Like Nin, who is tied to his master Dam's truck with a leash. Again and again he looks up into the sky, where birds and butterflies fly. Without a chain, in freedom. Does Dam feel sorry for the animal? "Picking coconuts is his job," he says gruffly.

But things are moving: The media attention has caused many retailers to make their ranges more animal-friendly, including in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, says Tobias Schalyo from Peta Germany. "Lidl, Aldi, Rewe and Edeka, for example, have expanded their animal welfare guidelines (...) and largely removed Thai products and raw material suppliers from their ranges."

Still, getting rid of ancient traditions is difficult. Especially in regions of the world where a large part of the rural population struggles to make a living every day, animal welfare is often not the top priority. There is still a long way to go before monkeys have finally had their day as coconut pickers. As long as Nong walks in circles every day.