Strictly Monkey Business

Matthew Fulco

In this Year of the Monkey, a reminder of the sometimes strained relations between humans and Taiwan’s other primates.

The scene playing out on Kaohsiung’s Shoushan could be an illustration from a visitor’s guide on how not to engage with the Formosan rock macaque, a primate species endemic to the mountains of Taiwan.

Most of the visitors have brought food with them, and are shaking bags of potato chips, peanuts, and other snacks to lure the monkeys out from the foliage and into the open – a paved parking area overlooking the emerald sea. Sure enough, a troop of monkeys emerges from the undergrowth and gathers on the pavement, with expectant looks in their eyes. The monkeys are unafraid of the people: they have been through this many times before, and besides, they outnumber the humans.

The standoff continues for several minutes, the people excitedly snapping photos with their mobile phones – thankfully not selfies for the sake of everyone’s safety – and the macaques gazing expectantly at them. It is a stocky man on a scooter who gives the monkeys the opportunity they have been waiting for. His first mistake is taunting the monkeys by waving chunks of meat from his pork chop lunch box clenched in chopsticks. Engrossed in that action, he fails to notice the excited chatter among the macaques as they prepare to relieve him of his lunch.

The Formosan rock macaque is one of the mammal species endemic to Taiwan. (Photo: Taiwan Tourism Bureau)
The Formosan rock macaque is one of the mammal species endemic to Taiwan. (Photo: Taiwan Tourism Bureau)

The monkeys strike swiftly. One of them nimbly leaps forward, snatching the lunchbox from the hands of the man, and before he can react, hands the food off to another monkey, who scampers to the back of the troop to deliver the prize to their leader. The furious man manages to deliver a wild kick that grazes the thigh of one of the culprits, but that effort is in vain. His lunch isn’t coming back.

Unfortunately, such heated exchanges between macaques and humans are fairly common in Taiwan, observes Kuan Li-hao, director of the Conservation Division of the Forestry Bureau under the Executive Yuan’s Council of Agriculture (COA). “Generally speaking, people are encroaching on the monkeys’ living environment,” he says. “At first, the monkeys were afraid of people, but as the animals become accustomed to their presence and find that the people are willing to provide them with food, they lose their shyness and can even become aggressive.”

The monkeys may also gradually lose their food-gathering abilities as they become dependent on people to feed them.” Experts say the monkeys should ordinarily spend about six hours a day looking for food, which consists of roots, leaves, fruits, nuts, insects, and small vertebrates.

The Shoushan National Park contains 1,100 to 1,400 Formosan rock macaques. (Photo: Matthew Fulco)
The Shoushan National Park contains 1,100 to 1,400 Formosan rock macaques. (Photo: Matthew Fulco)

The Shoushan National Park census reckons the park contains 1,100 to 1,400 Formosan rock macaques. The name of the park literally translates as “Longevity Mountain” but the areas has acquired the nickname of “Monkey Mountain” in English due to the presence of so many macaques.

In the case of Shoushan, human and monkey exchanges have increased considerably over the years, and in particular since the area was designated a national nature park in 2009. Prior to that, large swaths of the area were restricted for military use. (Now, only the northern part of Shoushan is used by the military).

According to the official website of the Ministry of the Interior’s Construction and Planning Agency, visitors to Shoushan are advised to not feed the macaques. “National Park Rangers patrol the park and will issue warnings to first-time violators. Repeat violators will be fined accordingly,” the website says. During two visits by Taiwan Business TOPICS to Shoushan, no park rangers were seen.

Safe interaction 

There are several dedicated macaque preserves in Taiwan where humans can view the animals safely, notes Kuan. The oldest of these is the Wushan Macaque Conservation Area, which has been a dedicated safe haven for wild macaques for about 28 years. Home to more than 200 macaques, it is located on the borders of Nanhua District in Tainan and Kaohsiung’s Neimen District.

The preserve is on private land owned by 87-year-old retiree Lin Ping-hsiu. According to a February report in the English-language Taipei Times, Lin founded the conservation area because he was concerned hunters would harm the monkeys, who were not categorized as a protected species until the Wildlife Conservation Act was enacted in 1989. Violators of that legislation can face prison time of six months to five years and a fine of up to US$30,000.

The Formosan rock macaque was considered an endangered species at the time the Act was promulgated, but has since recovered. There are an estimated 250,000 macaques in Taiwan today. Some observers say the conservation of the species has been almost too successful. The fast-multiplying macaques have done so much damage to farmers’ crops in recent years that the COA has had to propose a plan to clear them from farmland involving the capture and sterilization of “troublesome monkeys.”

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The Formosan rock macaque was once considered an endangered species, but there are an estimated 250,000 macaques in Taiwan today. (Photo: Matthew Fulco)

In Taichung’s mountainous Betun District, there is a second macaque preserve called Uncle Kuo’s Taiwanese Macaque Park run by 55-year-old Kuo Tzu-chi. Kuo told the Taipei Times that he became familiar with monkeys at a young age as he was raised on a farm where the children in the family were given responsibility for chasing the monkeys away from the crops. As an adult, concerned about what he saw as negative exchanges between the monkeys and people, Kuo decided to create a place where the animals could live happily and people could interact with them safely.

For those living in the Taipei area interested in observing the Formosan rock macaque, Kuan recommends the little-known Old Tienmu Trail, which begins at the end of Zhongshan North Road Section 7. “In Taiwan, many people think it is only possible to see monkeys in the mountainous regions of the center or south of the island, but we have them right here in Taipei,” he says.

In recent years, Kuan says, the Taipei City government has successfully taken measures to ensure peaceful encounters between monkeys and humans. “The key is education,” he says, taking out a 30-page glossy color brochure entitled Managing Interactions with the Formosan Rock Monkey. The pamphlet provides extensive background information about the macaque’s behavioral traits and explains in detail with illustrated diagrams what to do and what not to do when encountering them on a hike. The only problem with this information-packed guide is the lack of an English translation.

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For those in Taipei interested in seeing the macaque, the Old Tienmu Trail offers a wonderful view. (Photo: Taiwan Tourism Bureau)

“Taiwan’s macaques are not vicious creatures, but they are wild animals – not domesticated pets – and need to be treated as such,” he says. “Keep a safe distance. Do not try to touch them. Do not feed them. It’s common sense, but people need to be reminded,” he says.

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