TOURIST SITES AND TEMPLES
Tourist sites and temples
Tourist sites and temples across Asia are home to large troops of rhesus, bonnet, long-tailed and other macaques who thrive on religious offerings and tourist handouts. The presence of the monkeys in these areas can be of deep cultural importance. Yet when macaques become too comfortable around humans - especially those who are unfamiliar with the ways that macaques communicate - problems can easily arise. Humans - or even just their bags! - are viewed as a source of food, so monkeys start to snatch and grab. People may find it entertaining to tease the monkeys, not realising how severely they are antagonising them. This can cause seriously dangerous situations for both humans and macaques. In addition to the risk of injury, disease can be passed between humans and monkeys. Monkeys will eat whatever delicious foods are offered to them, rather than foraging for the foods that they are evolved to eat, leading to nutritional deficiencies and/or obesity.
In addition to the above, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the extent to which the monkeys at such sites are dependant on human handouts. Such handouts enable populations to expand well beyond the area’s carrying capacity, and as a result, if the feeding stops, macaques are unable to find sufficient food.
Researchers working in Malaysia at the Segari Melintang Forest Reserve, where tourists sometimes feed monkeys, also noted a difference when feeding stopped due to the pandemic: the monkeys began to behave more naturally, and resumed foraging for their healthier, more natural foods.
It is unlikely that religious offerings at temples will stop. However, strict controls could be implemented and enforced for any feeding beyond these offerings. Importantly, awareness should be raised with the visiting public about how macaques behave and communicate. For example, to the untrained eye, an intimidated or aggressive macaque may appear to be “smiling”. Macaques have an array of “grins” that can convey anything from extreme submission to fear or aggression, depending on the species and context. One thing a wide grin does not mean is that a macaque is relaxed and happy to see you!
Animal advocates in Kathmandu recognised that hand-feeding the rhesus macaques who abound in the city's temples is a root cause of monkey welfare issues and aggression. They devised a feeder that can be operated by the monkeys themselves, allowing them to access healthy food. If such feeders were to be rolled out widely across the city, this could help to break the monkeys' association of humans with food, and therefore aggression. It would also reduce welfare problems caused by poor nutrition and disease transfer.