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Monkey attack!

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Taiwan is in a fix about how to handle its monkey menace

Full circleCould this be a conservation story gone wrong?photo: aFP
Full circleCould this be a conservation story gone wrong?photo: aFP

They usually invade at dawn or at dusk, during the late spring or early summer months when fruits in Ho Chieh-chen’s orchards are near their ripest. The 58-year-old farmer, who lives in eastern Taiwan’s Taitung County, would then walk over the aftermath – peaches, papayas and avocados strewn across the grass.

Some pieces would have only tiny peck marks, indicating the selective nature of the thieves as they rummaged for the sweetest fruits.

The alleged culprits are a troupe of 15 to 20 monkeys who live in the hills nearby and treat Ho’s orchard as their pantry.

A success story… or is it?

For Taiwan, the burgeoning population of Formosan rock macaques, endemic to the island, represents a conservation success story. After more than two decades of legal protection and work against poaching, the macaque population is now in the hundreds of thousands, and the species was given a “least concerned” rating by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2008.

But recent run-ins with humans have led some to question whether the government should keep those protections in place. “We’re fine with letting them eat our fruit, but what hits me is how much they waste,” Ho said.

Liu Hsiu-Jung, from a farmers association, feels conservation has created an overpopulation problem, causing a food shortage in their natural, higher-elevation habitat.

Nothing seems to work

As a devout Buddhist, he said he has tried everything short of killing the little beasts, including erecting fences and setting off fireworks. He even played Buddhist incantations that ask the monkeys not to waste food on loudspeakers, but they apparently did not listen and kept littering half-eaten peaches on the ground. Some farmers have resorted to using electric fences and air guns to kill the monkeys, which is legal only if the macaques encroach on a farmer’s land.

What now?

Many of them want population control measures from the government, but disagree on how it should be conducted. Animal-friendly farmers like Ho advocate a neutering program, while others want the opening of an annual macaque hunting season.

Some conservation groups, including Taiwan’s Society for Wildlife and Nature, are no longer opposed to lifting protections. But officials in Taipei have been reluctant to do so. They believe a culling program would be politically risky, and could incur the wrath of young people and animal rights groups. Instead, he advocates that farmers try alternatives to minimize damage, including growing fruits that are more sour than sweet, setting up neighborhood patrols, or putting dogs in the fields. Nevertheless, his agency is testing the effectiveness of a trapping and neutering program in some areas, in case the popular winds change. “When a larger proportion of society demands that we do more (macaque) population control, we will be ready,” he said.DPA


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