“Verily, there is nothing new under the sun.” With these words E.W. Gudger closed his article in a 1920 issue of the “Natural History Magazine”. Without a doubt, he has made his point. Let me explain:
In the issue of “Science” for Feb 7th, 1919, Gudger published a note entitled “On Monkeys Trained to Pick Coconuts”. In his note, Gudger claimed that in the East Indies monkeys are employed to pick coconuts for their masters. Predictably, he was ridiculed for his remarks which prompted him to write an extensive article in the “Natural History Magazine” about the history of using monkeys for a variety of chores, including servants’ duties and coconut picking.
Among his listed examples of human – primate cooperation is the story of a monkey living in the Governor’s house in Cartagena, Colombia in the 16th century. The Governor frequently sent the monkey to the local tavern for wine. He placed the pot in one hand and the money in the other. When the monkey was met by children who threw stones at him in the street, he would set down his pot and cast stones at the children until they fled. Remarkably, even though the monkey loved to drink wine himself, he did not touch the wine he was carrying until his master offered it to him.
As Gudger lists his examples in reverse chronological order, he stops with a reproduced illustration from the tomb of Beni Haasan in Egypt, dated approximately 2,500 BC. (see picture) In this image one can see three monkeys gathering figs alongside their human masters. How many figs actually ended up in the monkeys’ mouths instead of the baskets remains unknown.
In many tropical and sub-tropical countries the coconut is venerated for its culinary and non-culinary (e.g. religious worship) uses. In fact, the Sanskrit word (kalpa vriksha) for coconut means “the tree which provides all the necessities for life”. In the Malay language the coconut is referred to as the “tree of a thousand uses”. Needless to say, the coconut plant and its fruit play an important economic role in more than 80 countries around the world. More than 60 million tons of coconuts are harvested every year worldwide.
That’s a lot of climbing. While the majority of coconut plantations still use manual labour to harvest coconuts from 30 m (98 ft) tall trees, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find young people who are willing to do this dangerous work for very little money. Interestingly, the slow yet inevitable destruction of the caste system in India has resulted in fewer men from the lower castes climbing the tall trees. They are now able to find jobs that are less physically demanding and more lucrative. Kerala, a southern state in India, is home to 15 million coconut trees which require more than 30,000 climbers to pick them.
So , if you can’t find workers for coconut picking, what are the options?
· plant dwarf coconut varieties,
· develop a coconut harvesting machine and
· train monkeys to pick the coconuts from the trees.
While dwarf coconut tree varieties would be easy to harvest and even produce more coconuts per year, it is difficult to convince plantation owners and managers to switch to the shorter trees. The main reason: it is easy to steal the low hanging fruit. Often, plantations are thousands of hectares in size, making it impossible for owners to know when thieves steal the fruit from the trees at night.
Repeatedly, the industry has tried to lure inventors with cash rewards to develop a coconut-picking machine that would eliminate the need for humans to climb these incredibly tall trees. So far, no one has come forward to claim the prize money, which leaves us with trained monkeys picking coconuts.
What is better than to choose the “coconut monkey” for the job? This monkey species, also called pigtail macaques (Macaca nemestrina) for their short and half upright tails, have proven to be easily trained and very fast. Male monkeys can climb up to 500 coconut trees and pick 1,000 to 1,500 coconuts per day (female: 600 coconuts/day). They are also preferred because females are less obedient (no surprise). Humans can climb up to 50 trees and harvest 300 coconuts per day. The pigtail macaques can grow as old as 25 years, half of which they spend working.
Here is how it works: the monkey climbs the tree with a collar and long leash around his neck. He can climb the 30 m in as little time as 1 minute. After reaching the top of the tree where the coconuts are located, he identifies the mature fruit, bites off the stem that attaches the fruit to the tree and allows the coconut to drop to the ground. If the monkey chooses an immature fruit, his master will pull on the leash, signalling that this coconut is not to be picked. In some cases, the monkey is trained to rotate the fruit until the stem twists off the tree. Verbal commands from his master are also used, for example when the monkey wants to climb down before all mature fruit have been picked.
Now you are probably wondering how the pigtail macaques are trained to perform such incredible work. In monkey school, of course! I am not kidding. Throughout Asia, schools exist that train monkeys to pick ripe coconut. One such school is the “First Monkey School” in Surat Thani, Thailand. Founded in 1957 by Somporn Saekhow, the son of coconut farmers, this school teaches monkeys at three levels: the basic training in “elementary school” during which the animal becomes comfortable with its trainers and learns how to climb trees and rotate the coconut. The monkey also learns how to free himself in case the line gets caught in the tree. During “secondary school” the monkey learns how to place the picked coconut in a bag and to carry the bags and drop them off near the owner’s truck. In “high school” the teachers can teach the monkey to perform almost any task desired by the owner. The cost: 6,000 Baht (US$ 200.-) for elementary and 25,000 Baht (US$ 800.-) for secondary school. Each of the two levels takes approximately 3 months.
Mr. Saekhow was motivated to establish the school after observing many owners beating their monkeys when they didn’t perform as expected (e.g. leaving ripe fruit on the tree). It became clear that frightened and/or angry monkeys did not perform well and were likely to bite. He was encouraged by his Buddhist teacher and famous monk Phra Buddhasa to use positive reinforcement and eventually developed his own teaching method. Mr. Saekhow died in 2002 but his daughter Somjai took over the management of the school. She still uses the same teaching methodology developed by her father. While visiting the island of Ko Samui in Thailand, Kit and I were lucky enough to see a monkey and his trainer in action (see pictures).
The destruction of wild habitat in South-East Asia has put the pigtail macaque species into the “vulnerable” conservation category. Ironically, it is the value of this monkey species to humans that may very well ensure its survival.
As I review the pictures I want to attach to my email, I wonder about the many human - animal partnerships that have existed over the millennia. If it is the horse or dog or falcon or elephant or monkey, there is much shame we ought to carry in how we, the human race, have treated our partners in this relationship. While avoiding the fanatic attitudes often displayed by animal rights activists, I am convinced that the correct approach to take in our partnership with animals is that of responsibility, compassion, care and respect.
I also wonder how the ancient Egyptians related to their animals. Did they treat their monkeys any differently 4,500 years ago? If Gudger’s statement “verily, there is nothing new under the sun” is true, the human race is still divided now, as it was then, between those who abuse and kill animals for their own benefit and those who protect and care for them. One thing I know with a high degree of certainty: we will not find or be able to develop a machine that can pick coconuts any faster and more efficiently than the pigtail macaque! How wonderful!