Sat on top of a temple roof, this Balinese long-tailed macaque and her infant are part of a growing number of residents within the Sacred Monkey Forest of Padangtegal, Ubud. Many species of macaques across South East Asia have proven to be highly adaptable in learning how to live alongside their human neighbours, who increasingly encroach on their forest home. It is a basic matter of survival.
Balinese people both respect and revile the macaques, with monkeys being seen as the embodiment of both positive and negative forces. Beyond the boundaries of the forest, monkeys persistently bothering tourists and raiding rice paddies are not warmly welcomed. But within the Sacred Monkey forest, the macaques are protected and revered by the Balinese, who see them as the guardians of the temple, protecting it from evil spirits.
This perception within Balinese Hinduism of monkeys as guardians has been instrumental in preserving and protecting the resident macaque population. The other major contributory factor has been the wisdom of the local people that an area of forest needed to be sanctified and preserved, in order to protect the local countryside, culture and customs from the rapidly advancing tide of tourism and associated development.
The Sacred Monkey Forest gained its newly protected status back in the 1990s, and since then the resident macaque population has risen steadily. From only 125 macaques in 1999, the numbers grew to 500 individuals in 2009, with numbers continuing to grow. There are now four large troops of macaques, each well established within overlapping territories within the forest. It would seem that the macaque troops of Padangtegal are coming out on top.
But as is so often the case, human interference with the natural order is beginning to have an adverse impact. The Sacred Monkey Forest has been such a successful conservation case that it has become a hot tourist attraction. But with over 10,000 humans moving through the forest on a monthly basis, the macaques have become conditioned to the presence of people. And with familiarity comes contempt. With many tourists ignoring the advice not to feed the monkeys, there are increasing cases of emboldened monkeys stealing food and other items from backpacks, chasing and biting visitors who do not surrender their supplies willingly. Tourists are being bitten and attacked by macaques within the forest on a daily basis.
The processed foods which the macaques demand so aggressively from their human visitors are not good for them, making them obese and unhealthy. Worse, their increasing volatility may actually make them the cause of their own downfall. Monkey bites can carry the risk of carry injury or illness to people. Tourism is big business in Bali, accounting for about 60% of their economy. So keeping public relations up, tourists safe and health scares down is politically expedient and essential to Balinese economic progress. Such is the level of concern about the growing health implications posed by rogue monkeys in areas of heavy tourist footfall that there are increasing calls for Balinese macaque populations to be culled.
It saddens me that it was human encroachment that confined the macaques within the forest, it was human efforts that made the Sacred Monkey Forest a tourist entity, it was human stupidity on the part of individuals feeding the monkeys and fostering their fearlessness. And now the monkeys, only doing what they have been taught, may well end up paying the price. Ultimately it is not the macaques, but the humans who come out on top. Again.