On our travels from South to East Asia, we are used to seeing these monkeys almost everywhere. In Asian cities, they run across roads and electric lines, eating discarded leftovers along the roads and opening PET bottles in a ditch. At tourist spots we can meet whole groups of these primates, waiting for crowds of tourists, from whom they beg or steal some “treat”, sometimes even rob personal belongings. Their grumpy hands and acquired audacity, often associated with aggression, made them perfectly adaptable primates. They usually enjoy great interest from tourists who take pictures with them and feed them. However, macaques will soon get used to this service, and if they are not allowed to, their aggression increases and it can lead to attack, biting or even death. In addition to poorly healing wounds, macaques can be carriers of many diseases, such as deadly rabies. Indonesians often take it as a weekend pastime, to go somewhere where macaques gather and where they feed them from open car windows. These are, for example, places where unsold fruit and vegetables from local markets are thrown, and macaques have found that there is still plenty of newly imported food. Then, when you walk in these places, there it’s not uncommon for groups of macaques to come to you waiting for food. From this point of view, it seems to tourists that there are lot of these monkeys everywhere and they cannot be endangered in the wild. This feeling is amplified by the fact that perhaps everyone who visited these places saw a macaque tied to the house as a pet. These are often young monkeys, detached from their mothers, who were killed. It is also the most common primate sold at local animal markets in most of Southeast Asia. In India, for example, the macaque is worshiped. Hindus believe that the macaque is a reincarnated Hanuman, the so-called “monkey king”, who is a key figure in the Hindu poem Ramayan. In this poem, he saved Lord Rama Situ’s bride after defeating the army of demons of King Ravana, who kidnapped Situ. In his honor, Hindus prepare rich feasts for macaques full of selected fruits and vegetables, on which hundreds of macaques feast.
But why did macaques decide to settle near human dwellings? One of the answers is also the loss of their natural environment and easier food sources. In contrast, “wild” macaques in the rainforest are very timid and you often have no chance to see them at all. But macaques also face conflicts with farmers, where they are shot or poisoned as pests on their fields. The young of these shot macaques sometimes end up somewhere on a chain tied around their neck or body and placed at a stake near the house. Macaques are also used in Chinese gastronomy, where for instance the brain of a macaque is eaten, often eaten directly from the head of a still living individual. In some countries, macaques as so-called “dancing monkeys” are used to entertain tourists, they are dressed, have painted eyelashes, lipstick and varnished nails, and they have to give tourists fun performances. Some macaques are even used as waiters to serve food in restaurants. Sounds like a Planet of Apes, doesn’t it? But it is people who still dominate here. At the same time, macaques live in the wild in large groups with a complicated hierarchy, which, if disturbed, can cause stress and aggression in animals. A well-known case are macaques living in the Japanese mountains, where only individuals with a high social status can indulge in a bath in thermal lakes, as opposed to individuals from lower social classes who can only watch and freeze on the shore.
So, what does it look like with this primate and its protection? There are several species and subspecies of macaques, some with insufficient data on their numbers or occurrence. In some countries, there are endemic (living only in that area) macaques, such as the Pagai Island macaque (Macaca pagensis) or the Celebes crested macaque (Macaca nigra) living only on Sulawesi. These species are critically endangered due to their small distribution area, where their natural habitat is rapidly declining. However, in Indonesia, for example, “common” macaque species are not protected by local laws. Previously, there were so-called capture quotas, which determined the maximum number of individuals that could be captured in a given year. However, these numbers were very difficult to identify and control and related only to the long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis). According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, most populations of most species of macaques are declining in the wild. For example, the pig-tailed macaque (Macaca nemestrina), inhabiting Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, has been reclassified from vulnerable to endangered since 2020, i.e. a higher category of protection, due to its severe decline in nature. The Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus), the only primate (except for us) that reaches the European continent, is also endangered. However, in many places we don’t have the adequate data on how it is with macaques in the area. Macaques are also one of the most commonly used animals for scientific purposes. They are used for various purposes ranging from car crash simulations to cloning. The European Union has banned the import of macaques captured from the wild. In the countries of their natural occurrence, people thus capture macaques from the wild, breed them in facilities and send captive-born individuals all over the world.
The future of macaques is therefore uncertain, at least for some species and subspecies we may encounter a similar scenario as for example for orangutans. And the future of other species of macaques will likely not be any brighter either.