From 2019 to 2022, various undercover investigations conducted by the animal rights organization PETA have exposed to global attention the sad and rampant reality behind coconut harvesting in Thailand.
According to FAO Statistical Corporate Database and the United Nations Statistical Office, Thailand is the world’s 10th largest coconut producer; the 3rd largest coconut fresh or dried exporter and the 1st coconut milk exporter in the world. Almost all coconuts from this country are collected through monkey slavery.
For centuries pig-tailed macaques have been trained in Southeast Asia to pick coconuts and other fruits wherever the height of the trees makes the work uneconomical and dangerous for men. They provide the only contemporary example of an infra-human primate being trained as an agricultural labourer.
Once considered a single species, southern and northern pig-tailed macaques are now classified as two different species; both have most recently been listed as “vulnerable” and “endangered” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Their population has declined by over 30% over the last three generations across its entire range due to severe threats such as habitat loss and trade, and this decline is predicted to continue at the same rate or higher in the next three generations.
Although they should be protected by law, thai pig-tailed macaques are violently kidnapped from their natural habitat as juveniles of one to two years and taken away from their families to be imprisoned and chained by the neck with rigid metal collars for their entire lives. Poachers catch them by either baiting a wooden box or shooting their mother.
Across the country there are several so-called “monkey schools” where these animals are forced to perform as tourist attractions in circus style shows, while they are intensively trained to work and then sold to coconut pickers across the central and southern provinces.
Training of coconut harvesting macaques is performed through positive punishment using tight leashes. Living in captivity, these animals develop aggressive behaviors toward their handlers and others and accidents are reportedly frequent: this is why macaques are generally trained by their third year of life when they are easier to handle and capable of greater concentration than adults and before they develop canines that can reach 6 cm in length.
Tasked with climbing trees to chose and collect ripe coconuts for 6–8 hours a day, macaque workers are condemned to a life of misery and loneliness, chained to trees or old tires in poor hygienic conditions, without being able to express their ethological needs, socialize and even touch each other. Since in nature they are used to live in large and complex social groups, deprivation leads them to depression: they usually suffer from behavioural disorders and stereotypies as a result of the experienced trauma.
Coconut trees in Thailand can reach the height of 30 metres, which makes supply difficult and dangerous. In these conditions, male primates can harvest up to 1000 coconuts per day, while humans can barely reach the number of 80. Every day macaques are transported by trucks to the plantations where they do harvesting on top of the trees while workmen collect the fruits and store them for resale to brokers.
When males reach full maturity and their career comes to an end – between 7 and 10 years old – they reportedly are frequently too aggressive for their owners to continue handling them and they are often released back into the forest where they are no longer able to survive after a life spent in captivity. Otherwise, they continue to live circling endlessly around their loop in a dirty space of land behind their owners’ houses.
As a whole, the process of harvesting, training, working, and retiring macaques has serious and largely undocumented welfare implications. In 2021, a research published in the Official Journal of the International Society for Applied Ethology assessed the welfare of pig-tailed macaques involved in coconut harvesting in southern Thailand. Researchers interviewed 89 coconut farmers in three provinces focusing on quantifying basic demographics of this trade, and evaluated the welfare of 158 working macaques through direct observations using the ‘five domains’ criteria such as nutrition, environment, health, behaviour and mental state. Given macaques’ inability to access their conspecifics, impossibility to hide from stressors and movement restriction, the results of this study – by attesting the mean welfare score of 4.8 out of the maximum 12 points – have highlighted animal welfare concerns and the necessity of legislative changes.
After animal abuse in coconut harvesting has been exposed by PETA and the media scandal emerged, some retailers have started refusing to supply from certain brands such as Chaokoh, one of the most popular coconut producers in the world. Thanks to the pressure campaign set up by PETA, nearly 40,000 stores – including Albertsons, Kroger, Publix, Target, Walmart, and Wegmans -stopped purchasing this brand’s products, and the majority assure that they will no longer buy any coconut products derived from Thai monkey labour.
Despite that, the Thai Commerce Ministry officially downplayed the phenomenon of animal exploitation in southern Thailand by stating that monkeys are “humanely trained” and protecting the work of coconut insiders such as farmers, brokers and manufacturers.