Did a Monkey Pick Your Coconuts? The Myths and Truths

A Monkey Picking Coconuts high in a tree

Just when you thought you had your ethical lifestyle down to a tee, another source of anxiety and debate: monkeys are picking coconuts. 

Recent media reports claim that, in Thailand, pigtailed macaques are being taken from the wild. Made to pick around 1,000 coconuts a day, they are mistreated by farmers who want a piece of the global coconut market.

But is there any truth to the claims of abuse and forced labour? Is it just sensationalist reporting? Did a monkey really pick your coconuts??

An Ancient Practice and a Modern Dilemma

Training monkeys to pick coconuts is a 400-year-old practice in Thailand; there's even a Buddhist school for that purpose, promoting training without force or violence. The practise is common in places such as India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, among others. 

You see, monkeys are super-pickers, naturally at home in the tall coconut trees. Males can harvest over 1,000 coconuts a day; females around 600.

On the other hand, humans are super-slow and clumsy in the treetops, with a mere 80 coconuts a day to their name.

Since coconut oil, water, milk, and flesh are big businesses, it's only natural farmers would use the most cost-effective and productive harvesting methods. 

What do Campaigners Think About Monkeys Picking Coconuts?

After PETA, Animal Place and Boris Johnson's fiancée, Carrie Symonds, spoke out about the issue, several British retailers vowed to ban Thai coconut products from their stores.

Interestingly, Thailand's commerce minister recently claimed that using monkeys "is almost non-existent" and has long since been replaced by human labour.

Animals Have Always Worked, So What's the Problem?

It could be argued that monkeys are being exploited to meet the growing consumer demand for coconut products. It's easy to take the "selfish humans only thinking of monetary gain" stance when we're presented with sensationalist reports. 

But throughout history, humans have used animal labour to increase productivity or make tasks more manageable. For example:

  • Horses pulling ploughs in the English countryside
  • Donkeys carrying luggage on South American treks
  • Drug-sniffer dogs in the US
  • Guide dogs for the blind, everywhere

Those animals were specifically raised and trained to do their "jobs". 

Perhaps what upsets people about monkeys picking coconuts is that monkeys are like us. We share 93% of our DNA with macaques. We identify with many of their behavioural traits.

So when we read about them being "abused" or "exploited", we perhaps feel more strongly about the issue than we do about, say, parrots riding bicycles to entertain tourists in Spain. 

Is it Possible the Monkeys Enjoy Picking Coconuts?

According to leading animal welfare organisations, macaques are snatched from the wild as babies and chained up or stuck in cramped cages, which makes them extremely stressed. They're forced to pick coconuts for human gain and denied companionship, mental stimulation and basic freedom. 

However, it's important to note there is no concrete evidence of "baby-snatching" or mistreatment. It could even be argued that the training process is mentally stimulating, which, being intelligent animals, the macaques would enjoy. 

Furthermore, coconut farmers insist the monkeys aren't abused or exploited. They say the monkeys are treated like family pets; loved and cared for, fed and watered, bathed and groomed. The tethering, they say, is for the monkeys' safety while climbing coconut trees. 

I Love Coconuts AND Monkeys! What Can/Should I Do?

Seek out the facts. All parties - the farmers, the Thai government and the animal rights groups - have their own agendas. (It is also interesting that many of these groups don't allow comments on their articles to allow for reasonable debate- Ed)

If you want to live an ethical lifestyle, you must do your own research before banning certain products. As you may know, refusing to purchase one product on ethical or moral grounds can have a knock-on effect on other areas. For example, banning plastic and using paper can lead to more trees being cut down. 

Ethical living can be a minefield in the modern age. But if we adhere to the facts and live true to our individual values, we can't go wrong. 

1 comment

  • Michelle Desilets

    As Executive Director of Orangutan Land Trust, a committed member of RSPO, as well as Palm Oil Innovation Group, I applaud your commitment to sustainable palm oil. I have shared this blog on my social networks.

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