High in a coconut tree, in southern Thailand, a skilled
worker nimbly twists a coconut free it from its stem, tosses it to the
ground, then takes a brief break to scratch himself and pick an insect
from his tail. For his efforts, he receives no money and is not covered
by any health insurance or worker’s compensation plan. But then
again—he’s a monkey!
Loggers have devastated much of Thailand’s forests, greatly reducing the habitat of the pigtailed Macaque monkey. The monkeys were on their way to extinction when it was discovered that they could be trained to harvest coconuts, which, after tourism, are the region’s largest economic resource. Female monkeys are friendlier and easier to keep than males, which are kept only by professionals. Depending on the extent of her training, the number of ripe coconuts and the distance between trees, a female monkey can pick up to 600 coconuts a day (a male can collect up to 1500) —a human can only pick around 100. In competition, which is done in one tree, the human usually wins against one monkey (because the human KNOWS its a competition), but when there is a competition with two or more trees involved the monkey almost always wins.
To learn their trade, the monkeys, mostly female, go to school for three to six months. The training begins by getting the monkeys used to being around humans, and watching a coconut being rolled by the trainer. Once curious, she is shown how to roll the coconut from between the trainer's legs. Next, a “rope” is made out of coconut skin, and a coconut is hung low on a pole. The monkeys are taught to spin the coconut on the rope and bite the rope until it snaps and the coconut falls. The height of the hanging coconuts is gradually increased. The monkeys are also taught to untangle knots in the rope, and to distinguish between coconuts that are ripe and those that are not yet ready for picking. Some even learn to bag them and deliver the bag to a specific location.
Somporn Saekow, a farmer from Kanchanadit in the Surat Thani province, saw that monkeys were often beaten by their owners when they did not perform as expected. His Buddhist teacher helped him to come up with the idea of teaching monkeys in a positive way. He began training monkeys in 1957 and opened a school in 1993, offering his course to owners who wanted their monkeys trained. The owners then rent their animals to orchard managers. Somporn later opened his school to tourists, giving demonstrations of monkey training. One of his prize monkeys, Khai Nui, carried the Surat Thani flag at the National Games in 1993, and also appeared in several television commercials. Today, there are monkey schools all over Thailand, and many offer demonstrations to tourists. It is amazing to watch the monkeys at the school perform many of the skills that aid them in the coconut picking trade.
Thanks to Somjai Saekhow (via Arjen Schroevers) from the Surat-Thani Monkey School for clarification of facts. For more on how the monkeys are trained, watch this video.