Food vendors in the Thai city of Lopburi can never let down their guard. Thieves are everywhere, and they are both nimble and brazen. “It’s almost every day that they take my mango and santol,” says Pan Pookyoo, who has sold fruit on the streets of Lopburi for more than three decades. “Sometimes they come and stash the peanuts,” she adds, gesturing to the vendor opposite, whose buckets of nuts and beans are subjected to frequent raids.
“They take anything they can,” agrees Somsaksri Janhon, another seller. Even his stall of hair accessories is not spared. “The comb, the mirror,” he says. “If I leave the food unattended they steal the food as well.”
As he speaks, a long, brown tail dangles from the market’s metal rooftop.
Lopburi, in central Thailand, is overrun with macaques – and managing their presence has only become more challenging in the wake of the pandemic. As Covid brought tourism to an abrupt halt, visitors who once flocked to the city to see and feed its famously mischievous monkeys disappeared, and so too did the endless supply of sugary syrup drinks, yoghurts and fruit. More than two years on, tourism numbers have barely recovered. Instead, the soaring cost of living and fears over monkeypox – despite there being no cases detected in Thailand – have further deterred visitors.
“Nowadays the monkeys are hungrier and more aggressive than before,” says Somsaksri.
Monkeys have long lived in the ancient city of Lopburi, on the grounds of the 13th century Phra Prang Sam Yot temple, where in normal times they are fed with fresh fruits brought as offerings by temple visitors and tourists. But their population has increased rapidly over recent decades, and their presence has expanded across new areas of the city.
In Lopburi’s centre, monkeys are almost everywhere. They lurk on rooftops of popular cafes and shops, ready to ambush customers. Some gallop fearlessly into the busy roads, pouncing onto the backs of passing trucks in search of snacks. Mothers sit in patches of shade on the pavements, clutching their babies, or stare into shop windows.
A group of school students who pass by Somsaksri’s stall describe how, when their bus was once stuck at traffic lights, a monkey jumped onboard and robbed the passengers. Donuts, ice tea, fruit juice and drinking water were all stolen.
Rival troops occupy different buildings, including a derelict cinema. Inside, macaques perch on the tiered flooring, or bound noisily across what remains of the roof’s metal panels. A monkey skull lies among the detritus on the floor.
Manad Vimuktipune, of the Lopburi Monkey Foundation, hopes the building could one day be renovated. Along with other volunteers, he visits regularly to feed the monkeys with animal biscuits and vegetables left over from the local market, and pays the building’s water bills.
“During the normal [pre-Covid] time, they had plenty of food, they can pick and eat, they could be quite choosy … If they are not beautiful bananas they don’t eat them,” he says. Since Covid, they cannot afford to be as selective.
Female monkeys have the capacity to reproduce twice a year, and the abundance of high-sugar treats given over recent decades has ensured those in Lopburi had plenty of energy to do so. “Sugary foods can increase the productivity of the monkeys and stimulate the monkeys to reproduce more,” said Suttipong Kamtaptim, an official from the wildlife conservation division of the government’s national parks department (DNP).
The DNP has stepped up its efforts to sterilise the monkeys over recent years, and officials say they have recorded what they believe to be a first dip in the population in certain areas.
In June this year, 2,423 adult monkeys and 114 newborns were counted near to the temple and old cinema – a fall from 2018, when the total was 3,168, said Suttipong. There is no conclusive figure for the whole city.
So far 300 monkeys have been sterilised in 2022 – a number the DNP is now attempting to double before the end of the year. Catching the macaques, however, has become more challenging. “As soon as they see our faces they remember. They know what we’re going to do,” says Suttipong. “In some groups, the head of the group tries to stop their clan from going into the cage.”
When officials first began sterilisations, they could catch 500 or 600 monkeys in a day. Nowadays, even securing 20 is a challenge.
Sterilising the monkeys is only part of the solution, says Duangjai Boonkusol, associate professor at Thepsatri Rajabhat University. People’s habits also need to change, she adds. “People need to learn about what type of food they should give to monkeys, and how they should give it to them, and where,” she says. “It’s difficult to do that because it’s very complex and sensitive.”
Traditionally, the monkeys are considered sacred, and some believe that feeding the macaques will bring good fortune. “Many people have been doing this for generations,” she adds.
“It needs to be the provincial policy to put down the regulation, to put measures against people who feed the monkeys at any time, anywhere,” says Duangjai.
She hopes too for a greater emphasis on animal welfare, and on conditions inside buildings the monkeys have occupied. “The locations like that could be a disease hub for the monkeys and some disease can transfer from monkey to humans,” she says.
Now, when there is more awareness of the need to prevent diseases from spreading, and when there are fewer tourists visiting, could be an opportunity to prompt such change, says Duangjai.
In the meantime, residents resort to their own measures to control the monkeys. Shopkeepers have installed metal grilles; some residents walk with bamboo sticks; a paint shop even displays a large toy tiger to put off intruders.
Pan keeps a wooden catapult on her stall. She doesn’t fire it, but does wave threateningly at any approaching thieves. “You have to stay vigilant,” she says.
July 19, 2022 at 09:57AM Rebecca Ratcliffe, south-east Asia correspondent