Farmers in Thailand are still using monkey labor to supply coconuts to the international market, according to new information from the Asia branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
This comes about six months after the animal rights organization released findings from a 2019 undercover investigation. The report spurred coconut product companies, supermarket chains, and the Thai government to give assurances that monkeys would no longer be forced to harvest coconuts.
Thailand is the world’s third largest exporter of coconuts, after Indonesia and the Philippines, exporting more than 500,000 tons in 2019. The popularity of coconut milk as an alternative to dairy milk has grown steadily during the past five years, says Avinash Desamangalam, research manager at Mordor Intelligence, a company based in India that studies the market for alternatives to dairy products. He says the industry’s growth rate is expected to nearly double in the next five years.
But since PETA’s first investigation, some retailers of coconut-based products have reported a decrease of up to 30 percent in sales, Desamangalam says. Meanwhile, retailers such as Target and Costco have announced that they’ll no longer stock products from companies found to use monkey labor.
“There is a paradox here, right?” Desamangalam says. Consumers expect coconut milk to be cruelty-free since it doesn’t come from animals, but in reality “there is a lot of cruelty involved in terms of using monkey labor.”
PETA has documented how pig-tailed macaques are trained, sometimes in “monkey schools,” to climb trees to pick coconuts. When the monkeys aren’t working, they’re often kept chained and transported in cages too small for them to turn around in, according to PETA footage. Many were likely illegally captured from the wild as babies, PETA says. The investigators found monkeys alone and in distress—screaming and pacing repeatedly, a sign of anxiety. Some were missing their canine teeth, removed to prevent injury to handlers, farmers told PETA.
PETA is “right in stating nothing changed” since its first investigation, says Edwin Wiek, an animal welfare advisor to Thailand’s parliament. Wiek, who is also the director and founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation, a sanctuary for wild animals, estimates that as many as 3,000 monkeys are used on coconut farms in southern Thailand, the main source region for the coconut milk industry.
Pig-tailed macaques are protected by law in Thailand, where it’s illegal to own them unless they’re captive-bred. Violators can be fined or sentenced to two years in prison, although such a sentence has never been handed down, Wiek says. He says he believes that about half the monkeys used by coconut growers have been captured from the wild and therefore are kept illegally.
After PETA’s investigation published last summer, the Thai government’s tourism website removed pages promoting monkey schools but otherwise took “no meaningful steps” to eliminate monkey labor, according to PETA Asia’s senior vice president Jason Baker, who led both investigations. Some government departments claim that monkeys aren’t used for coconut harvesting, others say they’re working to eliminate monkey labor, and still others say using monkeys to pick coconuts is part of the culture, Baker says.
Representatives from Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation and the Ministry of Commerce did not respond to requests for comment about PETA’s claims of monkey labor in the coconut industry and the government’s response to these claims.
Animal welfare laws don’t apply
Following PETA’s allegations last summer, Chaokoh—a major coconut milk manufacturer that supplies U.S. supermarkets such as Albertsons and Kroger—and other coconut product companies voluntarily sent inspectors to their suppliers’ farms.
During its independent audit, Chaokoh claimed that it found no evidence of monkey labor, but according to the auditors’ assessment, inspectors visited 64 farms—less than 8 percent of the 817 that supply its coconuts. That’s “pitiful,” Baker says.
Even if they had reported finding monkey labor, Thailand’s animal welfare laws apply only to domestic animals, Wiek says. “We have little to no way to actually make legal action against people mistreating [wild animals].”
During PETA’s follow-up undercover investigation, which involved visits to 14 coconut farms, two monkey schools, and a coconut-picking competition, some farmers told investigators that Chaokoh inspectors would announce their visits in advance so monkeys could be hidden. Other farmers told investigators that they keep their monkeys offsite until needed, which makes it less likely that monkeys will be present when inspectors come.
Chaokoh did not reply to a request for comment about inspections of its coconut suppliers, but in a statement shared on social media on July 10, 2020, the company wrote, “We and our associated parties do not support the use of monkey labor in the harvesting of coconuts.” It also said that, henceforth, inspections would be mandatory for all its suppliers.
If coconut producers and coconut product manufacturers don’t end use of monkey labor, more consumers and major retailers may compel change, Desamangalam says. He expects Western customers in particular will switch to non-dairy alternatives to coconut milk, such as soy or almond milk.
“Almost the entire original PETA article is nonsense,” wrote Arjen Schroevers, whose wife, Somjai Saekhow, owns the First Monkey School, in southern Thailand, in an email.
Schroevers, who calls PETA “a militant vegan organization,” said the monkeys are happy to be trained. “They like the attention, and they enjoy working. There is absolutely no violence or coercion involved. The many monkey owners we know all work very quietly with their monkeys. No shouting, no hitting.”
Schroevers denied that monkeys’ teeth are removed and said the animals are transported in tight cages for their safety. Referring to PETA’s video recordings, he said that when strangers with cameras approach the monkeys, they grow anxious, making it “very easy to take pictures of frightened monkeys.”
When PETA visited the First Monkey School, which trains monkeys to pick coconuts and is open to the public for a fee of 150 baht, or about $5, investigators documented chained monkeys performing for tourists, monkeys climbing trees to pick coconuts in front of crowds, and a monkey riding with tourists on the back of a motorized scooter.
Making monkeys pick coconuts is wrong, Baker says—but even worse is “the loneliness and the seclusion that these animals live and go through all the time.” He calls it “mental torture” for the animals to be taken from their families in the wild, left out in extreme weather, and kept alone without socialization. Studies show that macaques—like other primates, us included—are social animals that need the company of their own.
“The thing that I want everyone to think about…[is] the life of these monkeys, not just the fact that they’re picking a coconut,” he says.
With the revelations about monkey labor, and with the financial hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic, some coconut growers have surrendered their monkeys to government-run centers or to Wiek’s Wildlife Friends Foundation.
In recent months, the sanctuary—which already had nearly 300 macaques, more than 40 rescued from coconut farms—has taken in four more, and another new arrival is expected soon. More are on the waiting list, but a pandemic-related funding shortage means the sanctuary can’t accept them now, Wiek says.
Wiek fears that some nervous coconut growers have been releasing monkeys into the wild, where they’re ill-equipped to survive after a lifetime in captivity.
He says the four newest rescues came from individuals who used them to harvest coconuts for personal consumption. Two were young and likely hadn’t yet been trained to pick coconuts, but the other two—named Saen and Mhuen—were older and “in a bad state,” according to Wiek.
When he went to pick them up, he found them chained to a post, with no cover from the rain or sun, and they had no drinking water. They were also missing their canine teeth, Weik says, and Saen had a large hernia that required immediate treatment.
But now they’re adjusting well to their new life, enjoying healthier diets—fruits and veggies instead of leftover chicken and rice—and interacting with the other monkeys. After a life of being chained up alone, it’s a “culture shock,” Wiek says, but Saen is “an extremely friendly guy.”
The practice in Thailand of using monkey labor to pick coconuts is slowly dying, Wiek says. As with elephant rides and bullfights, people are beginning to rethink old cultural practices that involve animal suffering. He estimates that 15 years ago, as many as 15,000 monkeys labored on coconut farms, compared to the 3,000 today.
To lower the number even further, Kent Stein, PETA’s corporate responsibility officer, suggests that the Thai government could subsidize the purchase of coconut-harvesting equipment, so farmers and hired workers, instead of monkeys, could do the work.
If Thailand’s coconut growers and exporters hope to survive, Desamangalam says, the government must implement a reliable system for independently auditing coconut farms to ensure that they don’t use monkey labor—just as quality-control procedures and regulations apply to organic farms. Harvesting costs will increase, he acknowledges, but consumers are willing to pay more for cruelty-free products.
“From every standpoint, it makes sense for all the parties involved to completely eliminate monkey labor,” Desamangalam says.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.