For These Monkeys, It’s a Fight for Survival

On their Indonesian island, crested black macaques are hunted for meat, kept as pets, and threatened by a shrinking habitat. Can they be saved?

This story appears in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

If it weren’t for a cheeky monkey named Naruto, who, as the story goes, stole a photographer’s camera in an Indonesian park and snapped a selfie, crested black macaques might still be languishing in obscurity.

The photo later went viral, and Macaca nigra suddenly had millions of online fans just as the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which sets the conservation status of animals, was working toward listing the punk-haired, amber-eyed species as among the world’s 25 most endangered primates.

In 2015 Naruto’s selfie sparked a copyright lawsuit including the animal welfare group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—since the monkey took the shot, does he own it?—which could push the boundaries of animal rights. But Naruto’s renown hasn’t earned him special cred with his fellow macaques in the confined forests of the Tangkoko-Batuangus-Duasaudara Nature Reserve, near Bitung, on the island of Sulawesi.

“That’s him,” said primatologist Antje Engelhardt, of England’s Liverpool John Moores University. She pointed to a beagle-size macaque sitting hunched over, scratching himself. At that moment a male named Alex approached Naruto from behind and mounted him.

“Did you see that?” Engelhardt chuckled, explaining that Alex was getting himself out of a fix. Charlie, the group’s top-ranked, or alpha, male, had just grabbed a fig Alex was about to eat. “Rather than risk a fight with Charlie,” Engelhardt said, “Alex turned his frustration into a show of power over a lesser animal.”

So much for fame.

Under the Macaca Nigra Project, Engelhardt and a revolving cast of students have been studying the behavior and biology of the reserve’s macaques for a decade. M. nigra, known locally as yaki, is one of seven distinct macaque species that evolved on Sulawesi—an Indonesian island that resembles a hastily scrawled K, with four peninsulas radiating from a mountainous center.

In recent years the critically endangered macaques have suffered as they’ve been hunted for their meat, taken as pets, and squeezed into ever smaller areas by illegal tree clearing for coconut plantations and villagers’ garden plots. Meanwhile conservationists are fighting government plans to open wildlands to roads and industries.

Surveys from 2009 to 2010 put yaki numbers at about 2,000 in the reserve, called simply Tangkoko, and Engelhardt says their numbers have dropped since then. It’s not known how many live elsewhere in North Sulawesi. A population of non-native macaques lives on Bacan Island, hundreds of miles from Sulawesi, rumored to have been introduced in the mid-1800s as a gift to the local sultan.

The scientists are studying three main yaki groups in Tangkoko. They call the most gregarious Rambo II; its members, having been studied previously and loved by tourists, were quite tame when Engelhardt arrived a decade ago. Rambo I was also studied previously, but many years ago. Engelhardt’s team has rehabituated them. The third group, Pantai Batu Hitam (or Beach of the Black Rocks, for the volcanic beaches the animals visit), is the most wary of humans.

Each group has about 80 members, with a strict hierarchy. An alpha male is the preferred mate of females, but his dominance is fragile. Takeovers are often swift and bloodless, and once an alpha loses his spot, he can’t get it back. Some ousted males leave the group and try to take over another. Females mostly get along, resolving spats with grooming and other peacemaking behaviors.

Where macaque territories overlap, raucous clashes can erupt. Stragglers hearing the screeches and screams of battle will rush to join in, shrieking in solidarity with those on the front line. “They can get pretty mean,” Engelhardt said, referring to the skirmishes. But death in action is rare. Fights usually are quick and more theatrical than injurious, said Maura Tyrrell, a Ph.D. student from New York’s University of Buffalo. That’s especially true with females, “who lip-smack and nervously touch one another until males arrive. Then boom!—it’s time to chase and fight.” Males will herd females away from amorous competitors, but sometimes they’re rough on their mates, even scarring them with bites. “It can be brutal to watch,” Tyrrell said.

Yet the macaques seem fearless in their forest home. They climb high and swing far, snapping branches as they tumble through the canopy after missed connections. Cartoonish, wide-eyed infants cling to their mothers or play together low to the ground. Cooing calls link individuals as they forage on the move, chewing on figs and other fruits, plus bugs and leaves. Facial expressions convey moods: Ritualized yawning—which starts with an oval mouth that breaks into a gaping one as the animal flings its head back—suggests tension. Scalp retraction with ears flat invites play or grooming. Chuckles, rattles, grunts, and barks—macaque talk—each have context-dependent meaning.

Tyrrell follows macaques from sunrise to sunset five days a week, studying male interactions. She’s trying to learn when and how males build coalitions, which, she said, “may shed light on the same behavior in early human societies.” A day’s notes are routinely R-rated. “Usually tense relationships are moderated by ritualized greetings and a genital grab,” she said. “Touching another’s penis may be a way for males to test their relationships and negotiate future alliances.” It’s not about rank, she said, as grasping can be mutual. Whoever starts it, “it’s a pretty vulnerable position to let another male handle your genitals.”

There are other ways to make a point. During my first day in the woods, Raoul, the big alpha male of Rambo II, opened wide to show me his dagger-sharp canines, then sauntered by and swatted my calf with a stick—letting me know my place in the social order. (Low.)

With each other, the macaques rely heavily on sexual signals. “They’re extreme when it comes to sexual selection,” Engelhardt told me as we saw females with hyperswollen, rosy-red rear ends parade in front of potential mates. A similarly vivid scrotum on a male signifies his testosterone level and accordingly his dominance. “The redder it is, the higher his rank,” she said.

The males constantly test their standing, looking to move up in the hierarchy. Higher rank means more chances to spread one’s DNA via fertile females (those with the biggest, reddest bottoms). “Still,” Engelhardt said, “being a beta [number two] might be ideal. You don’t have to be the strongest, and you still get plenty of action.”

The researchers are teasing out fine details of the yaki’s private life. “One exciting discovery is that males with certain personality traits—being self-confident and part of a big, diverse social network—are more likely to reach a high rank and thus sire more offspring,” Engelhardt said. “So it’s not your social status that affects your personality, but your personality affects your social status.” The principle is true for humans too, with personality influencing social “rank” and sexual opportunities. But exactly which traits bring benefits “might be very specific,” she said. “What works for male macaques might not work for men.”

Yaki have just one natural predator, the reticulated python, but they have many enemies. Land clearers are pushing the monkeys around. Roadbuilders are hemming them in. And outlaw trappers have them running for their lives.

“That all used to be primary forest,” Engelhardt said, nodding toward the sloping land along the main road out of Tangkoko. “First the rangers started putting in gardens, and then villagers followed suit. And up there,” she pointed to the dual peaks of Mount Duasaudara, “you can see forest at the top, but the rest is [coconut] plantations now. We did surveys up there: No monkeys. Nothing.”

We were driving to the Tasikoki Wildlife Rescue Centre, south of Bitung, to meet with Harry Hilser, program manager for the nonprofit Selamatkan Yaki—which works to save Sulawesi’s crested black macaques—and the rescue center’s manager, Simon Purser, a soft-spoken Brit who seems to carry the weight of the world on his slim frame. The center houses orphaned and injured wildlife, plus animals confiscated from smugglers and buyers of illegal “pets.” Purser, who says he spends a lot of time “trying to get law enforcement to do their jobs,” attends most raids and rescues. They can be contentious: Sometimes animals are killed rather than handed over.

Tasikoki has some 70 crested black macaques housed together in large, forested enclosures to let them establish hierarchies. “It can be a bloodbath,” but that’s natural, Purser said. “The goal is always to put animals back in the wild, but we can’t just throw [a lone monkey] anywhere: goodbye, good luck.” The risk is that the animals will get killed by territorial males “or will come out of the forest because they don’t know what to do.” Group releases aim to prevent such losses.

Some farmers trap macaques on purpose to keep the monkeys from raiding crops. Monkeys also get caught in traps set for pigs, birds, or rats, which can mean quick cash for a trapper. “My staff has counted [up to] a hundred traps just within a small area inside the reserve boundaries,” Engelhardt said. “Unfortunately,” she added, “macaques that escape traps may lose a limb to loss of circulation.”

The local pet trade thrives on captured or orphaned baby macaques—often malnourished and kept in tight quarters. But the bigger threat is that people in Sulawesi have been eating macaque meat for centuries. Today it goes for about two dollars a pound (an adult macaque weighs 18 to 23 pounds), and demand spikes at holidays. The town of Tompasobaru, a six-hour drive from Tangkoko, is known for the fragrant cloves that carpet the front yards of homes, drying on tarps in the sun. But in the town’s open market, the air hung heavy with the metallic smell of the butcher’s wares. On sale next to dried fish and chicken feet were rats and bats (the latter’s wings in a pile like leather scraps, also for sale), plus cut-up pigs and monkeys, their faces intact.

Nofi Raranta, 37, the town’s main clove dealer, is also the top hunter, employing about a hundred men who comb the surrounding forests for quarry. Raranta greeted me from the porch of his newly built house a short walk from the market, then led me into a storage room where, from a large freezer, he pulled out the top third of a crested black macaque and propped it on a stool for my inspection. He told me that his family sells about 15 macaques a week, a quarter of them yaki.

What if, I asked, you took every crested black macaque from the wild? Raranta allowed that hunters now have to go farther to find the monkeys. “I’m a businessman,” he said. “We also have cloves. And there are always more rats, pigs, bats. If one animal is gone, we just look for others.”

But Indonesian law protects the endangered macaques. Does he worry about getting caught with them? “Just a little. The police,” Raranta said with a half smile, “they come sit and eat with us!”

“Indonesia has had an extensive legal system in place,” Hilser said, “but that means nothing if it isn’t enforced.” And even if laws are followed, jail time for illegal hunting is rare. “Nofi might only receive a fine,” Purser said. “So there’s little incentive to stop what they’re doing.” Weak enforcement, he said, can be as bad for the species as the direct threats to their survival.

To counter the many threats, Selamatkan Yaki and the education arms of Tasikoki and the Macaca Nigra Project cooperate to try to change hearts and minds about macaques. “It’s challenging to generate empathy for M. nigra,” Purser said, “because alive they’re garden pests, and dead they’re food”—or cash. “First we need police working with us rather than looking away.”

As for getting the support of politicians, competing interests often mean that the macaques lose out. “It’s a trade-off,” Akshari Masikki, an official at the Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, told me about land-use decisions. “We can’t just decide things from an ecological perspective,” he explained. “There are economic and cultural factors to consider.”

On the other hand, as fruit eaters and seed scatterers, the monkeys are “gardeners of the forest,” Hilser said. “When we can make that kind of connection to the bigger picture of ecosystem function, people start to see a different kind of value—they start to get it.”

Teaching kids about the macaques attracts parents’ support for their protection, Hilser said. Purser adds that kids are “fantastic informants” on people who keep them as pets. In the city of Manado I met some of Selamatkan Yaki’s “Yaki Ambassadors,” a label of pride for annually chosen Indonesian students (and a few local notables) who speak on behalf of the macaques at schools, churches, and public events.

“What really matters is that the local communities are in,” Hilser said. “That’s the only way this conservation thing can work.” At Tangkoko, Engelhardt has hired a former hunter, Ferdi Dalentang, to scare off the young male monkeys that tear up people’s gardens in the vicinity of the reserve. “I make mad faces, yell, and chase them,” he said. “Sometimes I use a slingshot on a nearby tree to scare them. They have to take me seriously, or else they’ll come right back.”

A comeback is just what crested black macaques need. Hilser says ecotourism is surely part of the solution. “These monkeys are iconic. They’ve got great features—that punk hair and heart-shaped bum and those expressions. Yaki is a useful flagship, a mascot for Sulawesi.”

As I reluctantly left Tangkoko for the last time, bumping along the trail on a motorbike, Raoul, the alpha male who had smacked my leg, wandered out from among the trees. He was alone, and after I puttered by, I glanced back to see him swagger into the middle of the path to watch me go. My guess: He was relieved that this invasive primate, one of many moving through yaki territory these days, was finally leaving—without taking anything away.

In an earlier version of this article, the text incorrectly stated that primatologist Antje Engelhardt's team rehabituated the Rambo I group to the wild. The wild macaques were rehabituated to human presence, which allowed the team to study the animals in the wild.

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