[monkeywire] For Many Japanese, Primates' Appeal Wears Off as Crops Are Carried Away

Josh Greenman joshg1973 at yahoo.com
Mon Nov 25 12:52:40 EST 2002


Monkeys return from an outing in a northern village in Japan, where, to the dismay of farmers, the primate population has swelled since World War II.


Monkeys on Their Backs 
For Many Japanese, Primates' Appeal Wears Off as Crops Are Carried Away 
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 25, 2002; Page A01 

TOTSUKAWA, Japan -- He was tricked, the crab concluded. Monkey had persuaded him to plant persimmon seeds. But now that the tree was grown, monkey was perched in the high branches feasting on the ripe fruit, laughing at the hungry crab below.

So goes an old Japanese children's tale. But humans in Japan are feeling a bit crablike these days.

In parts of rural Japan, monkeys are stripping the persimmon trees, digging up sweet potatoes, ravaging the radishes, carrying off the pumpkins and taking ears of corn to go.

"If you do nothing, you'll lose your whole crop to them," said farmer Yoshiyuki Minami, in this hardscrabble pocket of small fields in the mountains 100 miles south of Kyoto.

Elsewhere, brazen monkeys have come into towns, stealing from open vegetable markets, snatching children's bags and wandering into homes in search of a free meal.

"I was making lunch in the kitchen, and when I looked back, a monkey was standing in the hallway," said Teruko Iwasaki, 49, telling of the uninvited visitor to her Kagoshima home two months ago. "For a second, we looked at each other. Then I screamed, 'Monkey! Monkey! Monkey!' "

The population of macaque monkeys has been swelling in this country since World War II, when Japan began a dramatic shift from a rural to urban society, leaving fewer farmers to chase them.

Now, fattened by unguarded farm food, fed by tourists and amused townspeople, and largely rid of their fear of humans, monkeys have come down from the mountains to live among people.

The results are sometimes comical, and sometimes not. Reports of "attacks" by monkeys have become more common, though the bite on the buttocks of a 4-year-old in Kagoshima seems about the worst wound involved. Periodically some small town is "invaded," usually setting the local police department in an uproar.

"The monkey is a tough opponent," huffed a police officer in Kagoshima, where the child was bitten in September by a monkey that eluded police. "He appears and disappears like a ghost. Today, he may appear on the top of a roof. Tomorrow, he may be somewhere else.

"We couldn't capture him," the officer admitted. But, he added, "we couldn't have charged him either."

Authorities offer only-in-Japan solutions. "When someone reports spotting a monkey, we drive around town and tell people to be careful, and not to have eye contact with the monkey," said Koji Yamauchi, head of the Taniyama Agriculture and Forestry Office in Kagoshima. "Just like men, the monkey feels hostility when you look in its eyes. He might attack you."

The injuries are usually more from mishap than malice. A hiker who said he was chased by a group of monkeys on Yaku Island in September fell off a rock, dislocated his left shoulder, and had to be extricated by helicopter. A 67-year-old woman sued the Mino City municipality in Osaka for 6 million yen ($50,000) because she fell off a step and broke her leg after being surprised by a monkey in a city park. The judge dismissed her suit in August, observing dryly that the city does not have a legal obligation to keep monkeys from doing harm.

"When I started researching monkeys in 1971, they were hard to find, and when you did, they ran away," said Kunio Watanabe, an associate professor at the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University. "Now they are easy to find. They live near the villages."

The first, admittedly rough, estimate of Japan's monkey population in 1953 was 15,600. The latest, about 12 years ago, was 114,000, Watanabe said. "And the monkeys have changed. They are no longer afraid."

To an older generation of subsistence farmers who still cling to small plots at the edge of Japan's mountains, that is particularly bad news.

"These people depend on what they raise to eat. I realized, when I started doing this work, that the monkeys can leave them without food," said Masateru Inoue, an agricultural extension agent in Nara prefecture in central Japan.

Inoue, 53, specializes in bugs -- the spider mite, to be precise -- but he has a growing reputation as a "monkey man," whose passion is helping farmers outwit the monkeys. On his persimmon-orange jacket, he wears a caricature of a monkey on a wanted poster.

His nonviolent methods are the most benign on a scale of countermeasures being tried in Japan. Police have chased monkeys with nets. Farmers have set out firecrackers, sound machines and dogs. In one high-tech system, monkeys are blasted with pepper spray when they hit a tripwire. In another, a radio collar with alarms is fastened on monkeys to roust farmers to chase them away.

But mostly, monkeys are killed. Local governments give permits to hunters to kill about 10,000 monkeys a year. Nearly 500 municipalities offer bounties, averaging $165 per corpse, according to the animal rights group All Life in a Viable Environment (ALIVE).

"Most are shot, but some are killed very cruelly, starved or beaten or sold for scientific experimentation," said Fusako Nogami, a director of ALIVE in Japan.

Inoue believes there is another way. He takes a modern but charmingly Japanese approach to the problem, seeking to outsmart his opponents rather than crush them.

With his staff from the Nara Fruit Tree Research Center, Inoue cruises the serpentine roads of the mountains here, now mottled in the brilliant palettes of autumn, teaching farmers to be smarter than monkeys.

He drives past old wooden houses, with their traditional steeply sloped and ornate roofs. The morning mist mixes with the smoky breath of wood fires and gives the place a mystical appearance. He winds back along a dirt road to find Minami, 81, who has lived on this farm all his life. His wife, Reiko, 74, is wearing a head scarf with a fanciful drawing of a monkey -- a giveaway from the gas station down the road, she explained.

"In the beginning I thought monkeys were cute. But then they started eating all our crops," said Reiko. Now she seethes when she sees them swinging from persimmon trees in the back yard and playing on the family gravestones.

"They come back to the field exactly the same day of every year," said her husband, walking past drying buckwheat to his corn and cabbage field. "It's a mystery how they do that. They are supposed to be just animals. But just when the rice is ready to harvest, they strip all the grain off the stalks."

Inoue plots strategy with these farmers. Monkeys love vegetables -- they are silly for soybeans, for example, and plumb crazy for plums. But they don't like red pepper, or basil, or aloe. Inoue urges farmers to plant lots of pepper on the edge of the fields, making it the first thing marauding monkeys see.

Monkeys salivate over strawberries. But a farmer can orient the seedlings during planting so the berries sprout on one side, hidden by leaves from the monkeys at the fence.

And the fence? Solid, electrified fences work, Inoue conceded. But they are expensive. Solution: a few aluminum pipes that support supple fiberglass poles and light nylon fishing net. The pole bends too much for the monkeys to climb it, and even if they succeed, the farmer can easily restring the net into a more challenging configuration. Inoue calls it his "monkey falling fence."

Monkeys love to hide in high boughs. Solution: Shape the fruit trees around low hoops, depriving them of cover. And let a few snakes loose in the field, Inoue said.

But most of all, stop feeding them, he urged. "We need to declare to the monkeys that humans are your enemies!" he proclaimed in a book he wrote this year for farmers. That advice is hard to teach, he admitted.

One woman saw a baby monkey carrying a pumpkin away from her field. She thought it was so cute, she put out another pumpkin for him, said Inoue, shaking his head.

"The people of the mountains feel the monkeys have a right to live here, too," said Inoue. "But then the monkey problem gets worse, and they get angry."

Angry, at least, until he succeeds. Inoue said he taught one farmer, a widow, to discourage the monkey visits, but did not get the thanks he expected.

"She said she was lonely because they don't come around anymore."

Special correspondent Sachiko Sakamaki contributed to this report.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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