See Japan’s monkeys – but don’t feed them

Everyone has seen pictures and videos of Japan’s “snow monkeys” taking a bath in an onsen (natural hot spring), looking very wise and content as they relax in the steaming waters.

Jigokudani, Nagano, pic: Trent McBride (Flickr CC)

The spa-going snow monkeys of Nagano prefecture are in fact the same species of Japanese macaque that live throughout the country. Intelligent and resourceful, these macaques take advantage of whatever their situations offer them and are known to learn new tricks that better their lives. The BBC’s “Life” series documented one female macaque, named Imo, washing her food in fresh water and then seasoning it with salt water. Other monkeys copied her behavior with following generations adopting her techniques.

Here is a description from SnowJapan of Jigokudani Yaenkoen Park in Nagano, where you can see the snow monkeys soaking in the hot springs:

The park is located in the Yokoyu River valley, which flows down from Shiga Kogen. At an elevation of 850 meters, the area is called Jigokudani (“Hell’s Valley”) due to the steep cliffs and hot water steaming out from the earth’s surface. It’s also a fairly harsh environment in winter with snow on the ground for a third of the year, but it is also a paradise for the couple of hundred monkeys that live there. We’re lucky too, because we can enter their world and watch them enjoying themselves. Watching the monkeys play, take a leisurely onsen – or even swim in the onsen – is a lot of fun. All the time the monkeys basically just ignore their human watchers and just get on with whatever it is they want to be doing.

Minō Falls, Osaka, pic: imissdaisydog (Flickr CC)

In 1999 I visited Meiji no Mori Minō Kokutei Kōen, a Quasi-National Park in Osaka prefecture with stunning waterfalls and many mischievous macaques. The macaques were quite comfortable in the presence of humans and some would even sit next to me, though one young specimen lashed out a couple of times when I got a bit close for a photo opportunity.

I never fed any of the monkeys or tried to touch them, nor did I witness anyone else doing so. Yet I did hear stories about them stealing food and even accepting money to use in the park’s vending machines where they would purchase snacks. I have no idea if this is true, but I saw a soda can that had been literally turned inside out by a macaque in order to lick it clean. In Minō the monkeys were not fenced in and could theoretically leave their mountain habitat via the same access road that we arrived on in our car. Though there have been cases of macaques in Japan’s urban areas, generally they stay in more hospitable habitats.

Japanese macaques feed on berries and other fruits, plants, grubs, seeds, small invertebrates, fungi and even soil, but some have gotten used to unhealthy human food. In 2008 visitors began to notice some seriously overweight monkeys at Ohama Park, also in Osaka prefecture. Of course it was tourists who were responsible for the fat macaques.

Hong Kong also experienced similar problems with people feeding monkeys, but rather than disturbing images of bloated macaques, it was overbreeding stimulated by overfeeding.

From China Daily:

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) began injecting the monkeys with a contraceptive vaccine. The effects of the vaccine were temporary, lasting three to five years. It didn’t work. Complaints kept increasing. The monkeys continued reproducing at an alarming rate, as they rode a wave of high energy, fueled by handouts from park visitors, who refused to obey no-feeding rules. Monkeys, in their natural habitats, do find food, but of a much lower energy level.

Funny how some monkeys get fat when tourists feed them, while others just get busy.

For a description of a few other places to see macaques in Japan see this piece from Go Japan.

pic: SF Brit (Flickr CC)