Bali’s thieving monkeys can spot high-value items to ransom

Study finds macaques go for tourists’ electronics and wallets over empty bags and then maximise their profit

At the Uluwatu temple in Bali, monkeys mean business. The long-tailed macaques who roam the ancient site are infamous for brazenly robbing unsuspecting tourists and clinging on to their possessions until food is offered as ransom payment.

Researchers have found they are also skilled at judging which items their victims value the most and using this information to maximise their profit.

Shrewd macaques prefer to target items that humans are most likely to exchange for food, such as electronics, rather than objects that tourists care less about, such as hairpins or empty camera bags, said Dr Jean-Baptiste Leca, an associate professor in the psychology department at the University of Lethbridge in Canada and lead author of the study.

Mobile phones, wallets and prescription glasses are among the high-value possessions the monkeys aim to steal. “These monkeys have become experts at snatching them from absent-minded tourists who didn’t listen to the temple staff’s recommendations to keep all valuables inside zipped handbags firmly tied around their necks and backs,” said Leca.

After spending more than 273 days filming interactions between the animals and temple visitors, researchers found that the macaques would demand better rewards – such as more food – for higher-valued items.

Bargaining between a monkey robber, tourist and a temple staff member quite often lasted several minutes. The longest wait before an item was returned was 25 minutes, including 17 minutes of negotiation. For lower-valued items, the monkeys were more likely to conclude successful bartering sessions by accepting a lesser reward.

Unlike many previous studies that have examined similar behaviour, the macaques at Uluwatu, a Hindu temple, are free-ranging animals and were not being observed in a laboratory setting.

Such behaviours are learned by the monkeys throughout juvenescence, up until they are four years old, according to the research, which was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Alberta Gambling Research Institute (AGRI) and published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Robbing and bartering is an expression of cultural intelligence on the part of the monkeys, said Leca. “These behaviours are socially learned and have been maintained across generations of monkeys for at least 30 years in this population.”

While temple staff at Uluwatu are on hand to ease monkey-tourist relations, managing the animals is a challenge in many other areas of the world. Marauding monkeys are infamous for causing trouble across India – eating farmers’ crops, raiding homes in villages and cities alike, and even mobbing a health worker and making off with blood samples from coronavirus tests.

There are concerns that, in many regions, monkeys have become more aggressive because the pandemic has left them with little to eat. In Thailand, officials began sterilising monkeys in Lopburi, a city famous for its macaque population, last year. The lack of tourists during the pandemic has left the animals hungry, and increasingly hard to live alongside.

Contributor

Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘Have a little empathy’: Bali tires of badly behaved foreign influencers
Tourists threaten the island’s economic recovery by ignoring Covid protocols, including refusing to wear masks and even making a porn film

Febriana Firdaus in Ubud

14, May, 2021 @8:00 PM

Article image
Bali switches off internet services for 24 hours for New Year 'quiet reflection'
In Indonesia, one of world’s most connected nations, mobile providers will take island offline to mark Nyepi this Saturday

Kate Lamb in Jakarta

15, Mar, 2018 @4:38 AM

The monkey and the kitten

A wild-long tailed macaque monkey has adopted an abandoned kitten at Ubud's Monkey Forest in Bali

25, Aug, 2010 @3:30 PM

Article image
Bali volcano eruption could be hours away after unprecedented seismic activity
Tens of thousands evacuated from area around Mount Agung as hundreds of volcanic earthquakes recorded in single day

Kate Lamb in Jakarta

26, Sep, 2017 @11:04 AM

Article image
Bali is reopening to tourists, but nervous locals wonder what the future will bring
The pandemic has prompted a rethink of tourism’s role on the island as some call for only ‘quality’ visitors

Amahl S. Azwar in Bali

13, Oct, 2021 @1:10 AM

Article image
Schapelle Corby released from Bali’s Kerobokan jail
Television pictures show Australian drug trafficker being escorted from the jail in a prison van to the local prosecutor’s office

Kate Lamb in Bali

10, Feb, 2014 @12:45 AM

Video: Flossing monkeys

Monkeys in Thailand keep their teeth clean by flossing with human hair

13, Mar, 2009 @11:44 AM

Article image
David Adam on the slow loris, the world's only venomous primate

David Adam: When illegal traders catch slow lorises and sell them on, they usually remove the creatures' teeth - with wire cutters

David Adam

05, Jul, 2009 @11:01 PM

Article image
Indonesia tsunami: volunteers rescue dozens of stranded turtles
After a harrowing week of human tragedy, rescuers find a moment of hope as they return more than 30 turtles to the sea

Jamie Fullerton in Banten province, Indonesia

28, Dec, 2018 @4:10 AM

Article image
Mount Agung: 100,000 told to evacuate as Bali volcano spews huge ash cloud
Heightened seismic activity, mudflows and confirmation the volcano is shifting into magmatic phase prompts warnings and airport closures

Kate Lamb in Jakarta

27, Nov, 2017 @2:09 PM