Tackle Penang’s monkey problem

Posted on January 17, 2011. Filed under: Bio-diversity |

The Star


Something needs to be done about the monkey population in Penang, before someone gets seriously injured.

SHORTLY after Christmas, in a bid to burn off some festive calories, I decided to hike up Penang Hill with my son, who was home on holiday from university. It had been more than a year since I’d last tackled the steep tarmac road that begins at the side of Penang’s Botanical Gardens and ends at the top of the hill, so I was looking forward to the challenge.

It was a perfect afternoon for a hike, with a slightly overcast sky and a light breeze to keep us cool. My son had also promised that he would walk at a moderate pace and resist the urge to sprint on ahead, leaving his wheezing mother in his wake.

However, my idea of a perfect mother and son bonding activity began to unravel five minutes later when I encountered a small group of macaque monkeys sitting at the side of the road. I moved closer to my son.

“They’re just harmless monkeys,” he said, sensing my agitation. “And you’re much bigger than they are.”

I don’t buy this “you’re much bigger” line of thought. I’ve known harmless cats who’ve dug their sharp claws into my leg, unprovoked; and seemingly docile dogs who’ve followed me down my street in a menacing manner; and a macaque monkey who once took a dislike to me in the Botanical Gardens. I know he didn’t like me because he exposed his teeth and snarled at me while beckoning his friends to join him. I didn’t hang around long enough for the full welcoming committee, but I’ve been wary of those monkeys ever since.

Someone told me that the best way to handle a pack of monkeys is to walk calmly on by and not make eye contact with them, especially with the alpha males. So I kept my eyes averted.

Barely 10 minutes later, after we’d just rounded a corner that leads onto a relatively flat stretch of the route, my heart lurched. For there, on the road in front of us, was a group of more than 20 monkeys, all of them alpha males. Or so it seemed to me at the time. I mean to say, some of those monkeys were big and mean-looking.

I grabbed onto my son’s arm. “I know they are just harmless monkeys and I’m much bigger than they are, but they still scare the hell out of me.”

I didn’t quite know where to look to avoid eye contact with those primates, so I looked down at my shoes. Then one of them snarled. I had visions of it jumping on my back and sinking its teeth into my neck. My heart beat faster.

Immediately, a few other monkeys came scampering out of the undergrowth at the side of the road.

“Let’s go back!” I urged my son.

But he was having none of it.

“You shouldn’t let them intimidate you. They can probably sense your fear and are reacting to it.”

At that stage, fear was probably oozing out of every single pore in my body.

“What should I do? Whistle a happy tune?”

Then several of the smaller monkeys, obviously bolstered by the sight of a large male standing on its hind legs, as if poised to jump, began chattering excitedly. The larger monkey turned and snarled at them. They immediately assumed a submissive stance and backed away.

My son and I continued walking, each step taking us further away from the possibility of us getting our faces chewed off, or whatever it is that extremely aggressive macaques can do when they’re in a foul mood.

What goes up, must come down, or so the saying goes. And I was already beginning to dread my return journey down the hill.

As we came back down towards twilight, we encountered another group of monkeys. I tried to appear nonchalant, but I wasn’t fooling anyone. One of the males did approach us, but changed its mind, sat down, scratched its testicles and then turned away.

Since that day, I’ve heard many horror stories from friends who have been intimidated and chased by monkeys on Penang Hill and in the Botanical Gardens. It seems that many of these macaques are looking for food and will become aggressive if they think you have something to eat. It doesn’t help matters that some tourists are hell bent on feeding the monkeys, despite the signs prohibiting this.

I hope something is done about the monkey population in Penang, before someone gets seriously injured. Still, I suspect it will take something like a serious injury to stir the authorities into action.

Just another day in paradise.


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