Grocery shoppers may not realize that what they put in their carts can have far-reaching consequences. Case in point: Northern and southern pigtailed macaques are considered globally threatened with decreasing populations, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature just recently reclassified southern pigtailed macaques as “endangered.” What can that possibly have to do with groceries?
When it comes to coconut milk from Thailand, quite a lot.
Two disturbing investigations by PETA Asia have revealed that pigtailed macaques in Thailand are being forced to climb trees to pick coconuts that are used in making coconut milk and other coconut products. To obtain these monkeys, many coconut farmers capture juveniles, either through baiting or by shooting their mother. The traumatized youngsters are then either confined to small, barren cages or kept chained with rigid metal collars around their necks. Members of the coconut industry openly discuss buying wild-caught baby monkeys.
Through domination and physical abuse, these terrified monkeys learn to obey their trainers and are then sold to coconut pickers who force them to spend long periods climbing tall trees and twisting off the heavy coconuts—up to 1,000 a day. It’s estimated that several thousand pigtailed macaques are being forced to harvest coconuts in southern Thailand alone. Although monkeys typically harvest fewer coconuts per day than humans, they are widely exploited, in part because harvesting coconuts can be dangerous. But, rather than making the transition to monkey-free harvesting methods, such as by planting shorter trees, whose coconuts are easier to reach, the Thai coconut industry continues to put monkeys in danger and to profit off their labor.
In nature, pigtailed macaques, extremely social and active animals, live in large groups, sometimes including more than 80 individuals. They spend most of their days on the move, occupying a home range of nearly 2 square miles and traveling over a mile a day. They also groom each other in order to foster social bonds within the group as well as to relax.
The connection between coconut products and threatened macaques is similar to the connection between palm oil and endangered orangutans in Borneo. Orangutans are under an enormous threat in no small part because palm oil is often obtained from the jungles in which they live. These great apes are left homeless and starving when their forest canopies are cut down to make room for palm oil plantations. Many conscientious consumers have boycotted products containing palm oil.
As consumers learn about the abuse of primates in the coconut industry, they are also modifying their buying habits by refusing to buy coconut products manufactured in Thailand. Grocers are following suit: Nearly 40,000 stores, including those owned by Albertsons, Kroger, Publix, Target, Walmart, and Wegmans, stopped purchasing one popular brand implicated in our investigations, Chaokoh.
Primates, including orangutans and pigtailed macaques, are considered “gardeners of the forest.” They play a crucial role in seed dispersal of up to 75% of plants in tropical regions. Pigtailed macaques, in particular, play an important role in healing degraded habitats, such as reclaimed plantation forests. They are some of the last remaining dispersers of large seeds in disturbed habitats, and by spreading a variety of large seeds over great distances, forests are regenerated. One study suggested that the eradication of macaques could reduce seed dispersal for trees bearing small to medium-sized fruit twentyfold, likely resulting in a significant decline in plant diversity and forest regeneration.
Inadequate living conditions, suffering, fear and violence against monkeys are all entrenched in the Thai coconut industry. Denied the freedom to move around, socialize with others, or do anything else that’s important to them, these intelligent animals slowly lose their minds. Driven to desperation, they pace and circle endlessly on the barren piles of trash where they’re typically chained. There is no proper oversight to ensure that monkeys’ basic needs are being met.
The only way to guarantee that you’re not supporting this exploitation and abuse is to avoid buying coconut milk products from Thailand. Please, always check the label on any coconut milk product, and if it reads, “Product of Thailand,” please leave it on the shelf.
Jason Baker is PETA Asia’s Senior Vice President of International Campaigns.