In the western mountains of “Ape Hill” in Shou-Shan National Park in Taiwan, a group of Formosan rock macaques scurry around, trying to obtain food from a group of curious visitors. The crowd stands at a distance from the monkeys, but in their hands, they hold a piece of fruit to lure the primate closer. This tour is an example of the ecotourism which occurs in many of the countries where primates and other wildlife thrive allowing people to get a close view of nature and learn firsthand about animals and their behaviors outside of a zoo. However, the effects of ecotourism on wildlife habitats can cause considerable damage to ecosystems and to the wildlife affected by human and agricultural intrusion. Additionally, there are problems for humans that live close to primate habitats: tourists feed primates higher-quality, fattier foods, and as a result, primates tend to invade human settlements seeking out similar foods. There are growing concerns about the safety of both primates and humans when humans are allowed to be close to the primates and provision them with food. Even though the ecotourism industry allows people to come closer to wildlife and thereby encourages conservation efforts, because of the lack of enforcement of laws, provisioning from human tourists also creates further socioeconomic and conservation concerns for macaques.
In Shou-Shan Nature Park, Taiwan, the country’s sole endemic extant species of primate, the Formosan macaque (Macaca cyclopis) is the main attraction. This species of macaque typically lives in elevations which can vary from 100 meters to well over 300 meters; depending on where these macaques are situated in this elevation range, their diet may adjust accordingly from fruits to leaves or to invertebrates (Su and Lee 2001). Formosan macaques are typically considered as generalists due to their ability to adjust to whatever environment they settle given that they can choose to survive on different types of lower-quality or higher-quality food sources. Typically, the Formosan macaques were provisioned corn by park staff; corn is regarded as a lower-quality food source as well (Ruesto at al. 2010). This more abundant but lower-quality food source gives more individuals a chance to feed, as opposed to causing one or two individuals to dominate the food source, and thus, lowers intergroup aggression between the primates.
The provisioned higher-quality food sources that the higher ranking macaques tend to fight over usually comes from a different source other than the park staff. In some cases, tourists have been known to provision the macaques via illegal food carts outside of the entrances that provide high-quality foods such as fruits and vegetables to tourists to entice the monkeys (Hsu et al. 2009). While these primates are well fed, these tourists often overlook the potential for anthropogenically influenced shifts in typical behavior due to provisioning from the food carts. Formosan macaques in larger groups (more than 25 members) tend to become more antagonistic towards other group members when provisioning is involved (Hsu et al. 2009). This is likely a result of contest competition where members have to compete in order to gain the limited food provided by human visitors.
The change to antagonistic behavior is not limited to group members, however. There is also evidence in macaques that provisioning can lead to aggressive behavior towards humans supplying the food (Hsu et al. 2009, Ruesto et al. 2010, and McCarthy et al. 2009). Given the fact that macaques have to compete for food, this suggests that macaques are willing to risk confrontation from a potential threat in order to obtain the high-quality foods that tourists tend to provide. Additionally, it was discovered by Fuentes (2006) when tourists engaged in using food as bait in order to gain the attention of the monkeys, the occurrence of aggressive behavior (including biting and scratching) increased significantly. Tourists may further perpetuate a cycle of antagonistic behavior by fighting back; in one case, a group of tourists threw rocks at the monkeys after an incident, injuring one and causing the troop to engage in increasingly threatening behavior until park officials intervened (Ruesto et al. 2010, McCarthy et al. 2009).
While using rocks to fight back is not as common an occurrence as providing food for the macaques, and harmful for the tourists and macaques, both actions are subject to punishment by law. In 2001, the Kaohsiung City Council in Taiwan passed a law discouraging the practice of illegal provisioning with a US $200 fine in place for feeding or harming macaques or other endangered wildlife (Hsu et al. 2009). Despite this, tourists who engage in or permit harmful behaviors are rarely punished. After a given day, staff may find fecal matter from pets that come with their owners, as well as leftovers, plastic items, and other garbage remnants lying around the park (Hsu et al. 2009). Because these items are not “natural,” some wildlife may ingest them and become ill. Moreover, the fecal matter from the pets may have a role in shifting nitrogen levels within the soil; thus, making it harder for native plants to grow. Another problem from not enforcing these rules is rooted in the socioeconomic issues related to the macaques that leave the confines of the park. While monkeys that are provisioned with low-quality diets receive enough food to meet energy requirements, the macaques that eat high-quality foods tend to seek out more to satisfy their hunger as high-quality foods are not as abundant.
In order to find these high-quality food resources, the macaques that have been provisioned enough with fruits and vegetables may leave the park area and subsequently discover and forage for more of these richer foods. In areas where parks are situated near human agricultural activity, macaques have been known to serve as a pest to local farmers. Before parks began provisioning monkeys with a low-quality diet, dominant macaques in Bali would invade local rice fields and agricultural gardens (Fuentes et al. 2007). Because the agriculture was grown so close to the parks, macaques increased their foraging efficiency due to the lack of time spent traveling. This foraging efficiency, however, comes at a price to the nearby farmers as many suffered significant monetary losses due to the macaques’ preference for high-quality, mature fruits such as bananas and papayas (Linkie et al. 2007). These fruit which tend to sell for high amounts, and given that when macaques forage, they have a tendency to be destructive which creates damages the crops and increases the perception of macaques as pests.
Because they are often seen as pests, and laws against harming the endangered Formosan macaques are not enforced, the local human population may resort to violent tactics aside from throwing rocks to scare the monkeys off. In some cases where macaques have raided crops, farmers have taken to capturing methods and then beating the primate, using slingshots, firecrackers, firing air guns, or the most drastic of these retaliatory actions: threatening or killing the monkeys with a shotgun (Knight 1999). This is problematic because ecotourism draws people in to see endangered species of macaques such as the Formosan macaques, baiting them with higher-quality foods and drive them to the point of seeking out higher-quality foods which may be fatal in some cases and further contribute to endangering the overall species by losing an individual.
Currently, there is no easy solution to the problem of limited park staff being able to control provisioning tactics. However, there have been methods suggested that could be successful given logistical implementation. Despite the Taiwanese government’s exclusive reliance on national parks and their staff to protect wildlife and the issues resulting from a lack of staff, a potential solution to this particular issue is to only allow a limited number of tourists in at a given time. In a survey in one entrance alone, it was measured that over 6,000 people visited the park on the weekends and 3,500 on the weekdays (Hsu et al. 2009). A reduced number can be decided upon by city officials, park staff, and other members of the local government to make sure it meets the standards to which park officials can safely and consistently manage. In addition, the smaller numbers would make it easier for the park staff to prevent and detect illegal provisioning, littering of waste products, and conflicts between humans and macaques.
The reduced number of visitors may also reduce the amount of human-macaque conflicts outside of the park as well. As the macaques will have more space that can be used to escape large groups of people, some monkeys will not feel the need to leave the park boundaries and exit into local farmers’ fields. Additionally, a correlation was discovered in areas provisioned by tourists between adult aggression in macaques and range restriction due to dense human clusters in the park (Fuentes et al. 2007). If the number of tourists who provision the macaques decreases, then perhaps the intergroup aggression will also diminish, as there would be a lessened need to compete for food resources among higher-ranking individuals. Although some macaques may still attempt to find higher-quality food sources in local farms, this prevention of provisioning can also prevent an appetite for high-quality food from developing within the primates.
While the macaques who typically venture outward and forage in agricultural gardens or fields or continue agonistic behaviors are typically adult males, there is another option if reducing the number of tourists fails to condense the occurrences of these behaviors. This proposed measure involves translocating the aggressive macaques to outlying areas or other areas where there are smaller populations (Hsu et al. 2009). Thus, the macaques would be prevented from exploring the nearby crops and from agonistic encounters with others within the group and human tourists. Because macaques are generalists and adjust fairly well to new places because of their dietary plasticity, it is likely that many of the translocated macaques will be successful in their new environment.
Ultimately, the potential for implementing these changes comes down to financial ability. The success of these endeavors depends on whether or not the local government is able to pay for the costs of park staff: even if the number of tourists becomes reduced, the laws and park rules may remain unenforced due to an overall shortage of staff to cover the amount of land the park covers. Moreover, potentially diverting funds from other pressing issues within the government’s budget towards the general staff maintenance of the park may cause even further strife in local communities (Johnson 2009). Local communities may become resentful towards the government for not allocating more money to their needs and not vote for incumbents or, potentially, not visit the local parks out of protest. As a result, the local parks lose income, which in turn decreases park-based provisioning of food and protection for macaques.
Across many sites around the world with macaques and other wildlife species, the issue of provisioning takes on a cyclical nature which is not so easy to prevent or solve. Socioeconomic, wildlife interests, and other elements must be considered before making a decision to rule out potential problems related to the welfare of the macaques and humans, and often remedying one issue increases another. The responsibility of undertaking regulating wildlife parks for macaques, tourists, and staff is certainly a large one, but when done properly, can enrich, educate, and encourage local community members to protect their wildlife—as is the purpose of ecotourism.
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