It’s safe to say much of the world is cuckoo for coconuts. From cosmetics to curry, the sweet white meat of this hard-shelled drupe is in high demand. Someone has to get those coconuts down from the high trees they grow upon, and the labor force at work on coconut farms might surprise you. If your coconut products come from a place like Thailand, there’s a good chance that monkeys picked them for you. Coconut farmers in Thailand have been raising and training monkeys to harvest coconuts for hundreds of years. Is it a cruel practice, or are the primates simply a different kind of working farm animal?
In Thailand, the master coconut pickers are southern pig-tailed macaques. The cute little mammals have been trained by farmers to pick coconuts for some 400 years, and the numbers are now booming due to the increased demand for coconut products. Thailand isn’t the only place where this occurs, either. Coconut farmers in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and India also sometimes rely on monkeys for manual labor.
The monkeys typically work eight hours a day, six days a week. The reasons for relying on monkey helpers to collect coconuts is pretty obvious from a business perspective. Since monkeys are born climbers, they can obviously pick the desired drupes a lot faster than any clumsy human ever could. A male macaque can harvest an average of 1,600 coconuts per day and a female can get 600. A human worker could only collect around 80 per day, so it’s clear using monkey labor can earn a lot more money for coconut farmers.
Farmers also benefit financially from selling a well-trained coconut-picking monkey, and many primate welfare experts agree that it’s safer to have monkeys harvest the coconuts than humans, since they grow around 80 feet above the ground.
The flip side of the argument comes from animal rights groups, largely based in the United States, who say coconut farmers are essentially using the monkeys as slave labor, evidenced by the metal collars and leashes they wear as they climb from tree to tree collecting coconuts. To that end, one such organization has compiled a list of companies that claim no monkeys were used to harvest their coconut products.
However, some monkey trainers in Thailand say those companies aren’t likely to be telling the truth, since the practice is so pervasive in the industry. They also defend coconut farmers, saying the relationship between farmer and harvester monkey is not based on cruelty, but is instead a mutually beneficial and caring arrangement.