To Feed or Not to Feed, That’s the Question Atop Guizhou’s Monkey Mountain
GUIYANG, Southwest China — Almost every other day, Zhou Zeqi, 69, stops at a three-way intersection in the Qianling Mountain Park, carrying several packets of steamed buns. There, she shouts just two words: “I’m here!”
Almost instantly, dozens of monkeys, which are among the major attractions at the park, scamper down the mountainside, surround her, and snatch away the snacks in her hands. Four days a week for the last 26 years, this has been Zhou’s routine at this park, just three kilometers from her home in the southwestern Guizhou province.
And she isn’t alone. Over the last decade, Zhou and a group of elderly people, using only their meager savings and pension, have unfailingly fed the wild monkeys at the Qianling Mountain Park in the provincial capital of Guiyang.
The locals call them “monkey parents” and they are part of the Macaque Conservation Committee (MCC) — a group of concerned citizens. Established in 2007, they were initially supported by the park and the local government.
But for some years now, disagreements with authorities have become increasingly frequent. From negative press about monkeys attacking tourists to reports on primates escaping the park and vandalizing public facilities, the ever-increasing macaque population within the park’s boundaries presents growing concerns.
And while the MCC believes their “children” would starve to death were it not for them, since no one else feeds them, authorities assert that their “no feeding” signs and security guards haven’t deterred the MCC at all.
The two parties have perpetually been at loggerheads, sometimes even engaging in physical altercations. And with the park experimenting with relocating the monkeys and arming guards with slingshots, which the MCC has decried, a lasting solution remains elusive.
Meet the monkey parents
Zhou became the director of the MCC after retiring as a branch manager at a local trading company. Most of its 100-odd members are retirees; they rotate responsibilities to feed the monkeys in Qianling Mountain every week.
In the 1960s, six macaques escaped from the Guiyang Epidemic Prevention Station and joined their wild brethren in the Qianling Mountain Park, forming a semi-wild macaque population. With no natural predators nearby, their numbers grew quickly.
Zhou has dubbed the current alpha of this troop Dafu. She says he has similar habits and traits to his father — the preceding alpha — including the same white spots on his face.
85-year-old Ren Huifang, a retired oncologist, has fed the monkeys for the last two decades. She says she has spent enough on food for them to have bought “a 100 square-meter apartment in Guiyang.”
Three years ago, when she realized she was too feeble to feed the monkeys herself, she turned “to the cloud.” Ren contacted a content creator to feed the monkeys using food she bought and film the process.
From her house, Ren watches the livestreams every day. “Scarface has been hit with a slingshot again, and Dafu has begun to shed his fur in winter,” she observed. During one stream, she longed to reach out and touch the monkeys but could only caress her phone screen.
To keep the monkeys in check, the park’s security guards now patrol the grounds with slingshots in their pockets. When monkeys grab onto tourists or gnaw on trash cans, the guards need only take aim to make them disperse.
“But we don’t really shoot at them,” says a guard with a smile. “The monkeys know to be afraid of us just from our red armbands — they’re very smart.”
The introduction of the slingshots has drawn the ire of MCC director Zhou Zeqi. She shows a short video of a monkey injured by a lollipop-sized marble which she believes was the work of a security guard.
But Director of the Qianling Mountain Park Management Office Yang Zhen says: “The security guards just pretend to take aim. If a monkey has been hurt, you can’t say without proof that it’s the work of our employees.”
Friend or foe
According to park authorities, the local population of monkeys has long since surpassed 1,000 — far higher than the local ecology’s carrying capacity. They underscore that overcrowding is also a source of trouble.
The MCC, however, believes it is an “exaggeration,” and assert that the monkey population is, at the most, around 400.
Early in 2020, the Qianling Mountain Park closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which offered a rare opportunity to verify the monkey population.
Researchers left food on the trails closest to the monkey habitat. They then took panoramic images as they fed and counted them. As of February 2020, they estimated the monkey population to be around 1,210.
Professor Su Haijun of Guizhou University, who headed the survey, says, “This is a very accurate method of measurement with a margin of error of no more than 30 animals.”
According to his calculations, the park’s ecology can, at most, support 792 monkeys. “However, the number of macaques should ideally be maintained at half capacity — that is, around 400,” he says.
The rapid increase in the monkey population over the past decade has resulted in more attacks on tourists. A safety notice in the park reads: “Since 2004, macaques have injured a total of 5,927 people, with more than 20 people being admitted to hospital with serious injuries.”
Park Chief Yang Zhen says that, in addition to frequently attacking tourists, the monkeys also gnaw on trash cans and lampposts as well as the exterior walls of buildings.
The park has tried wrapping thorny vines around these lampposts, which only gave the monkeys something new to gnash. “It doesn’t work at all,” says Yang.
He once saw a monkey jump on a reflector at an intersection along a sightseeing path and bite it until it was in pieces. “The speed was unbelievable — with just a few bites, it was destroyed,” he says.
He estimated damages caused by monkeys in the park to be “around 2 million yuan ($300,000) a year.”
The bedlam is not limited to the park premises alone. In November, a monkey climbed up a pipeline into the home of a resident nearby, more than 30 storeys high. There, it wreaked havoc and even snatched the pet’s toys.
At a hearing last year, a government official mentioned that, up to October 2020, at least four power outages were caused by macaques climbing transformers in the communities surrounding Qianling Mountain Park.
Late last year, the Guiyang Forestry Bureau announced that since Qianling Mountain was overpopulated with macaques, experts had suggested that part of the population be relocated.
The process began in December and is expected to last around 18 months. The relocated monkeys will be used for scientific research elsewhere.
Ren Huifang’s anger is palpable every time she utters the word “relocation.” She says, “The first time I was hospitalized 10 years ago, it was because of this so-called relocation.”
According to Yang Zhen, one of the reasons relocations have been unsuccessful over the past two decades is resistance from animal rights groups like the MCC.
In turn, Ren is blunt about the fact that the Committee has never trusted the motives of park officials.
Their distrust stems from the sudden disappearance of a group of monkeys 10 years ago, which Ren says, “has not been explained to this day.”
On Aug. 1, 2011, Ren and a few other committee members brought steamed buns to feed the monkeys as usual. But they soon realized several familiar faces were missing.
The park had transported the monkeys to a zoo 30 km away. Two days later, when more than a dozen MCC members, including Ren, visited the zoo, they found the monkeys, all locked in cages. She says the monkeys began wailing the moment they saw them.
Ren says, “These dear monkeys had been sent to a distant place and locked up in cages. When we saw them, we couldn’t help but cry.”
At first, the zoo staff claimed these monkeys were not from Qianling Mountain Park. When the argument spiraled out of control, the MCC said they were willing to pay for DNA tests.
“At that point, the staff finally admitted that the caged monkeys were indeed sent to them from Qianling Mountain Park, but that, as ground-level employees, they had no authority in the matter,” says Ren. The MCC called the police before returning to the park, demanding the park transport the monkeys back.
“Initially, the park refused to admit it, either. It was only when we said again that we would conduct DNA tests that they changed their story and agreed to transport them back immediately,” says Ren.
A dozen MCC members waited at the park until 2 a.m. that day, but the monkeys never returned.
The next day, they rushed back to the zoo only to discover the caged monkeys had disappeared. To this day, neither the zoo nor park officials have commented on where they were taken. Ren recalls that, in the weeks that followed, the MCC held multiple meetings with the government, the park, and the Forestry Bureau.
“I turned 75 that year. A few days after the monkeys disappeared, my heart started to act up,” she says, adding that it was also the first time she was admitted to the hospital for 10 days.
In the years that followed, similar disappearances continued. Whenever familiar faces suddenly vanished from the park, the MCC rushed to meet all concerned officials.
They even filed complaints and attempted to draw media attention. Ren says, “But it was all to no avail. Every time the director saw that we had come to visit again, he looked visibly upset.”
With no precise information about the monkeys’ whereabouts, the elderly amateur conservationists have only grown more suspicious: “They were all sold off by the park for a profit,” alleges Ren.
Director Yang Zhen was quick to defend the park from the allegations. “Monkeys are wild animals. There are a number of reasons that can explain their disappearance: battles between populations, migration, or simply natural causes.”
Help or harm
To MCC members, monkeys are lovable, intelligent creatures capable of understanding people’s emotions. And feeding them is only natural.
Some experts, however, believe otherwise.
During a visit to Qianling Mountain Park, researchers observed the fur on several monkeys had grown dull and, in some cases, was even falling off in clumps. Others were bloated, with unusually large bellies, showing signs of tumors.
Some monkeys were even seen loitering in packs along paths tourists often took, their eyelids drooping as they waited to be fed. Despite the warning signs, their numbers continued to grow.
Yang Zhen underscores that the problems the monkeys face are a consequence of being continually fed by humans.
“The MCC does not understand the dietary habits of the macaques. The food they give them contains sugar, starch, and hormones. This unhealthy diet, combined with the lack of exercise since they no longer have to forage for food, causes the monkeys to become obese and over-reproduce,” he says.
In addition, monkeys are primates, meaning humans in close proximity can transmit diseases to them.
Ran Jingcheng, a researcher at the Guizhou Academy of Forestry, has been involved in the conservation of macaques in Qianling Mountain Park for a long time.
“Feeding the monkeys is absolutely wrong. This is the main reason for their morbidity and overpopulation. And now they have to be relocated,” he says. “Testing the monkeys during the pandemic for viruses has confirmed a variety of zoonotic diseases in their systems.”
In 2007, the park supported and attended the founding of the MCC, which Ran believes clearly sent out the wrong message. “It only encouraged feeding the monkeys.”
Zhou Jiang, a professor at Guizhou Normal University and a member of the Chinese Primate Group, a body of experts under the China Zoological Society, however, says it started decades earlier.
In the 1980s, the park launched a project called “Domestication of Macaques in Qianling Mountain Park,” which advocated feeding to expand the macaque population and make the monkeys a tourist attraction.
“The dangers of feeding are now evident, but we can’t really say that the park isn’t at all responsible,” says Zhou.
Lin Yang is the founder of a wildlife protection organization, who also believes the monkeys’ problematic behavior stems from humans feeding them. “Feeding monkeys makes them accustomed to begging for food. Monkeys in many scenic spots sit by the road or chase tourists for food. When tourists don’t give in, they sometimes lash out,” says Lin.
Bridging the divide
In November 2020, when the park announced another relocation exercise, the MCC was immediately galvanized.
Soon after, MCC director Zhou Zeqi and Ren Huifang met Professor Zhou Jiang at his office; he is among the few professionals with whom they are willing to engage.
Ren recalls asking: “Professor Zhou, are they going to take away the Monkey King, Dafu? That would be too much for me to endure.”
He replied: “That’s unlikely. The monkey who becomes king represents the best of the species in terms of capacity for learning, fighting skills, and agility. Even if they wanted to, would they be able to catch him? The relocation will focus on the monkeys who receive less attention, such as the elderly and those who stir up trouble and annoy tourists.”
“There was a rumor in the past that the park sold monkeys. Do you know where the monkeys will be relocated this time?”
“Some of them will be taken to other zoos where monkeys are needed to improve the quality of local populations, while others will be sent for experimental research.”
Ren froze at the last two words. As a former doctor, she knew the role monkeys played in scientific research. She told him: “But they mustn’t, under any circumstances, be sold to restaurants for human consumption.”
At her side, Zhou Zeqi said that if they were guaranteed that the monkeys wouldn’t be sold to restaurants and would be relocated to a stable living environment, the MCC could cope with the relocation.
“It’s not that we don’t agree with the relocation — we just want the government to disclose where the monkeys will be resettled. After all, the monkeys are the shared treasure of the citizens of Guiyang,” Zhou Zeqi told the professor.
“You can rest assured, it was said at the hearing that the relocation will be carried out in accordance with laws and regulations,” said Prof. Zhou.
After discussing the issue for more than two hours, Ren folded up her sheets of densely scrawled notes, but felt that two days of pent-up anxiety had been somewhat assuaged.
For the MCC, Prof. Zhou is their point person for every dispute about the monkeys.
He recalls meeting the MCC for the first time in 2007. The government held a meeting to discuss the monkeys’ relocation and one official said: “These monkeys should all be sent for experimentation.”
Before the MCC could protest, Prof. Zhou quickly stood up and explained: “Not every monkey can be used for experiments. There are strict conditions that they must meet.”
He admires the MCC members who have fed monkeys for decades. He knows many of them are far from wealthy and receive only a meager pension. But they have never failed to buy them food. Such enduring love is hard to come by.
He suggests that the details of the relocation plan be made public. He believes many details of the current plan have still not been settled.
For example, is tranquilization a viable method to capture hundreds of monkeys? How should we determine which monkeys should be relocated — according to their age, sex, or ethnic group? How should we address the public?
There are few precedents that can serve as a reference for the relocation of wild primates in China. “I hope this can act as an important first for domestic wildlife protection,” says Zhou Jiang.
Yang Zhen, Lin Yang, and Ren Huifang are pseudonyms.
A version of this article originally appeared in Beijing Youth Daily. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Apurva.
(Header image: A macaque drinks soda at Qianling Mountain Park in Guiyang, Guizhou province, Aug. 29, 2021. People Visual)