How to Prevent a Monkey Attack

How To: Jason Daley explains how to avoid getting bitten, slapped or shoved by an ornery primate.

12.30.08 | 10:25 AM ET

monkey attackREUTERS

The Situation: Among the many worries a traveler may be forced to contemplate—catastrophic bus fires, itchy money belts, hemorrhagic fevers—one menace is typically overlooked: monkeys. From troops of temple macaques, to city slicker baboons, to curious vervets, a trip to almost any destination between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn will put you in the domain of our simian cousins. For the most part, monkeys in the wild aren’t a problem. But acclimate them to a stream of snacking tourists, and the beasties can become aggressive if not downright dangerous. An encounter gone awry can lead to stitches, a potentially fatal case of herpes-B, or a cameo on YouTube and mortal embarrassment:

Rise of the Apes: Like so many ecological problems, human/monkey entanglements happen because civilization is encroaching more and more into a once wild habitat. The result is a clash between man and monkey over limited resources, sometimes with deadly results. In 2000, in Takaba, Kenya, drought-stricken villagers were forced to battle a group of clawing, stone-throwing monkeys for two hours while trying to reach three tanker trucks of water.

The most famous example of the out of control monkey situation happened in 2007, when the deputy mayor of New Delhi was pushed off the balcony of his home by a marauding troop of macaques. And that was just one sortie in the battle for India’s capital. Over the last few years, the macaques in New Delhi have inflicted over 2,000 bites, sacked people’s homes and businesses, and once even stole classified documents from the Indian defense department.

For the average traveler the risk of ape-related death or primate-fueled political upheaval is small. But worldwide, there’s plenty of monkey trouble to go around.

Hot Spots: Any monkey that has acclimated to humans can become a problem, but there are some areas where the dirty apes are more aggressive than others:

Avoiding Monkey Trouble: The key to staying safe in a heavily monkey-populated area is to be mindful of food, which is by far the most common invitation to primate aggression. In most areas with monkey populations, like temples or botanical gardens, a vendor will sell food outside the gate. If you choose to feed the monkeys, always opt for these local treats (usually bananas or other fruits). Handing out sugar cookies, peanuts or other exotic snacks like Pop Tarts can cause in-fighting among the monkeys.

Also, it’s important not to parcel out the snacks one by one as though you were feeding ducks or squirrels—monkeys are greedy and will often ignore a single banana to try and grab the entire bunch from your hands. Instead, place your treat or banana bunch in a small pile and let the monkeys work it out among themselves. If you bring a water bottle or lunch, make sure to keep it hidden in a backpack, and only pull it out in bathrooms or enclosed areas away from the monkeys.

Paul Vasey, a researcher from Lethbridge University in Canada, has closely studied macaque mating in the mountains outside Kyoto, Japan for 15 years and has been attacked many times, but never bitten. He suggests not carrying a backpack, since in many tourist areas monkeys have learned to raid them for goodies. He advises treating the macaques with respect and caution. “Give them space, the same way you would give any wild animal space,” he says. “This is especially true if the animals are engaged in a sexual interaction.”

Advanced Monkey Taming: Even if you’ve taken precautions to keep food from monkeys, you could still encounter a bad-tempered primate. Women and children, who the monkeys see as less of a threat and are attacked more often, need to take special care not make a primate faux pas. A sure way to incite an attack is to get between a mother monkey and its young—be mindful that you don’t get too close, even if it means a better camera angle. A shrill shout from a threatened baby macaque can bring the whole troop down on you.

Scott Gamerl, a primatologist at the Topeka Zoo who has studied human/macaque interactions at tourist spots in Bali, says there are a few common signs that a monkey is becoming hostile. “If he blinks at you, or makes an exaggerated yawn, these are signs of aggression. He’s showing you his teeth,” he explains. “The same is true if he flashes a big smile.” At that point it’s best to walk away from the monkey, and make sure to avoid direct eye contact and not smile at the monkeys, which they interpret as an invitation to tangle.

If a monkey does charge, Vasey suggests you stand your ground. “As soon as the attacking animal knows you are subordinate to them, it’s game over—and they are really good at judging how scared you are of them,” he says. “Throw stones or branches at the animals and yell in as intimidating a manner as possible as you back away slowly.” If the monkey does grab on, don’t try to swat it away or scream, which might cause it to bite. Instead, Gamerl suggests, walk calmly away and the monkey will eventually jump off.

The Golden Rule: Treat any visit to an area with monkeys as if you are visiting the zoo. Avoid all contact with the monkeys. And when you leave ... always wash your hands.

Jason Daley is a correspondent for Outside Magazine and writes regularly for Best Life, Backpacker, Popular Science and other magazines.

6 Comments for How to Prevent a Monkey Attack

Enduring Wanderlust 12.30.08 | 2:16 PM ET

Shimla, India has a major monkey problem. Locals often carry stick with them to protect themselves from attacks. They also close windows and doors to ensure that the monkeys don’t go into home to grap food. It’s a beautiful hilltop town, but keep your eyes open :)

John M. Edwards 01.03.09 | 6:31 PM ET

Hi Jason:

When I was on the Thai island of Ko Samet, a vicious monkey attacked me, made a screeching “ee-ee” sound, and grabbed my water bottle out of my hand. I suppose it could have been worse: I could have gotten rabies or something.

Also, believe it or not, a monkey once stole my waller out of my cabin at Bukit Luwang, Sumatra, Indonesia—an Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.

Finally, I was peed on by a group of howler monkeys on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, the ultimate in indignities.

Thanks for the primer on protecting ourselves from these primates. Next time, I’ll be waiting for them. . . .

John M. Edwards

bedava oyun 01.04.09 | 2:16 PM ET

great monkeys and in my country in zoo they are always want to banana some of them especially gorils agressive

Kellie 01.15.09 | 9:47 AM ET

The monkeys on China’s holy mountain Mt. Emei are out of control! Tourists come, in part, to see the Tibetan macaque monkeys, but the attention has made them insanely aggressive. During our hike, we saw one leap on a little girl’s head, grab someone’s water bottle out of their hand, and bite our guide. The bite started off innocent enough—a simple hug around one leg—but then the one-handed monkey (perhaps he was retaliating for his own loss) sank his teeth into our poor guide’s jeans.  Fortunately, the guide had a rabies shot the prior year when he was also bit.  Watch out!  Those are some crazy monkeys!

Nancy 01.16.09 | 12:59 AM ET

After close encounters with the monkeys in India, Morocco, Thailand and Gibraltar I give all of these
primates respect and space. It may sound funny to some who have not seen how aggressive they
can be. Not so funny after you have seen or been part of an attack! Some of the monkeys in India
were attacking tourist and locals just to steal sunglasses or shiny objects.

Carlos 02.13.09 | 6:36 PM ET

In Shimla, India I saw a visitor attacked by one of the resident macaques at the Jakhoo temple.  The monkey leapt onto the guy’s back, snatched his eyeglasses from his face, and was back on the ground laughing, all within seconds.  The only way to get the monkey to relinquish the glasses was to offer food.  The temple priests, of course, were more than happy to sell a small bag of nuts for this purpose.

Jakhoo temple is dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god, so the macaques are indulged and have free run of the place.  Fortunately, they keep a few dogs to patrol the grounds.  The monkeys seem to be afraid of the dogs, and keep their distance.  My advice is to stick close to the dogs….

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