Since I can remember, I have always been involved with the protection of wildlife and the habitat that supports it. I’ve seen some terrible things and I’ve fought some horrible fights. Everything from working with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to ‘after dark’ animal rescues has been part of my world.
More recently however, I have been volunteering with the Little Fireface Project in West Java, Indonesia. As part of my field station role here I am responsible for gathering data on the atrocious wildlife markets. In the larger cities which include Jakarta and Bandung, every animal you can imagine is for sale; otters, porcupines and the ‘protected by law’ critically endangered slow lorises are just three species I see on a regular basis. Two porcupines ‘protected by law’ have been in separate cages for more than four months. It seems that porcupines are not cute enough to keep as pets, so rather than return them to the place where they were stolen from, they suffer day in day out in a cage that is barely big enough to allow them to turn around in and of course, without any form of enrichment. This is by no means the worst thing to witness, so I carry on, collect the information and inform the ‘authorities’ when I identify protected species for sale. I sometimes feel that my efforts are in vain, as the wildlife continues to be offered for sale in hot, dusty, sometimes humid and extremely unsanitary, cramped conditions. I often wonder ‘why do I bother?’, but I’m resilient remember, and I must continue on. The situation for so many lives is so very sad, but my heartbreak was still to come.
After leaving the markets I drove along a busy road between two cities, Bandung and Garut. It was a Saturday in October and the traffic was loud and backed up for miles; taking around one hour to drive 7km. Three lanes in each direction; car and motorbike horns constantly tooting on top of loud music blaring from the surrounding vehicles – The worst 7km I have even driven! I could hear out-of time-drumming, very loud drumming combined with cymbals clanging. On the median strip between the two directions of traffic, were elderly people sitting on pieces of dirty cardboard begging for money. A blind women cradling a baby in her arms begged incessantly for more money hoping to appeal to the compassion of a sympathetic passer-by. In amongst the frenzied mayhem, I witnessed something that would etch into my memory and stay with me. The drumming and cymbal clanging that I could hear was the ‘topeng monyet’ or dancing monkeys. This incredibly cruel and disturbing form of local entertainment was something that I had heard about, but had never witnessed with my own eyes. Each monkey that is forced to perform is, over many months, brutally tortured into submission and forced to stand up on its hind legs to dance, all while dressed in humiliating clothing accompanied by a mask or dolls head while the cruel owner bangs a small drum and cymbal. I believe this was not the intended life for any species on earth. The primates that are used in this ritual are macaques and are often stolen from the wild. Until a recent trip to Borneo, I had never even seen them before.
I watched juvenile macaques shackled by a chain wrapped around their neck, being forced to dance around in between the stationary vehicles begging for money. From my car a very small macaque was chastised for ‘misbehaving’. This ‘misbehaving’ of course, was something as innocent as taking his mask off which, considering constantly dancing during the heat of the day that it could be expected. As a result of the macaque’s disobedience, a hard tug on the chain triggered a high-pitched scream from the little macaque that could be easily heard over the unbearable traffic noise.
The traffic jams (marcet) that are incredibly common throughout Indonesia are loud and extremely chaotic at best, but all of this coupled with the unnatural duty of being forced to perform and the relentless brutality dealt out by the macaque’s uncaring owners could only be interpreted as hell on earth for this peaceful creature.
Here are some photos we took from the car as we went past. (Thanks for your help Katy and Rebecca). We saw six monkeys performing on the median strip that day and it eventually it took a toll on me, as I could only sit and cry – helpless to the fact I could do nothing to end their suffering at the hands of my very own species. I must confess, with all of the injustices I have witnessed, handed out to animals by uncaring and cruel human beings, it has been a long time since I have felt this way. This was the day my heart truly broke and I’m not sure it will ever be the same again. Even writing this I choke up. How could this ever be fair for them?
Another sad part of this story, that really does sum up the people who support this cruel industry, is that the ‘monkey torturers’ were being thrown money from almost every single car in that traffic jam. So I ask, what about the blind woman with the baby? Well, I can tell you, for the entire time we were in that specific traffic jam, the woman cradling the child never received one coin – I guess she wasn’t entertaining enough.
It is illegal to showcase ‘topeng monyet’ in the city of Jakarta, but elsewhere in Java it seems to be an accepted practice. Although there are organisations fighting very hard to stop this atrocious practice, the profiteers just pack up and move on to the next place.
Sharon Williams – LFP Field Station Coordinator/Environmental Education Officer
If you travel to Indonesia or any other part of the world, I just ask that you never support this cruel and torturous exploitation.
Read a short article about the treatment of dancing monkeys here. observers.france24.com
Photographs courtesy Wild Volunteer