Boris Johnson’s partner applauds UK retailers for their ban on products using monkey labour linked with Thailand’s coconut farmers. Leading UK retailers turn their back on Thai coconut-based products over claims of cruelty by a US-based animal rights group. The Ministry of Commerce plans to brief commercial envoys to Thailand on the traditional practice. Thailand is the 6th largest coconut exporter in the world. The crop is used extensively in the Thai food industry and subsidiary products.

An urgent call was made over the weekend by the Secretary-General of the Thai Animal Protection Association, Roger Lohanan, for Thailand’s government to counter a campaign which last week saw Thai coconut products removed from nearly 15,000 stores across the UK in a campaign promoted by the Virginia-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and supported by the partner of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Ms Carrie Symond, calling for a boycott of Thai coconut products worldwide over the use of monkey labour to pick the crop. The problem for the Thai government is that one monkey trainer estimates 99% of all Thai coconuts are harvested on small farms by macaque monkeys.

Thailand’s use of monkeys for harvesting coconuts on farms hit the social media spotlight in the UK this week when a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) video caused Thai coconut products to be withdrawn from UK supermarket shelves, a move applauded by the relationship partner of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Carrie Symond (right) on Twitter. Over the weekend, responding to what could be an escalating situation, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Commerce, Mr Boonyarit Kalayanamit (left), said he may reach out to foreign envoys to explain the true nature of the relationship between Thai coconut farmers and their monkeys. He stressed that it was nothing akin to animal cruelty.

The Thai Ministry of Commerce is mobilising to counter a real danger to Thailand’s valuable coconut export trade following the beginnings of a boycott this week in the UK.

The move follows the publication of a video and report from American based PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, focusing on the issue of monkey labour in the harvesting of Thai coconuts.

Carrie Symonds applauds UK shopping chains for removing Thai products from their shelves

There is nothing new about this campaign which has been ongoing now for at least a decade.

However, it is understood that moves in the UK gained impetus last week when they received the support of Ms Carrie Symonds, the relationship partner of UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

Ms Symonds gave birth to the couple’s son Wilfred at the end of April. The young woman is known to be an ardent conservationist and a highly influential figure in the current British administration.

In a Tweet last week, she applauded swift action by UK shopping chains which have banned Thai related coconut products. 

‘I am glad Waitrose, Co-op, Boots & Ocado have vowed not to sell products that use monkey labour, while Morrisons has already removed them from its stores,’ Ms Symonds pronounced on Twitter.

Use of monkeys and training of simians considered valuable wisdom by Thai coconut farmers

One monkey trainer in Surat Thani in 2015, estimated that 99% of all Thai coconuts are produced by small farmers using monkey labour in what is considered by Thailand’s coconut farmers as essential wisdom and part of the country’s traditional way of life.

15,000 stores now closed to Thai coconut products in the UK with potentially more to come

The products banned include Thai coconut water and coconut milk but there are fears that the ban could be extended further in the UK and even worldwide given the current sensitive nature of social media politics. 

The moves made by four UK chains this week saw Thai coconut products banned from 15,000 shelves with other chains being encouraged to follow suit.

PETA confirmed this in its statement to the media following reaction to its video and campaign this week: ‘Following PETA’s Asia’s investigation, more than 15,000 stores will no longer purchase these brands’ products, with the majority also no longer buying any coconut products sourced from Thailand monkey labour.’

At present, four major UK retailers have either banned Thai coconut related products or have promised to take further action while other chains have also pledged to investigate their supply chains with a view to imposing further bans.

One chain ASDA is owned by US giant Walmart

Another of the UK’s biggest retailers ASDA, owned by retail giant Walmart in the United States has over 630 supermarkets and sales of over £21.6 billion.

It confirmed at the end of the week that two specific, best selling Thai brands using coconuts had been removed from sale and issued the following statement: ‘We expect our suppliers to uphold the highest production standards at all times and we will not tolerate any form of animal abuse in our supply chain.’

Four others made similar announcements while Tesco said it had conducted a review and found that its coconut products were not sourced in Thailand.

Thai animal protection boss denies that Thai monkeys are being abused, calls for government action

The Secretary-General of the Thai Animal Protection Association, Mr Roger Lohanan, meanwhile has pointed out that the use of macaque monkeys on Thai coconut farms cannot be considered as animal cruelty.

He compared it to the use of cattle and elephants which is part of Thailand’s agricultural tradition. He pointed out that the use of monkeys was something that spans generations.

He called for urgent government action.

The training of monkeys for coconut farming is a way of life in Thailand particularly in the south of the country where there are even training schools linked with Buddhist temples which are renowned for their ability to train the animals to work harmoniously with farmers.

Thai farmer and monkey trainer in Surat Thani says the cooperation between monkey and farm families is a blessing. Part of his heritage

It was a point emphasised by Mr Niran Wongwanit, a Thai coconut farmer and monkey trainer from the Khlong Noi Subdistrict in the Muang district of Surat Thani this weekend.

Mr Niran says the use of macaque monkeys has been a way of life in his family for over 100 years and known for up to 400 years.

His father often talked about the danger and difficulties that farmers faced without them in climbing trees to slowly recover coconut crops and when, more often than not, crops were lost or left to rot before the arrival of monkeys.

He described the training of monkeys for the role as valuable wisdom and part of his heritage passed on from one generation to another.

Monkeys are not defanged since it kills the spirit

He particularly took issue with the PETA video claim where several alleged Thai farmers were quoted as suggesting that the monkeys could be defanged and worked to death.

Mr Niran said that this runs counter to local practices as a monkey who has had his fangs removed will lose his will to live and become useless, what he termed a ‘losing monkey’. 

The farmer and monkey trainer did admit however that monkeys are sometimes beaten but never so much as to maim or physically harm the animal.

He explained that this was necessary for perhaps one out of one hundred monkeys who are too stubborn.

A male monkey can harvest 1,600 coconuts compared to 80 for a grown man and 600 for a female simian

The PETA report pointed to monkeys being able to harvest 1,000 coconuts per day compared to an average at 80 per day for a grown man.

Local farmers suggest that a healthy male monkey can harvest 1,600 coconuts per day while a female monkey can only harvest 600. Both agree on the figure for human capacity.

In 2018, a Thai Examiner report on Thailand’s coconut industry which is strategically important to the Thai economy, featured comments by Professor Leslie Sponsel, a professor emeritus at Hawaii University and his wife Dr Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel.

The couple had published many academic papers on the unique and valuable relationships between Thai coconut farmers and their monkeys.

US professor and his wife studied the relationship between Thai coconut farmers and their monkeys

‘During our time in southern Thailand, we never observed or heard of cruelty or abuse of the monkeys,’ Sponsel revealed.

‘Indeed, the monkeys are very similar to family pets, and for some households, even like family members to some degree. Young ones are trained, and they are kept on a chain tethered to the handler or to a shelter when not working. They are fed, watered, bathed, groomed and otherwise cared for. They often ride to the coconut palm plantation on the back of a motorbike or in a cart driven by the handler.’ 

Dr Sponsel’s remarks coincide with comments this week by Thai farmer Mr Niran who described the relationship like this: ‘Because the monkeys that we raise are like family. We love them like a baby, have rice, juice, milk. Everything that the monkeys can eat, will bring to eat, they are no different from our own children.’

PETA campaign and video appears to show clear evidence of abuse of monkeys in Thailand

Nevertheless, the PETA information campaign this week including a video dubbed by Downton Abbey star, actor Peter Egan, appeared to show some macaque monkeys being badly treated and even in distress.

The PETA exposé claimed that it investigated 8 Thai farms involved with the use of monkeys to collect coconuts.

The animal rights group claimed that it had discovered schools where the monkeys were thought to work on farms and to entertain people including tourists.

Director of animal activist group says monkeys on the video showed signs of extreme stress

The Director of PETA, Elisa Allen, claimed that the monkeys are ‘snatched’ from their natural environment and society in the wild and trained to work on farms by human handlers.

‘The animals at these facilities, many of whom are illegally captured as babies, displayed stereotypic behaviour indicative of extreme stress.’ she said.

’These curious, highly intelligent animals are denied psychological stimulation, companionship, freedom, and everything else that would make their lives worth living, all so that they can be used to gather coconuts.’

Monkey trying to escape from a cage

The video did indeed show macaque monkeys tethered and one specimen attempting to free himself from a small cage in a frenzied series of actions.

Another frame showed monkeys locked into small cages in the back of a pickup truck and left exposed to torrential rain.

In one part of the video, two alleged Thai farmers are heard talking about removing monkey’s fangs and working them until they die.

Hard-hitting message targets Thai coconut industry

The hard-hitting video pulled no punches and appears to target all products linked with Thai coconuts.

‘An industry insider revealed that it is rare to find a product from Thailand containing coconut that wasn’t picked by monkeys,’ the PETA announcer proclaims. ‘If you see a product made with Thai coconuts such as coconut milk, oil, water or yoghurt, please leave it on the shelf to avoid supporting this misery.’

Top civil servant at the Ministry of Commerce suggests reaching out to envoys in Thailand

Over the weekend, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Commerce, Mr Boonyarit Kalayanamit, indicated that the Thai government would be taking action to counter the damage done by the PETA campaign.

The top government official said that the Ministry of Commerce was preparing to act and may invite diplomats from many countries to come and see for themselves. 

Mr Boonyarit elaborated and explained that the ministry may invite commercial attachés from all the embassies in Thailand to come to visit the plantations where monkey labour is used by Thai farmers.

He said that should be made to understand that this is a way of life in Thailand and cannot be considered as an abuse of animals.

US Animal Rights group calls for mechanisation replacement and new ‘dwarf’ coconut trees

Meanwhile, PETA is insisting that that is just what it is.

It calls for Thai farmers to give up using monkeys and to instead deploy hydraulic harvesters as used in other countries or the planting of more productive dwarf coconut trees which can easily be harvested by humans. 

The problem is that it takes up to 10 years for a newly planted coconut tree to bear fruit. The machinery is expensive to purchase and to operate. 

It may also be that Thai farmers enjoy working with monkeys and consider this an essential part of their tradition and culture.

Aside from this, quite obviously, it is not something that many Thai farmers can afford to even consider and something that would take a long time to bring about while Thailand loses another vital economic sector.

A UN report in 2015 listed Thailand as the 6th largest exporter of coconuts in the world. 

The use of coconuts in Thailand’s traditional cooking and a myriad of products is endemic. 

Figures show that the kingdom has over 220,000 hectares under cultivation and produces nearly 1 billion coconuts per year.

Monkey trainer in Surat Thani rejects claims of abuse and claims the work is a cooperative effort

In response to media questioning in 2015, Arjen Schroevers, a monkey trainer in Surat Thani explained that 99% of Thai farmers harvesting coconuts use monkeys for their job.

He said he worked with a school linked with a Buddhist temple established over 50 years ago for that purpose.

He rejected the picture painted by animal rights activists to highlight the issue: ‘It is always relaxed, no shouting, no punishing,’ he says. ‘Every few trees the monkey hugs his owner, who then checks the monkey for red ants (who live in the trees) and the monkey gets a massage. Outside working hours the monkeys are kept as a pet .’

This is the message that the Thai government must get out across the world. It will be a challenge in the current political climate.

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Further reading:

Thai government acts to deal with a coconut crisis as price of the crop has plunged sharply

Minister reports encouraging news as national vaccine goes forward to the next stage in trials on monkeys

Rival monkey kingdoms fought a pitched battle in the Thai city of Lopburi on Wednesday morning

Russian tourist is bitten on Phuket’s Monkey Hill prompting a review by police of security for visitors

20 monkeys poisoned in Rayong with more reports of monkey attacks on visitors as populations increase