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Philippine macaques - masters of the mangroves


Sheena Harvey finds herself monkeying around with the wildlife of Southeast Asia

A commotion outside the window woke me. It took several seconds to orient myself to my surroundings – woven palm-leaf walls, bright sunlight, the smell of salt air and damp vegetation steaming in the heat.

The previous evening I had arrived on El Nido, one of the tiny limestone islets of the Palawan archipelago in the Philippines. A motorised outrigger canoe delivered me to a wooden jetty jutting out of a crescent of white sand. My weekend home would be a wooden hut on stilts; one of a dozen in a ring at the back of the beach, nestling against sheer walls of sharp grey rock topped by abundant green vegetation. On each side the cliffs were undercut by the sea, so the island looked like a green mushroom rising from the turquoise water.

Now, what had seemed like a little peaceful paradise was rent by unearthly shrieks. I parted the curtains nervously, expecting a scene of mayhem. Instead I saw a 20-strong troop of chattering, squabbling monkeys, with red-brown hair, tufted heads and incredibly long tails.

The Philippine Macaque (Macaca fascicularis philippensis) is a sub-species of the Crab-eating Macaque. The size of a small dog, it lives in less populated areas of the central Philippines in coastal rainforest and mangrove swamps. Populations have been in decline, driven out of ancestral areas by the exploitation of humans. I had not been hopeful of seeing any, and certainly not this close.

I tiptoed down the hut steps onto sand that was soft as talcum powder under my bare feet. I needn’t have worried about being discreet. These monkeys were well used to people on their island and quite contemptuous of them. The dominant male sat under a nipa palm not far from me, watching implacably as his noisy youngsters rampaged around an open-air bar, clattering among the bottles.

Many of the older macaques were squatting under the trees chewing on mangoes they had pulled down from the branches, but the youngsters were after a less run-of-the-mill snack.

Their quarry was a bunch of bananas originally destined for a tourist’s fruit salad breakfast. With long delicate fingers they peeled the fruit and tucked mouthfuls into their cheek pouches.

Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, and at the height of their performance for the growing audience of night-attired humans, the early morning raid was over and the whole troop was on the move again, bounding over the sand and back up the cliffs in an unruly group.

But, no, not the whole tribe. They had left behind the alpha male. He climbed slowly onto the bar, retrieved an unwashed cocktail blender from the sink and carefully wiped out the inside, licking the sweet liquid off his paws with meticulous care.

Here was a monkey with dignity, who didn’t want his secret vice to be overseen by the rest of his fellows. His tipple over, he strolled across the sand, leapt effortlessly up the truck of a mango tree and disappeared from view.