Travel Features > National Park & The Great Outdoors > Bako National Park

Macaque Attack

By Wayne Tarman

Long-tailed macaque with infant.
Dennis Lau © Adventure Images Sdn Bhd

Bako National Park has many attractions. Perhaps the greatest attraction of all is the abundance of wildlife and the opportunity to view a lot of different animals at close range. Of all the species commonly seen in the Park, more often than not it is the long-tailed macaques that leave visitors with the most lasting impressions (sometimes literally, as they have foul tempers and sharp teeth!). These monkeys are probably the first and last animals that you will see at Bako, as they have made Telok Assam and the area around the accommodation quarters their own private domain. They are always found patrolling the area, often making a nuisance of themselves and nearly always providing visitors with a few travellers tales to tell the folks back home.

The long-tailed or crab-eating macaque is greyish brown with whitish fur its chest and under parts. Infants have darker, blackish fur. It has a human-like face with pinkish-grey skin, a dog-like snout and the aforementioned sharp teeth. The macaque's hands are also human-like with a thumb and narrow fingers. Adult males weigh 5-7 kilograms whilst females weigh 3-4 kilograms.

Long-tailed macaques congregate in large troops of 20 to 30 individuals. One troop will occupy an area of 10-30 hectares and travel anywhere from 150 to 1,500 metres per day. At night, the troop sleeps in the forest. They prefer to sleep in dead trees or those with few leaves so that they can keep watch for danger, and they often choose trees located along rivers and streams so that they can defecate without littering their surroundings.

Long-tailed macaques wake at sunrise and greet the start of a new day with their distinctive 'krra krra krra' call from which their Malaysian name 'Kera' is derived. Mothers gather their young and the troop moves off, leaping from tree to tree in search of food. Long-tailed macaques eat a wide range of food. In addition to fruits and vegetables they feed on insects, frog's eggs, grass, shrubs, roots and even small chunks of clay from which they obtain salt and minerals. However, their favourite food is crabs.

When the tide is out they descend from the forest and head to the mangroves. There they fan out over the mud floor and stand guard over crab holes, waiting for an unsuspecting crab to emerge. When a crab appears the monkey flicks the crab out of the water, grabs it from behind and quickly rips the claws off and throws them onto the floor before feeding on the rest of the crab. The macaques are not always successful and sometimes fail to rip the claws off quickly enough. When this happens the crab seizes the window of opportunity and pinches the macaque's narrow fingers. The monkey then frantically shakes its hands, yelps and shrieks and jumps about until the crab is thrown clear.

The troop is led by a dominant male, the largest and most aggressive monkey in the group. He maintains control by staring at subordinate members of the troop. If another monkey challenges his authority by returning the stare, the dominant male will attack as he can not be seen to show any sign of fear to the rest of the troop.

At Bako, where the macaques are less afraid of humans, its wise to keep a safe distance from the dominant males. These males are unmistakable because of their size (sometimes twice as big as the other group members) and their somewhat cocky behaviour. When strolling around the HQ area it is quite common to come across a group of macaques on or adjacent to the path. Most of the time the whole troop will take no interest and ignore you as you walk by. Occasionally you may have to walk close to a dominant male blocking the path. Remember to avoid staring and you wont be bothered. If you stare there's a chance that the male may become aggressive and rush forward to scare you off.

Away from the protected safety of Bako National Park, long-tailed macaques and humans have a competitive relationship. For example, where communities live on the edge of a forest, long-tailed macaques are annoying pests. Although these monkeys know that they will be chased away they still like to raid farms and orchards for food. When a farmer arrives with a shotgun they shout the alarm 'krra, krra krra' and flee into the forest.

Bako's long-tailed macaques have a rather easier life. They are used to the presence of humans and have become fearless creatures. Although they derive most their food from the forest and in and around the mangroves they are also expert scavengers and raiders. They are often seen rummaging around the resthouses for scraps of food or poking their hands into the small holes in the specially built 'monkey proof' refuse bins. Bako's macaques are also skilled thieves. Every day some brave beast will launch a brilliantly executed smash and grab raid on the park canteen. Such raids are a lot easier and more rewarding than scratching around in the mud. Two raiding methods are employed for the two central targets - the canteen provision rack or plates of food sitting in front of unsuspecting tourists.

To capture the fruit prizes lying in the provision rack the macaques must first mill around on the grass near the canteen. When the coast is clear they must scamper in as fast as they can, grab some food and run before the chef has time to react. Stealth is vital as Bako is the only place in the world where the cook is armed with a jumbo catapult. If the macaque is too slow, and the chef spots the approach, the macaque is likely to be scared off with a broom. If the fearless monkey has already grabbed some goodies and is scampering off he is still not safe as the chef speedily arms his catapult and takes aim at the monkey's butt. A second later the sound of stone hitting butt is quickly followed by a yelp of pain. But more often than not the macaque limps away still carrying his reward.

The second method is less risky as the target is unsuspecting tourists who generally don't arm themselves with catapults or broom handles whilst eating their lunch. Again a brief spell of milling around on the grass is required. Whilst the targeted tourist smiles and is having 'oh what a cute monkey' type thoughts, the macaque makes his move, sprinting into the canteen, jumping over tables to reach the target. At this stage a table full of tourists starts to panic, as no one quite knows what is going on, or who is the target. Suddenly the macaque lands on the table and grabs some food or even a can of coke and races away.

The accommodation blocks are also favourite targets for the macaques. Visitors who leave unmeshed windows open or leave doors ajar are asking for trouble - out of nowhere a macaque will appear, enter the room and then proceed to trash it. On one trip to Bako a friend and I left our room door ajar to circulate the air. A macaque strolled in, sat on my friend's bed and started to raid the contents of his backpack. We both tried to chase the surly beast away but the macaque rushed us so we had to back off. With our trusty broom handle outside on the balcony there was not much we could do but watch the macaque as he ripped open a packet of sweets, and quickly shovelled them into his mouth. By this stage we were a tad annoyed but the macaque kept us at bay with a few lunges and flashes of his teeth. In the end I took off my size 11 boots, the only weapon available, and threw one at the monkey's head. The macaque bounced off the bed and fled out of the door, still holding onto the bag of sweets. But he didn't go far, he just sat on the balcony finishing off the sweets. I almost expected him to give me the finger, he was so in control.

Although the Telok Assam area is where most of the park's long-tailed macaques hang out, visitors will often spot them in other areas. For example, small groups are often seen on the Telok Paku trail, especially at the end of the trail near the small beach; at Telok Delima, and at Bako's best beach, Telok Pandan Kecil. The small groups at Pandan Kecil are particularly smart. Although they are often visible at the back of the beach they usually keep their distance and don't bother sun bathers relaxing on the sands. However, when you go for a swim they sometimes scamper across the beach to raid your unattended bags.

So, wherever you go at Bako you're likely to be entertained by macaques. If you leave a bedroom door open or bag or plate of food unattended you may well experience some form of mild macaque attack, more than likely a harmless smash and grab attempt, and most certainly a highly amusing wildlife experience.

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