Monday, January 29, 2001.

Monkey business at Takao Hill

Formosan rock macaque monkeys have lived at Kaohsiung's Takao Hill for longer than anyone has lived in Kaohsiung. Now their habitat, and the monkeys themselves, are under threat from a flood of visitors and a government bent on building an animal-unfriendly nature park
By Chiu Yu-tzu - STAFF REPORTER

Conservationists have found that the monkeys inhabiting Takao Hill nature park near Kaohsiung seem to prefer getting around on the same footpaths used by visitors to the park.
PHOTO: CHIU YU-TZU, TAIPEI TIMES

The Kaohsiung City Council passed regulations prohibiting the feeding of monkeys at the city's Takao Hill (打狗山) on Jan. 17. Any act of charity towards the monkeys is now punishable by an NT$6,000 fine. It has done little, though, to stop all the monkey business at Takao Hill, activists and animal conservationists say.

The Formosan rock macaque monkeys ( 台灣彌猴 , Macaca cyclopis) that live on the hill have become overweight and even diagnosed with hypertension due to the many visitors to the area that have indulged them with all kinds of snacks.

"Because the monkeys can get food so easily, they have become spoiled and have learned how to beg for food from mountain climbers ... they even aggressively snatch food away. It's unnatural," said Yang Ping-yu (楊娉育), the executive general of the Takao Hill Park Association (柴山自然公園促進會).

The 330m-high hill has long been home to the species. Their activities were first recorded in 1862 by English zoologist Robert Swinhoe, who named the endemic round-faced monkey Macaca cyclopis in his book Formosan Mammalians.

The species is known for its dark gray skin and cheek pouches, which it uses to carry food in while foraging.

The macaque consumes fruits, leaves, berries, seeds, insects and small vertebrate animals. It's tail, however, is medium length and not prehensile, making it impossible for it to assist the monkey when it climbs trees.

Swinhoe sent a pair of the Formosan rock macaques to a zoo in London and the exhibition reportedly drew a lot of attention from Western biologists.

Today, some 700 to 1,000 of the monkeys live on what foreigners once called Ape Hill.

However, Swinhoe probably never expected that over 130 years of attention from humans would threaten the species.

 

Many people come to Takao Hill to observe monkeys' behavior, such as their grooming, which is meant to remove debris and parasites from their hair and is most often done by their mate.
PHOTO: CHIU YU-TZU, TAIPEI TIMES

Mismanaged Park

While the Kaohsiung City government has mapped out 500 hectares of the hill as a protected area, the park has no designated entrance.

Traveling along an almost hidden cement path beside Lungchuan Temple (龍泉寺), in the Gushan district (鼓山區) of Kaohsiung city, mountain climbers who visit for the first time might have difficulty imagining the majestic scenery that's hidden behind the temple.

Dozens of families who live near the temple have complained that their quality of life has been ruined by thousands of day hikers forced to share limited parking space, as well as by hawkers who sell their wares at the base of the hill.

But even before the mountain opened to the public, residents complained about the monkeys, which invaded their backyards, scavenging for any available food.

"People have come now and the monkeys have retreated. A new battle is taking place on the mountain," one resident said.

Conservationists say the conflict could be attributed to the government's over-development of the area, which has added numerous pavilions, park benches and pathways to the mountain.

Walking on a wooden-plank footpath, visitors can tour the hill within the span of an hour -- provided they aren't distracted by monkeys along the way.

"We've found that monkeys seem to prefer walking on pathways to swinging in the woods," said Huang Li-ting ( 黃莉婷 ), an activist with the Takao Hill Park Association.

In the mountain, it is common for visitors to have to make way for a group of monkeys running along the footpath.

While resting at one of the pavilions, visitors are often approached by monkeys begging and screaming for food. Many say they find the urge to feed the monkeys irresistible despite the law.

Based on their experience, monkeys have figured out that food is usually kept inside plastic bags. As a result, many of those who carry plastic bags are often attacked by aggressive monkeys, conservationists say.

"Some clever monkeys even know how to suck juice from cartons," said Huang, who has been observing the park's ecology for years.

But Huang is not totally against individuals coming to visit the mountain.

Some people come the hill to observe the monkeys' behavior, such as their grooming, she says. Monkeys groom to remove chips, salt particles and parasites from their hair.

"Observing is a good thing. But people get deeply involved in the monkeys' life by feeding them," Huang said.

`Never feed monkeys'

Feeding continues, regardless of the signs posted around the park.

"Never Feed Monkeys," is one of several "Nevers" ardently urged by the city government to remind visitors of the potential dangers of mischievous monkeys. However, notices advising to "Never bring pets" and "Never bring food" often go totally unheeded.

Pet owners holding their dogs and cats, which are scared by monkeys, are a common sight along the park's footpaths.

Other notices urge visitors to avoid feeding, attacking and staring at the monkeys. But few heed this advice as well. While visiting the mountain recently, a small group of teenagers in school uniforms walked by with popguns in hand ready to scare monkeys and take what they called "revenge" without adults' company.

"Some detestable monkey stole fruit and broke the antennae on my TV," said one teenager. Amazingly, not only teenagers but also adults use popguns to scare monkeys "just for fun."

Activists say that what the park needs most is comprehensive management, not more pavilions and park benches.

In addition to the famous native monkeys, there are other treasures within the park that equally deserve protection.

Visitors can easily find the fossils of sea urchins on the ground because the hill, formed between 80,000 and 120,000 years ago, was once coral reefs under the sea.

Additionally, several shell mounds ( 貝塚 ) discovered at prehistoric sites have helped archeologists picture the life of aboriginal people hundreds, even thousands of years ago.

City government no help

Environmentalists say that thoughtless management practices carried out by the government have accelerated the environmental deterioration within the park.

Last December, the city government, which has asked visitors not to bring food to the mountain, provided 55 sets of wooden tables and benches for picnickers that the monkeys now frequent themselves.

The benches and tables were provided following an overall cleanup of hundreds of tables and couches placed without permission by individuals last September.

Some 1,300 volunteer workers have also dismantled 19 buildings which were built without first obtaining a proper license. Some of the illegal villas were even owned by legislators.

The official cleanup was carried out following pressure from various environmental groups.

Last May, the "Rescuing Takao Hill" action was initiated by several local groups, including the Takao Hill Park Association, the Kaohsiung City Green Association (高雄市綠色協會), Kaohsiung City Teachers' Association (高雄市教師會) and the Chunghwa Telecom Workers' Union (中華電信工會).

Activists collected more than 10,000 signatures on a petition urging Kaohsiung City Mayor Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) to protect the area.

Environmentalists' aggressive action has caused a violent reaction among residents living in the area. When the government began razing illegal buildings last June, angry residents allegedly assaulted conservationists standing to the side, including Li Ken-cheng ( 李根正 ), an elementary school teacher, and Yang Ping-yu, an activist with the Takao Hill Park Association.

Officials with the Kaohsiung City government said that they have encountered difficulties for years in managing the park.

"We wanted to get land from Taiwan Cement Corporation (台灣水泥公司) to build an official gate in order to limit the amount of visitors, but failed," said an official of the city's Bureau of Reconstruction, who wished to remain anonymous.

One of Taiwan Cement's sites located by the mountain has mined limestone from the area for decades and more recently served as a blockade to visitors.

Officials with the Bureau of Reconstruction told the Taipei Times that all they could do now was to maintain old pavilions and build new footpaths for visitors.

An NT$12 million project was initiated last year; a new 500m-long footpath and four pavilions will be finished by October this year, the officials said.

Conservationists say that the over-exploited park will suffer further damage still if the government fails to either come up with a better scheme to manage the park or else educate the public.

Activists with the Takao Hill Park Association decided to rescue the mountain in their own way.

In recent years, they have trained dozens of volunteers to explain the local ecology to visitors. In April, they plan to target elementary students by holding workshops around the Kaohsiung area.

"Educated children might be more influential. They can spread ecological concepts to their teachers, parents, and friends," said the park association's Yang.

Copyright 1999-2003 The Taipei Times. All rights reserved.