Animal welfare: Knight of the coconut economy

Moral questions often depend on the point of view from which one looks at the world. Wherever Suthipong Nakwichian, 59, says, he is an animal lover. His five-year-old monkey, Khun Thong, climbs ten meters above him in palm trees to harvest coconuts. With the dull, soft sound of a bowling ball, another nut lands on the soft ground. Khun Thong is one of some 3,000 macaques who have been trained in Thailand to help harvest coconuts. He makes his way to the next palm nut, looks at it with a knowledgeable face, spins it several times in a circle until it pulls away from the stem, then bites off the rest of the stem. Phew.

Nakwichian adores his monkey, he describes him as a member of the family. “Khun Thong is the first to be fed when it’s tight,” says its owner. But since the German supermarket chain Rewe decided not to sell the “Chaokoh” brand of coconut milk because the nuts are obtained using plucked monkeys, Nakwichian and his colleagues have had to grapple with the fact that they are considered animal abusers in other parts of the world.

The popularity of coconut milk has grown steadily in recent years, also because a small but growing number of sensitive customers want to eat vegan and go without cow’s milk. In 2021, Rewe was named the “most vegan supermarket” by animal welfare organization Peta, and about a month ago, the organization again spoke out against the use of monkeys in Thailand – “Held on short chains and enclosed in tiny cages for transport, they are also used for products of the Chaokoh brand, which is available in Germany,” said the corresponding statement.

Monkeys have been helping harvest for generations, mostly in southern Thailand, such as in Prachuap Khiri Khan province. When Peta’s first reports toured the world in 2019, they weren’t upset at first, but rather scared. Because it does not correspond to the image they have of themselves. “I live with and from this monkey, I would never treat him badly,” says Nakwichian. Khun Thong stretches towards him, sniffs his master’s stomach. Khun means “honored” or “honored” in Thai, it is considered a form of respectful address.

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Suthipong Nakwichian with his monkey Khun Thong.

(Photo: David Pfeifer)

A well-trained, adult macaque is worth around 100,000 Bath, around 2,500 euros, which is a lot of money in this part of the world. Those who accompany the monkeys and their owners to work can see how the macaques are fed and cared for. When they don’t feel like it anymore, the guards pluck the long string that guides the monkeys, but it’s already noon, too hot to pick, even for the monkeys, so they take a break. You have to be careful of their whims, otherwise they won’t work. There are, of course, animal abusers among the keepers who pull the fangs of their monkeys and hold them badly, “maybe one in a hundred,” as the Nakwichian suspects.

But it’s almost a game, the monkeys are cared for and employed, what about keeping or slaughtering animals in Europe, along with cattle, pigs and horses? This is how the discussion on the coconut grove continues. But which animal is worse and where is not the question – “monkeys are certainly doing this badly,” says Lisa Kainz, 32, specialist adviser for animals in the food industry at Peta Germany. “But I certainly don’t want to point the finger at Thailand and denounce the circumstances there.” Peta is also opposed to tying a German cow in the barn, slaughtering pigs, or keeping chickens in battery cages – only the response to actions is different. The abbreviation Peta stands for “People for Ethic Treatment of Animals” – meaning people for the ethically correct treatment of animals. And of course, it is not appropriate to keep the monkeys isolated and hunt them in the trees. It doesn’t matter that other farm animals are worse off in other parts of the world.

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Lunch break during the coconut harvest.

(Photo: David Pfeifer)

Specism is the term to which the organization subscribes. Similar to sexism or racism, living things should not be discriminated against on the basis of their belonging to a species. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s hard to explain in a structurally weak part of Thailand, where there aren’t many opportunities to earn a living outside of palm plantations and the breeding. Pisit Phatthong, 59, a plantation owner and something like the district community leader, does not understand these arguments until today. When Peta’s first report reached the press, he summoned his colleagues to explain. But the case could not be resolved with arguments. “Reporters were only talking about scared animals. Videos of panicking monkeys in the cage have gone viral,” Phatthong explains, “but it’s easy to film a panicking monkey. They’re scared. And often aggressive, also in between. them and in nature. They are just animals. “

With spectacular actions against fur, Peta has stood out on fashion shows, but she can also be more low-key. “For example, I tried to get the manufacturers to remove eggs from their range because the egg industry in Germany is a big evil,” says Lisa Kainz via a video call. “It worked in some places. Schneekoppe and Seitenbacher scrambled, the press talked about it locally. However, it is easier to report the coconut problem because it only affects us in small parts, without us. we have to change our entire eating habits, ”says Kainz, while a Romanian street dog dozes next to her.

Long-tailed macaques, which are found throughout Southeast Asia, are considered very intelligent and social animals. They live in associations that have a strong hierarchical structure, similar to people. Keeping them one by one makes them lonely and neurotic, and they cannot be released into the wild. The monkey owners of Prachuab Khiri Khan compare it to keeping a dog or a cat in Germany. And they measure it by the way they treat monkeys elsewhere: Since tourists have stayed away due to the pandemic, urban monkeys, for example, have become a nuisance in parts of South Asia. -Is: they steal and bite, so they are caught, released into the forest where they starve, or for medical purposes. Experiments sold. Gathering monkeys are unlikely to be done any short-term favor by putting them out of work and their owners. Rather, they are the monkeys of the future.

But the trained animals are still there. “When he is old and my car is reimbursed, then I want to have a good evening in Khun Thong,” says Suthipong Nakwichian. Until then, however, the macaque still has to pluck a lot of coconuts, not only to earn its food, but also that of its owner’s family. There is a bath for every nut picked. Or 0.0259 euros. A good monkey should be able to harvest up to 1,500 nuts per day. Is it fun for him? Does the horse like to be ridden? Does the dog like to be kept on a leash? It may depend on the alternatives. In Prachuab Khiri Khan, the foraging monkeys die anyway, about 15,000 once. The remaining monkey owners come to work on old mopeds with rusty sidecars, not in the glittering SUV, like politicians in distant Bangkok.

“Personally, I’m sorry for the individual people,” says Lisa Kainz of Peta. “But all over the world we are saying against treating animals as a commodity. And to get an effect you have to apply financial pressure,” Kainz knows from experience, “asking friendly questions doesn’t help.” The Thai government has a duty, Peta Asia also wrote to them, but nothing happened hence the boycott. This is not directed against the monkey owners, “in this case it is also about consumer information,” as Kainz puts it.

Open detailed view (Photo: SZ-Karte /

Vegans are a sensitive bunch of shoppers who definitely associate their food with ideological beliefs. Not only do they give up meat, but they drink coconut or soy milk instead of cow’s milk, so it would be weird to torture monkeys instead of cattle. Why bother when the animals are just miserable elsewhere? You just have to be able to afford these thoughts. In middle-class circles in large German cities, we have different concerns from those in the poor south of Thailand.

Thailand is the second largest exporter of coconuts after Indonesia. They immediately felt the effect of the first Peta report to Prachuab Khiri Khan. Because of the pandemic, things aren’t going well anyway, but even in Thailand coconuts from Indonesia are now sold because they can be harvested there cheaply, regardless of animal rights or rights. the man. This is another reason why the monkey keepers of Prachuap Khiri Kahn don’t understand what they are doing wrong.

And why, of all people, they are targeted. After all, there are hundreds of products on the shelves of German supermarkets and also at Rewe that are made with the addition of palm oil, from shower gel to bread spreads, cuts and burns, slave labor conditions for people and animals and the orangutan. orphans in Indonesia and Malaysia Consequence. Not only do all vegans know it, but all of today’s smart kids know it. It’s just a lot harder to go without palm oil than it is to go without coconut milk. It’s more of the small sacrifice that anyone can easily make. Whether it helps the monkeys is a question of our point of view.

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