Thailand’s ancient city of Lopburi is known for its monkeys, with thousands of mischievous macaques calling the city home year-round.
Typically, with a healthy stream of tourists, the monkeys become the subjects of snapshots—and enjoy free handouts in the bargain—but the global COVID-19 pandemic has closed borders and shut off the spigot of tourists, leaving the monkeys ravenous and fracturing the fragile peace between the primates and their more evolved neighbors.
"They're invading buildings and forcing locals to flee their homes," Supakarn Kaewchot, a government veterinarian, told Reuters, adding that the monkeys are “fighting humans for food to survive.”
Over the next two months, government veterinarians will sterilize 500 monkeys in Lopburi in an effort to curb population growth, hopefully decreasing the amount of trouble they cause.
Ken Kingkanchanarot, owner of an English tutoring business in Lopburi, has not had a great experience with the monkeys—who ripped apart his storefront’s sign—and the coronavirus pandemic is only making the monkey situation worse.
Living about three kilometers from the city had kept Kingkanchanarot’s business largely safe from monkey infestation, but the lack of tourists has compelled some hungry monkeys to take their search for food from the city’s center to its outskirts, where Better English with P’Poowan Tutorial School is located.
“They make us feel uncomfortable and insecure because sometimes they even threaten or bite people when those people refuse to give them food,” Kingkanchanarot told VICE News. “It’s really dangerous walking around with your food while the monkeys are all starving.”
The sterilization campaign involves placing large, fruit-filled cages around the city, with authorities aiming to lure in and catch 500 monkeys for sterilization this summer.
Once caught, the monkeys are sedated, shaved, and tattooed with a reference number underneath their arms. Laid on their backs, the monkeys then have their tubes either snipped or tied, depending on their sex. After a night of recovery, they are then brought back to their tribes.
This actually isn’t the first time Thailand has employed similar measures. The National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department undertook a previous macaque sterilization campaign in Hua Hin, 350 miles (or 563 kilometers) south of Lopburi, according to Thai PBS World.
Even before the pandemic, the monkeys were known to be mischievous at best, and belligerent at worst.
“Do NOT get too close and don't turn your back,” one commenter on Trip Advisor wrote in 2012 on the page for Lopburi’s Phra Prang Sam Yot, commonly known as Monkey Temple.
Another wrote that a monkey grabbed her earring and ran off. A second did the same but a groundskeeper was “able to trade a biscuit” to recover the jewelry.
“While they are cute, they will not hesitate to steal anything that is loose,” the tourist added.
Things only appear to have gotten worse. A video from March shows what appears to be hundreds of ravenous monkeys converging on a public street.
When a passing motorbike appears to drop a piece of food, the monkeys pounce on it, forming a writhing, screaming, chattering whirlwind of fur in the middle of a Lopburi road.
The monkeys held up traffic for 10 minutes, the video’s original poster told Khaosod English.
In addition to being nuisances, however, Thailand’s macaques are also trial subjects for a coronavirus vaccine, which researchers hope to be ready by 2021. The first group of monkeys received injections of the vaccine in late May, after previous tests on mice proved successful.
If all goes well, human trials will start in October, Agence France Presse reports.
Meanwhile, Thailand isn’t the only country to deal with complications arising from aggressive monkeys amid a global pandemic. In India, a troop of monkeys snatched the blood samples of four COVID-19 patients undergoing treatment from a medical official.