Returning to the life of an Urban Primate

Posted on October 9, 2012


It’s been almost four months since I put a finger to keyboard to publish anything on whogivesamonkeys. Although it doesn’t feel that long I can hardly believe it’s October. I’m pleased to announce I’ve started my new job as Science Reporter on Channel 4 News although I have yet to actually cover a science story. For those who don’t already know, I finally completed my Masters in Primatology and was awarded a Merit at the beginning of the month. The challenge now will be whether I can crowbar as many primate references into the news – if my editor is reading this – I am joking!

At the beginning of September The Northerner and I squeezed in a holiday to Koh Samui in Thailand with our dear friends BQ and Mr Meeoff – a glorious trip with lots of sun, scuba and seafood. A perfect opportunity to switch off completely and recharge my very drained batteries after quite a hectic six-months.

Me, last day in Koh Samui

Me, last day in Koh Samui


Being in Asia I was desperate to try to see gibbons in the wild. Two species of ape in one year would be fantastic. My wish was fulfilled but only in part; and in the most depressing way possible.

The biggest and busiest town in Koh Samui is Chaweng: three kilometres of nightclubs, girlie-bars, street-food vendors and restaurants. Away from the main drag on the beach the chaos subsides. Tourists are laid flat-out on their backs like beached whales on large sandbags dotted across the sand smoking Shisha pipes listening to DJs busting out “choons”.

The sight of so many stationary westerns in one place is a magnet for all kinds of hawkers. Little girls as young as six-years-old with their hair in plaits, dressed in the cutest dresses, skip up and down the beach batting their long eyelashes wearing their best smiles. They are all hoping to hook in the tourists to buy a shell necklace. Laser pens, flashing gadgets and all sorts of junk are available at almost any price. And then there’s the live entertainment. This varies from fire eaters to jugglers and exotic pets available to hold for a picture. Iguanas and gibbons are the animals de jour.

A fire juggler on Chaweng Beach, Koh Samui

A fire juggler on Chaweng Beach, Koh Samui

Gibbons are not nocturnal primates. Neither are they solitary animals. Like all primates they are highly social. In the wild they usually live in monogamous pairs and are part of a large social group. Males and females will duet to each other in the mornings. But these poor blighters in Chaweng have been sentenced to a life of misery. They exhibit all the hallmarks of “stress”. Shaking as they cling tightly to their trainers burying their faces into open necked shirts to avoid the bright lights of the bars.

He may be orange but he is a gibbon

“You want picture with monkey madam?” said the toothless, greasy haired Thai man in ripped jeans and flip-flops.

“Do you know that’s a Gibbon? It’s an ape, they are not pets!” I snapped. I felt The Northerner put a hand on my shoulder for fear of me standing up and ranting.

He backed away shrugging his shoulders. As far as he is concerned this is his meal ticket and a mouthy Londoner is the least of his worries. I watched him slouched his way down the beach parading his furry accessory. Having a gibbon as a pet is illegal in Thailand; but the prevalence of the animals only made me think that the laws are either lax or convictions and punishments are not a deterrent.

BQ was not happy with his cameo appearance either. She was so distressed at the sight of these exotic pets she was more than happy to leave the area pronto after our first drink. The apes I witnessed ranged from sub-adults to infants. It was truly heartbreaking, but there is not a lot you can do. I was encouraged that I didn’t see anyone gagging to hold “the cute money!” for a picture otherwise I probably would have spoken to them. The local trade will only stop if there’s no demand.

It’s so frustrating that more is not done to protect these precious animals from the grim life of working pets. Harsher fines; confiscation and penalties need to be enforced. But in a country where there is immense poverty the welfare of animals and even our nearest cousins are just not high on the list of priorities.

It’s so important to educate tourists about these issues….so if you ever find yourself being offer a photo-op with a primate or any exotic pet here or in a foreign land please, please, please say no.