Thomas Kokta's shortlisted image

Dozens of monkeys can huddle together at once © Thomas Kokta

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Snow monkeys: huddling with Japanese macaques

In Japan's freezing forests, snow monkeys huddle for warmth. Photographer Thomas Kokta went to visit them.

During the winter, temperatures on Shodoshima Island in Japan drop to freezing. Japanese macaques, or snow monkeys, have a unique way of dealing with the chilly weather.

Balls of monkeys are formed when a group of five or more huddle to share body heat and keep warm. 

German wildlife photographer Thomas Kokta paid a visit to the island, hoping to document the huddles on camera.

After a lot of planning and a little climbing, his final photo was shortlisted in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year People's Choice award.

The first attempt

Snow monkeys live all over Japan, but they only take part in this huddling behaviour on Shodoshima.

Thomas says, 'I had explored some of the islands around Japan before, and a local told me about an area where the snow monkeys do this during cold weather. 

'I decided to try to take a photo, but getting to this shot took several years.

A family of snow monkeys

Thomas spent several days exploring the habitat on the island © Thomas Kokta


'The first time I went, I chose January for my visit. I saw the monkeys but they were happily roaming, climbing trees. There were no huddles because the temperature was relatively warm.

Thomas left after a few days, determined to try again the following winter. 

The weather cools

Thomas says, 'The next year, I arrived in Japan for my second attempt, hoping for cooler weather.

'The first day I went looking was a beautiful winter day. There were many monkeys, but no huddles. 

'They were spread around or hiding in trees and bushes. Day two brought more of the same overcast skies and warm temperatures.

'On the third day I got up at 5.00 and walked up the hill in the dark, in sub-freezing temperatures. 

'At first there were no monkeys anywhere to be seen. But I kept looking closer within the dense trees and bushes - and there they were.'

Thomas spotted a few groups of huddled snow monkeys but wanted to get a shot from above of a large group.

He pressed on through the bushes and eventually saw a group of about 20 monkeys, their bodies pushed together against the biting temperatures.

A precarious climb

'I had no idea how long this huddle would last, so I quickly looked around for a high vantage point,' recalls Thomas. 'There was nothing - only small trees. 

'So I dropped my bag, grabbed a camera with a wide-angle lens and started climbing the tree next to them. But the trees in this area are small, only three of four metres tall. 

'I needed a branch to be above the monkeys. I climbed and shimmied but fell out of the tree twice. These trees were clearly not meant for human climbers. The monkeys kept watching me, but they did not move.'

Thomas ended up lying on a thin branch, clutching to it with one arm while the other held the camera. He was able to take a few frames before the group dispersed.   

The weather stayed warm for the rest of his trip.

Thomas adds, 'This was my one opportunity to take this photo - I did not come across any more huddles.

'What did I learn from the experience? That patience is a virtue, and that I cannot climb like a monkey.'