A monkey wearing a clown mask forced to perform

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year 54  winning photojournalism image, The Sad Clown, shows a long-tailed macaque forced to perform in Indonesia  © Joan de la Malla

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: leading change to ban dancing monkeys

This image of a captive monkey wearing a gaudy mask can be hard to look at.

But photographer Joan de la Malla's work has brought attention to the practice of dancing monkeys, leading to the Indonesian government banning the activity and rescuing the primates from a life on the streets. 

Long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis), also known as crab-eating macaques, are native to large parts of southeast Asia.

They're found in a wide range of habitats, including lowland rainforests shrubland, coastal regions and mangrove forests. Typically living in large groups, they are highly social animals that adapt well to many environments.

This also means that they often come into contact with people.

It is thought that hundreds - if not thousands - of macaques are taken from the forests of Indonesia every year. Many of these end up as pets sold in local animal markets, but some are bought for Topeng Monyet, the local practice of dancing monkeys.

A long-tailed macaque riding a toy motorbike

The primates are trained to stand upright, wear masks, and even ride bikes. All these behaviours are completely unnatural for the animals © Joan de la Malla

The primates are trained - often harshly - to perform tricks. These include wearing doll and clown heads as masks, standing upright and 'riding' bikes. All of these behaviours are unnatural to the macaques and require intense training. The social animals are typically kept on their own, usually in squalid conditions. 

'Topeng Monyet looks like it could be quite an old practice that may have been happening for hundreds of years,' says Joan, 'but it is actually quite recent. It seems to have been something that started in its current form in the 1970s, so it is really a new tradition.'

Trained to dance

Joan visited Indonesia to document Topeng Monyet for the local animal charity Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN). While JAAN had succeeded in persuading the government to ban the practice in the capital city of Jakarta the charity was looking to push for a nationwide ban, but was met with resistance.

'So they started a photographic project in a bid to put some pressure on politicians, as well as to produce educational material,' explains Joan. 'Over a period of about a year and a half I travelled to the country, first trying to get access and then to take pictures of the monkeys in different situations.'

Such situations included not only being made to perform out on the streets for entertainment, but also what was going on back at the training centres. To document this, Joan had to gain the trainers' trust.

Dirty long-tailed macaque in a filthy cage

The conditions the monkeys are kept in can sometimes be squalid © Joan de la Malla

The more time he spent with the trainers themselves, the more he came to understand their plight rather than just that of the macaques.

This led Joan to focus on the monkey rather than the trainer. 

'After spending more and more time with the trainers, I was trying to separate the images of these individuals and focus on the activity instead,' says Joan. 'The trainers are very kind but come from poverty, meaning that they see the monkeys as an opportunity to make money.

'The trainers are not bad people - they are desperate people.'

It was during a training session that as the monkey in the featured image, called Timbul, was being taught to stand upright on its back legs while wearing an ungainly clown mask. It then brought its left hand to its face.

'I wasn't expecting the monkey to put its hand on the mask. It wasn't planned in the training,' explains Joan. 'But the mask was making the monkey hot and so it was using its hand to release the pressure and I instinctively took the picture when I saw this human behaviour.'

A monkey pulls off the mask it has been made to wear

Joan decided to focus on Topeng Monyet and the primates, rather than the trainers who are often poor and with few life prospects © Joan de la Malla

Helping people to help the monkeys

By talking to the trainers, Joan was better able to understand exactly what was needed to encourage the trainers to stop practicing Topeng Monyet. Simply banning the activity and confiscating the monkeys would not be enough because the trainers would likely continue illegally, making it even harder to regulate.

'It was really important to find an agreement that was good for the monkeys, but also good for the people,' says Joan.

'After talking with JAAN and trying to find the best solution, an agreement with the government was made that the charity will take care of the monkeys after they were confiscated but that in addition the government would offer other opportunities to the trainers.'

These opportunities will be jobs in the public service, such as electricians and builders. It is hoped that if the trainers gain another source of income, they will not need to rely on Topeng Monyet in the future. 

Two long-tailed macaques sitting in the forest

By banning the practice, it is hoped that the monkeys can be rehabilitated before being returned to the wild © Joan de la Malla

For the monkeys, it means going to a rehabilitation centre before being released back into the wild. JAAN aims to resocialise the primates, putting them together in larger groups before finding suitable locations where they can be set free. 

This process can take on average eight months - although some can take years - as not only do the monkeys have to be matched correctly in the groups to prevent fighting, but big enough patches of forest need to be found for them to be returned to. With hundreds of monkeys still to be saved, the charity has to increase their capacity to cope with the influx that the ban is likely to cause.

While Joan is a little bit reticent about the outcome, as the success of the ban hinges on the government providing the trainers with other opportunities, he is still hopeful.

He will be returning to Indonesia to document the handing over of the monkeys to the charity, and the rehabilitation process that follows.

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