Don’t Feed The Damn Monkeys: On Feeding Wildlife in Langkawi

After reading a lot of comments about the harm caused by feeding wildlife, I decided to try to get to the facts to answer the question, is it good or bad to feed the monkeys and eagles on tours in Langkawi?

How I came to be writing about this topic…

I recently made a post with a tourist itinerary for Langkawi. As always, everything I write is done with the best of intentions. But this post was met with quite a bit of backlash over one section: THE TOUR. It all started with this comment:

First of many angry comments

Which then led to 20+ more comments along the same lines. Now, I care about nature as much as the next person, so I really don’t want to be promoting something that is harmful to the environment. I replied back asking for some information, which was dutifully provided.

Angry comment from Facebook about eco tourism
Message from a passionate advocate

Yes anonymous commenter. I too am surprised that I only heard about this after taking a tour being sold everywhere and didn’t see any signage or receive any information about the dangers of eagle feeding beforehand. Apparently there’s a lot of people who know about it online, yet nothing has changed for many years. How surprising!

Astounded by my ignorance, I decided to look further into this matter.

I have been around on social media long enough to know that opinions fly around the place like leaves on a windy day. As true as all this information may be, without references and sources to back it up, it is still an opinion. This is where research and education becomes extremely important because if we want to make change we need compelling research to verify the claims we’re making. If we want to change government policy, we need to be able to show where our facts came from to both the public and the governments and organizations who have the resources to change policy and drive change at scale.

And as with all things, there’s at least two sides to every story….

I begged and appealed for someone to provide me a link to credible research that backed up the claims about eagle feeding. I got lots of opinions, incidental stories, and suggestions on sites to visit, but unfortunately no links to the evidence and research in this area. I even sent private messages to everyone that was recommended to me as an expert in the area. Some provided their thoughts, but none were able to provide me with any research to back up these claims.

So, I decided to put some time into digging deeper to get to the facts of the matter.

Issue number 1: Feeding the monkeys

Monkey feeding did happen as part of one tour I went on. The monkeys swam across to our boat and were fed some peanuts from our group. Generally though, monkey feeding tends to happen by accident these days. You’ll be walking along with a plastic bag of goodies and BAM! Monkey got fed.

Monkey about to steal a plastic bag from an unsuspecting tourist
Monkey about to steal a plastic bag from an unsuspecting tourist

What are the concerns with monkey feeding?

Monkey health:

A study in Morocco on Barbary Macaques looked at the health of wild monkeys that didn’t get fed by tourists versus wild monkeys that received a lot of unnatural food from tourists. The monkeys fed by tourists were found to have significantly more stomach upsets, higher stress levels, obesity, and poorer fur quality.

In simple words, human food is bad for the monkeys.

Man feeding a pringle to a monkey
Pringles are not healthy for monkeys

Monkey behaviour:

You know that plastic bag situation I described before? That’s our fault. We’ve been carrying food in plastic bags, and those smart little monkeys have learned to associate plastic with food. This can cause them to be aggressive when trying to get at what they think could be food and could result in injury for both the monkey and the human involved.

Throwing food to monkeys on the roadside is also very dangerous because it causes them to sit by the roadside waiting for treats. Monkeys on the road is both dangerous for monkeys and the humans who crash into them.

Dangerously large monkey groups:

According to these guys, monkeys normally live in groups of 15-30. However, groups can be twice that size when they’re sticking around areas where tourists feed them. This can result in more conflicts between monkeys and more monkeys injuring each other.

What are the positives of monkey feeding?

Survival when food sources are low:

The Moroccan study suggested that feeding monkeys woud be highly beneficial if natural food sources were so low that the monkeys were struggling to survive both in the short and long-term.

Tourism:

Tourists like to see monkeys, and many locals rely on the tourist industry to survive. And when people want to see something, they pay for it, especially when they don’t know any different.

Tourists in KL feeding and touching a wild monkey for a photo
Tourists feeding and touching a wild monkey

HOWEVER, this can also be a negative because once monkeys congregate in an area, tourists might be too scared to go there anymore because they don’t want to be attacked by monkeys. Not to mention that death by monkey would be a bad thing for tourism.

Questions to consider:

When certain species of monkeys are fed and form large groups do they pose a risk to the shy species in the area who are living in smaller groups?

Can we find a way to involve the monkeys in a way that helps them and the environment?

Could we use this fascination monkeys have with plastic in a positive way?

Monkey swimming away from a tour boat after being fed
Monkey swimming away from a tour boat after being fed

Conclusion on monkey feeding:

It seems that in general, monkey feeding is not a healthy practice, especially by hand. People want to get the cute close-ups of the monkeys, but it could be potentially very harmful for the health of these animal populations.

While it seems to be an easy fix to just say, “Stop feeding the damn monkeys!” That isn’t going to change anything because there’s an industry based on it and a bunch of tourists like me who arrive surprisingly ignorant of the problem.

I personally don’t feed monkeys in the wild because it seems common sense not to when they already behave aggressively as soon as they see anything resembling eats. But those who do feed monkeys can’t be judged for not knowing if it’s part of an organized tour, there’s no signage, or nobody told them otherwise.

What are some possible solutions to monkey feeding?

Educate:

The responsibility lies with the local government and businesses to warn tourists of the risks of feeding monkeys. Hotel owners can also participate by providing information to their visitors on the dangers of feeding local wildlife.

Locals and tourists who know about the dangers of feeding monkeys can also help by kindly telling other tourists not to do so if they see feeding in action. Be prepared to follow up with an explanation of why they shouldn’t do it, rather than just shouting at them not to. Education is the tool we need to make a change!

In Singapore, there is a monthly free Monkey Walk program run by the Jane Goodall Institute. It helps educate people on how to live beside and better understand the monkeys. Perhaps something like this would be a better way to show and educate tourists about the monkeys.

Signage:

Tourists coming from places that don’t have monkeys may not be aware of the behavior and effect feeding has on local monkeys. They might think they’re doing a kind thing by throwing food to a monkey. Having entertaining but informative signs like the one on Cenang beach about cleaning up your cigarette butts because they’re trying to get the fish to stop smoking would be a great way to raise awareness of the harm of feeding wild monkeys.

Three men feed a monkey ice cream while it sits on a closed bin
When everyone is feeding the monkeys and there’s no signs saying not to, it’s hard for tourists to know better.

Now, I have seen signs about not feeding monkeys in specific places, but as a tourist, we don’t necessarily associate this with an organized tour. We tend to put ourselves in the hands of the locals and assume they know best. So, there needs to be signage specifically warning tourists that organized monkey feeding is also something that should be avoided. Heck, even if you’re a cafe owner, you can put up a sign about not feeding the wildlife.

Monkey-proof bins – put them everywhere and use them:

I’ve seen monkeys in bins. In fact, I’ve carried my rubbish back to my hotel because I was too afraid to approach bins that were surrounded by monkeys. Not only are they consuming items from the rubbish that are bad for their health, they’re LITTERING! It takes a lot of effort to get a person to put rubbish in a bin, so we should probably make the effort to make sure the monkeys don’t take it out again. Plus, it probably just reinforces their idea that plastic means food.

Make a deal with the monkeys:

Okay, this one might be a little out there. But monkeys are smart, right? And they’re really attracted to plastic because they think it has food in it, right? What if over time, we could gradually get the wild monkeys to take plastic to a location where they could swap it for food? What if we could ’employ’ the monkeys in cleaning up the environment?

After all, the earth is in such a mess, we need all the help we can get.

Of course, this would have to be thought out more so monkeys don’t start stealing plastic from humans to get food – but they do that anyway. Maybe we should just carry less plastic to solve that part.

And if there was to be any trade being done with the monkeys, it would have to not involve humans because of the hand feeding issue. So, there would need to be some sort of system where they drop in plastic/rubbish and receive a piece of natural food – basically like the way some governments incentivise recycling by paying people for bringing in used cans and bottles.

Win for the monkeys – they get healthy food. Win for the island – it gets cleaned up. Win for the tourists – they could still observe the monkeys at the drop off points from a safe distance without actively feeding them. And win for the tourism industry – they could charge a few MYR for the viewing experience, or provide a free and educational experience for everybody that might benefit the island in the long run.

That could be a stupid idea, but it’s all I’ve got right now 😛

If feeding must be done – provide natural foods, spreading it out sparsely, and no hand feeding:

The Moroccan study described earlier suggested that stress levels of monkeys was due to them having to compete to get food from tourists. One suggestion was to eliminate hand feeding completely, and to spread out any food provided for monkeys so they don’t have to fight to get it. And of course, it is important not to give them human junk food that will be bad for their stomachs. If there is going to be eco-tourism involving feeding of monkeys, it needs to have research behind it showing the appropriate food to give, when, and exactly how it should be given.

However, after looking into it more, if there is plenty of natural food available for the monkeys, I believe it is best to leave them alone and not feed them.

Issue number 2: Feeding the eagles

Eagle feeding is something that’s often done as part of tours in Langkawi. Tourists pay to experience the thrill of watching eagles swoop down and scoop scraps out of the water. But how could this be harming the eagles, and how could we do it better?

Eagles swooping down to get fed on a tour
Eagles swooping down to get fed on a tour

I found it difficult to access research in this area. I believe more research needs to be done here, especially if we want to drive change at a government policy level.

One of the best things I could find was this article, which gives a really detailed look at both the positives and negatives of feeding wild birds.

What are the concerns with eagle feeding?

Food quality leading to bad bird health:

I couldn’t find anything linking the feeding of chicken skin to poor egg shell quality, although I was able to find research linking the use of DDT (a banned insecticide) to egg shell quality.

However, there’s no denying that the quality of food is an issue, a big issue. Feeding the birds chicken skins could easily pass on any avian viruses the chickens may have. If you’re feeding a big population of eagles, it just takes one bad chicken to get them all sick. In my opinion, this is one main problem that needs to be addressed.

If the eagles are so important for our ecosystem and for Langkawi tourism, then we need to work on making sure that our activities are safe for the eagles and their short-term and long-term health.

Impacting the balance of the ecosystem:

Another concern is that feeding the eagles will increase the population of their prey – in this case, snakes. Yes, unfortunately, whatever we do as humans impacts on other ecosystems. If we feed, conserve, or protect one species, it can even become a threat to other native species, as could be the case with the White-Tailed Sea Eagle threatening other at-risk birds in Europe and the Bald Eagle in the Channel Islands potentially threatening the Gray Fox.

The truth is, ecosystems are so complex that we really don’t know what the effects will be either way until it happens. To say for sure, we’d need some researchers to come in and do a Langkawi specific study on the eagles and their effects on the ecosystem – if anyone has already done so, now is your time to speak up!

Suppression of hunter/forager instinct:

A lot of people are worried that feeding the eagles will suppress their natural instinct to hunt and forage. So, does feeding eagles mean they won’t hunt elsewhere?

Unfortunately, I could find no evidence supporting this claim, apart from some opinions in various online groups and Trip Advisor discussion boards – Again, researchers of the world, this is your time to speak up! Send me your reports!

In fact, everything I could find on the issue seemed to indicate the opposite.

I found out that one American conservation group provides eaglets with a food source in towers. The eaglets use the food, but eventually go off and start foraging on their own. An expert in this group has also stated that there is no evidence that adult eagles forget how to hunt after being fed in captivity.

Other sources suggested that eagles generally move as far as they have to in order to find food. In colder climates when food disappears in the winter, eagles will move until they find another source of food.

This page describes the feeding behaviours of eagles, which involves watching the surface of the water from a long distance, swooping in, and dropping their feet to catch the fish. Eagles also commonly steal food from other eagles and birds. This behaviour doesn’t seem too different to the way the eagles were being fed on the tour. Again, the issue seems to go back to the specific food they’re being given, rather than the act of feeding itself.

Eagle in the sky
Eagle in the sky

What are the positives of eagle feeding?

Awareness, appreciation, and protection:

I found a particularly interesting story of a man named Sonny who started throwing his fish scraps to the eagles in the 1960s, a time when eagles were considered vermin and shot in huge numbers in the US. Fishermen would stop and watch the feeding, which helped spark interest in eagle conservation because people realised they could feed the birds and enjoy watching them instead of shooting them. Note: I couldn’t find any other sources to back up this story, but it does give another perspective from an outsider’s point of view.

Up close enounters with animals and birds in the wild or in well managed zoos/conservation projects could help trigger an appreciation of local wildlife and give humans a reason to protect it.

Here is another blogger’s thoughts on the topic:

Quote from Alex Chan’s Blog

From the tourist’s perspective, seeing an eagle in the wild makes it seem a lot more real, valuable, and worth protecting than simply hearing about one. Educational eagle watching/feeding programs could actually encourage tourists to want to help protect the local wildlife.

Providing a food source and a chance to adapt to the changing environment:

One thing that became obvious during my readings was that by living anywhere, us humans have been destroying natural habitats, feeding grounds, and nesting places of wildlife. The unfortunate truth is that we destroy the habitats of some species, while creating habitats for others. Animals that are domesticated end up overpopulating areas and perhaps even taking away food sources from other native wildlife.

Species that don’t learn to adapt to living with humans can unfortunately end up extinct.

It’s not the way it should be, but we humans are taking over everywhere. For many species, it could be adapt or die.

Overfishing or killing of mammals that are also eagle prey can lead to declines in food supply for eagles. And at the time of writing, our tour guide told us there are no limits on fishing for the locals in Langkawi. So, what will we do to maintain the balance?

For example, the Bald Eagle had completely disappeared in the 1960s from the Channel Islands due to extensive hunting. They have since been reintroduced under conservation programs protecting them. However, research has found that their native prey sources are limited or completely gone. So, the eagles have changed their source of food and there are concerns about other native wildlife falling prey to the eagles. – The takeaway here is that environmental systems are complex. We don’t know what the eagle population in Langkawi will turn to eating if their sources of both natural and supplied food dries up. There is a chance that both the eagle and other conservation efforts could be threatened if the food situation is not managed correctly.

eagle in the sky amongst the clouds

Questions to consider:

Are there enough fish, snakes, and small mammals to sustain the population of eagles in Langkawi, and are there enough safe places for the eagles to hunt their prey without getting injured?

How can we address this in a way that helps the wildlife, supports the locals who rely on the tourism industry and still give tourists an experience they feel is worthwhile?

Is it okay that we are selectively helping certain species to exist alongside us, while leaving others to fend for themselves? Why is it acceptable to supplement the diets of cats, dogs, and small birds by providing food for them, but not eagles?

Do we also have a responsibility to provide eagles and other wildlife with the food that we have taken away from them by encroaching on their environment and competing for their natural food sources?

If eagle feeding stops completely, what protections do we have for their prey, such as fish and squirrels, which will then be the sole focus of hunting by both us and them? What safeguards do we have in place to maintain balance in the ecosystem if their prey also becomes endangered?

Conclusion on the eagle feeding:

There is a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to eagle feeding. We’ve imposed on their habitats, we’re taking their food sources for ourselves, we inhabit their hunting grounds. We are responsible for providing some sort of balance.

The truth is, wherever we go as humans, we take over. And species that aren’t able to coexist with us or species that we choose to hunt or refuse to find a way to live with eventually go extinct.

Cats and dogs are surviving so well because they’ve adapted to living with humans and we are willing to feed and protect them. If we don’t preserve eagles and their hunting grounds and/or supplement their food sources, they too might go extinct.

It isn’t simply a matter of saying, “Leave them to it and let them be wild and free,” while we just taking over all the space they have left to be wild and free.

Feeding eagles could help make up for the food supply that we’ve already taken away from them. Cutting out the tourism food completely could also have unforeseen effects on other local wildlife and ecosystems, as well as the eagle population if they experience food scarcity.

The close up encounters can also help raise awareness and increase local and international motivation to protect these animals.

However, it seems that chicken skin may not be a safe and healthy food to give to eagles.

Feeding eagles the wrong things in the wrong way could cause massive health issues for the eagle population and the ecosystem as a whole.

To me, the issue seems to be less a matter of, should we be feeding eagles or not? And more a matter of:

When, how, and what should we be feeding the eagles?

Of course, I could be completely wrong, as I’m no expert here. I strongly believe that there needs to be more research in this area in order to drive change.

What are some possible solutions for eagle feeding?

Feed eagles snakes, fish, and high quality natural food only:

If the concern is that the snake population will increase, locals could start hunting snakes and using them for eagle food to keep the snake population down. Researchers/experts could educate the locals on the natural diet of the local Langkawi eagles, and provide them with tips on the best ways for them to maintain and supplement this diet, as well as food hygiene practices to make sure the birds don’t get sick. This would also be providing the eagles with the nutrition they would get in a natural diet.

Restrict eagle feeding tours to three specific days of the week:

If the concern is a reliance on humans for food, restricting the days that any and all eagle feeding can occur to three days a week would encourage the eagles to search elsewhere for food during the rest of the week. This of course, would have to come from somewhere up the top – like the government.

Government and tourism incentives for eco-friendly tours:

If something is profitable, nobody will change unless they have an incentive to do so. This is where grants, donations, and incentives come in. It’s easy to make a change if you have the funding behind you. But we can’t expect local ways to change if it’s their sole way of living and there’s no viable alternative. The money needs to come from somewhere, be it the government or locally organized fundraising events – Why not have a Run For The Eagles fundraising event and then use that money to support locals to restructure their eagle tours in an eco-friendly way?

Overall conclusions on wildife feeding in Langkawi

We live in a complex world and there’s many things to consider. There are locals making a living on tourism who need to be supported through any changes, there are culture differences to take into account, there are potential consequences on ecosystems if species are suddenly not fed, there’s matters of food density, and more… But with all that said, here are my humble conclusions on this topic.

More research is needed

A reply to one of my pleas for research

Expert opinions are great, but policy change is driven by statistics and empirical evidence. We need research to prove what we’re saying is true because we have evidence linking the cause and effect. Then and only then can we say for sure that something like eagle feeding directly results in eagles not being able to hunt, or that chicken skins directly result in eagle shells being softer.

Things need to change, that’s for sure, but I’m not qualified to say exactly how and what that change should be. I strongly believe that change must be driven by facts based on scientific research.

Achievable solutions need to be provided

It’s all good having the research that something is wrong. But then we need to look at what we can do to make it right.

With all the environmental issues in the world, we need to start looking at tourism as conservation tool. We need to be asking the question:

How can we create programs that help conserve and protect native wildlife, support local incomes, and give tourists an experience worth paying for?

We need researchers and experts to provide empirical evidence to support their claims about the wildlife and ecosystems in Langkawi, coupled with solutions that are achievable and support the locals and their needs.

Because we don’t just need the research, we need the solutions.

And the solution should be more than simply: tourists should find and take a more expensive eco-friendly tour.

Change needs to start local

Another good opinion on the topic

Only when the locals are given attainable solutions that still allow them to make a living in the tourism industry AND a good reason to change (be it through government policy or financial incentives) will we be able to see a difference.

Currently, we’re stuck in a loop that looks like this:

Locals rely on tourism for money.
Tourists pay to see eagle feeding.
Therefore, eagles get fed because the locals rely on tourism for money.

So, you’ve got to disrupt the loop somewhere, and you’ve got two options:

  1. Educate and support the locals to restructure the tours so only eco-friendly tours are offered on the island. This can be done either through driving change in government policy (through research and public support), or by a private organization coming in and funding/supporting the local industry to change.
  2. Try to change tourist behavior by trying to educate the whole world on your specific local issue. This is going to be hard because there’s currently a climate emergency that affects the whole world, AND every country has issues at a local level that their citizens need to be aware of and care about. And even aside from climate change, there’s other issues that are affecting populations, such as mental health, cancer, obesity, and more. Couple that with daily life and each person’s struggle to surive and navigate the world, and you’ve got a really hard job ahead of you to try to get every person to care enough to educate themselves on an issue that affects a specific species on an island that they may visit one day.

I believe that it would be far easier to drive change at a local level.

After all, it would be far easier to speak to all the people on one island than to speak to the whole world in case they come to the island.

What has been done to support the locals who rely on this industry to change?

When I speak about driving change at a local level, I’m not just meaning to complain about/at the locals for the way they’re doing things. I mean, educate and support the locals to change – give them solutions and the help/funding they need during the transition.

Final notes from the author…

There are so many issues in the world today and one cannot simply expect everyone to know about and live by EVERY issue. For example, flying to any place in the world is a huge contributor to global warming, and most of us arrive in Langkawi by plane. Does that mean that every tourist is a terrible person? Of course not! None of us know what each other is doing in other areas of our lives to help the planet.

I hope we can all educate each other with kindness, empathy, and understanding because the only way to truly bring about change is to meet others where they are, understand their situation and position, and give them meaningful solutions and reasons to change.

When I asked for links to the research or any information, this was one comment that came up:

angry comment from facebook

While this comment would have been made with the best of intentions, it did not encourage futher interaction and engagement with the cause that the individual is so passionate about – feeding of the wildlife.

My original post was about tourism and things to do to enjoy the island. I was never asking for ways to volunteer my time while on holidays. It’s nice when tourists do volunteer, but let’s face it, most tourists go on holidays to see different places and cultures. Just because a person does not dedicate all their spare time and activities to saving the planet does not mean they do not care or are a bad person.

Truth is, none of us have the capacity to know and care about everything all the time and in every place.

There’s plenty of volunteering opportunities and animals in need in my own country! And I hope that locals would be volunteering helping the animals here, rather than expecting it of tourists. I also want to be able to take a holiday and enjoy my time without feeling guilty about not volunteering at animal shelters! Some of us do get care fatigued, even when it comes to the dear animals. When you’re spending money to see a different place, you want to actually see it!

Stopping to move a little kitten off the road and then give it cuddles
Stopping to move a little kitten off the road and then give it cuddles

I have on multiple occasions tried to get help for injured animals, but was unable due to not having the local connections, finances, a home I can keep the animals, and not having the visa to stay longer and bond with the stray animals. Is that something that should be expected of me as a tourist? I will always try to help them, but I worry for all these animals after I’ve gone. Who will be feeding them then? Surely it would be far more useful to educate and support the locals to be helping these animals.

Surely life would be much easier if we all chip in a little bit, instead of expecting those who care to give up everything all the time.

Making friends with the cutest pup at the top of Raya Mountain
Making friends with the cutest pup at the top of Raya Mountain

Peace and good times to you all. And as always, be kind to each other.

P.S. DON’T FEED THE DAMN MONKEYS!! 😀

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