Angaur State has finished development of a natural reserve where its wild monkeys can be showcased as an ecotourism attraction–but the challenge remains to get the monkeys into the sanctuary.
Angaur, known by some tourists as “Monkey Island”, is the only island in the Micronesian region with monkeys living in the wild. The crab-eating macaques, which were introduced during the German administration a century ago, have become a nuisance to many of the locals, stealing food from farms and gardens. Residents estimate that there are now thousands of monkeys on the island, far outnumbering the people.
Last year, Angaur State designated a 99,459 square meter piece of land in the north of the island as a seclusion zone for the monkey sanctuary. This year, the State has worked to prepare this zone for visitors, clearing a walkway which runs through the jungle and along the coast.
Angaur State Governor Kennosuke Suzuky, who developed the plan for the sanctuary, hopes that the site can serve as an important tourist attraction. He also hopes that the sanctuary can help the people of Angaur to “breathe a sigh of relief and keep their farms intact”.
“Before COVID, we were averaging ten to twenty tourists a month,” said Governor Suzuky. “We hope this sanctuary can be one tourism aspect to bring more visitors here to experience our environment . . . and our biggest concern is keeping locals’ food supply safe.”
Even with the creation of the sanctuary, however, the Angaur State Government is still faced with the most difficult part of the project: how will it lure the island’s monkeys into this area?
Governor Suzuky expressed his plans to create feeding stations in the seclusion zone. But the ultimate success of the project, he said, hinges on finding a specialist who has the skills and patience to work with the monkeys in the sanctuary.
“I need the right person who can adapt to the environment, feed the monkeys, ‘be one’ with them, so [the monkeys] can start coming around,” he said. So far people have been reluctant to stay in the area by themselves for over eight hours a day, a minimum amount of time to spend with the macaques if they are expected to train them.
The Angaur State Government is making efforts to advance its ecotourism industry in order to bring more jobs and revenue to the island. Governor Suzuky’s two-year term has already brought many infrastructural improvements to Angaur, including the opening of an on-island state dispensary with a resident nurse, repairs to the island’s dock and airstrip, and the recent overhaul of the ferry Regina IV, which resumed service between Koror State and Angaur after nearly four years of being grounded.
However, the macaques remain one of Angaur’s unsolved problems.
Many residents of Angaur’s capitol complain that the monkeys continue to ravage their crops.
Leon Gulibert of the Angaur State Legislature, who runs a guesthouse and bungalow for visitors to the island, says that many of the monkeys continue to stay around town rather than in the area designated for the sanctuary, because of easy access to food. The monkeys often raid taro patches, says Mr. Gulibert, which has led many Angaur residents to hunt them. Even this, though, has proven difficult.
“The problem is catching them,” said Mr. Gulibert. “They’re smart. You might set a trap and catch one, but the rest see it and they won’t fall for it after that.”
Mr. Gulibert said that he thinks the sanctuary is a good idea, if the macaques can be kept in the seclusion zone.
“Otherwise, you just have people out here with their rifles hunting them, which might never solve the problem because they keep reproducing,” he said.
Prior efforts to eradicate the monkeys, which are considered an invasive species on Angaur, have all failed. In 2010, a project to sterilize the macaques had little impact on the population. Monkeys which were kept by residents as pets were successfully sterilized, but the much larger population of wild monkeys living in the dense jungles continued to breed. In the years before Governor Suzuky took office, a bounty was instituted by the State to lower the number of macaques on the island. However, Governor Suzuky, who opposes the idea of a bounty, ended it. The Governor, who says that his own papaya plantation is often raided, believes that the monkey population in town has to be controlled, but not by a bounty.
“When everyone is competing for the dollar, they will shoot the monkeys that are in the sanctuary,” he said. “They will shoot any monkey that is easy to shoot.” Instead, the Governor plans to use State employees to keep the population low in town as part of their scope of work, who will hunt monkeys near people’s homes but not elsewhere on the island.
Because of this long history of hunting the monkeys, Governor Suzuky said that, in addition to designating land for a seclusion zone and drawing the monkeys into this zone, a third phase of the sanctuary-construction project is getting the monkeys to trust people again.
“For the longest time [the monkeys] have been hunted, so they’re very shy of humans now,” he said.
He expressed hope that an expert employed to lure the macaques into the sanctuary could also train them to be more comfortable around people. However, he cited an additional challenge the Angaur State Government has in getting the funding to pay such a specialist.
In January of last year, the National Government granted Angaur State $10,000 for the creation of the sanctuary. But this and other block grants given by the National Government proved too small to continue to pay specialists and provide them with the resources they need to train the monkeys.
Ideally, the revenue to pay for this would come from tourism—an industry which is limited due to COVID-19.
The State’s long-term plan is to institute a $25 “impact fee” for foreign tourists coming to Angaur, which would entitle them to visit the beaches and the sanctuary, along with other scenic spots on the island. However, the halt in incoming flights has disrupted this plan, forcing the government to temporarily consider domestic tourism as an alternative means of revenue.
On the land near the entrance to the reserve, the State has built a small homestead, made with local materials by local carpenters, and costing less than $5,000 to build. Governor Suzuky’s new plan is to create a series of bungalows like this one in the seclusion zone, using materials like bamboo and local wood to give them a “rustic” feel, and using as little energy as possible to preserve the natural surroundings.
Governor Suzuky is marketing the bungalows as “off-grid, stress-free” destinations, where people can “relax and explore the natural environment”. He says that it is the start of a plan to promote ecotourism on Angaur, for locals and, once Palau’s borders reopen, foreign tourists.
“The idea is to give people a new, peaceful experience of the island,” the Governor said. “This way, we can also start bringing in revenue to bring the monkeys here.”
The Angaur Visitors Authority has enlisted help from the Palau Visitors Authority to help with advertising the sanctuary and the bungalows, and ways to approach ecotourism. Also, at the end of this month, staff from Palau Pacific Resort, Palau’s 5-star hotel which is currently closed to the public due to COVID-19, are set to visit Angaur in order to give pointers on how to manage customers.
“This is a big undertaking, so we need expert minds,” said Governor Suzuky. “But I’m really excited for this reserve, once everything is in place and visitors can experience these monkeys first-hand.”
(Adam Somers’ article is supported by the Local Governance on Emerging Media Press story grant funded by the UNDP.)