Bali’s Monkey Forest

The monkeys in the Sacred Monkey Forest of Padangtegal are long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicuiaris). Within long-tailed macaque societies, females are typically born into and remain with a single troop for life. In contrast, adult and sub-adult males may migrate between troops — young adult males typically leave their natal troop between the ages of 4 and 8 years. In order for a migrating adult or sub-adult male to be accepted into a new troop, migrating males must align themselves with a troop’s females and be accepted by those females. Therefore, long-tailed macaque societies or troops are made up of matrilines (matri- is a root word that means mother).
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Four distinct troops live within the Sacred Monkey Forest, in overlapping ranges. This overlap occasionally causes inter-troop conflicts to break out, in which troops engage in violent physical clashes. Although it is rare for individual macaques to sustain life-threatening wounds as a result of taking part in an inter-troop clash, it is not uncommon for macaques to sustain wounds that leave permanent scars.

The presence of sacred forest is a demonstration of the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature. In Bali, sanctuaries such as the Monkey Forest are usually in sacred village areas, often surrounded by temples. These cultural sanctuaries are not only an important part of Balinese heritage, but also an important part of everyday live. Temple festivals are regularly held for the villagers and the gods in such areas.

A Balinese temple is more than just a collection of pagodas and pavilions. The area enclosed by temple walls and the forest area surrounding it is sacred. These temples and the forest are essential for renewing contact with the spiritual world. The activities associated with these areas are essential in maintaining harmony between humans, nature and the cosmos. Not only are ancestral spirits and gods given offerings and prayers, but also the spirits of trees and statues in the Monkey Forest are given offerings and prayers by local villagers

Throughout Bali, long-tailed macaques tend to stay within forested areas. However, they  occasionally wander into rice fields or even village areas that are adjacent to the forest. Outside of forested areas, monkeys can become pests, and the Balinese tend to apply whatever means necessary to protect their crops and other property. 

The Sacred Monkey Forest’s long-tailed macaques are the subject of an ongoing research project that is being conducted by the Balinese Macaque Project. The project involves researchers from the United States, Guam, and the University of Udayana (Bali, Indonesia). To date, the Balinese Macaque Project has conducted research to determine the mating strategies, migration and range patterns, dominance ralationships, and habitat use of Balinese long-tailed macaques. The Balinese Macaque Project hopes that such research will facilitate the development of conservation strategies for these macaques and sites like the Sacred Monkey Forest of Padangtegal.

Within Balinese Hinduism, monkeys can be the embodiment of both positive and negative forces. The dual nature of monkeys is especially reflected in the Ramayana (a very popular Indian epic poem). Within the Ramayana, Sita (the beloved bride of Rama) is abducted by Rawana (an evil king). Rama (an incarnation of Dewa Wisnu, or the Indian Vishnu) calls upon Sugriwa (king of the monkeys) and Hanoman (Sugriwa’s General) to help him retrieve Sita. However, within the Ramayana, there are also antagonist monkeys like Subali that attempt to assist Rawana. In the end, Hanoman, along with his monkey army, defeats Rawana’s evil forces and helps Rama to retrieve Sita.

Because monkeys can embody both positive and negative forces, the Balinese both loathe and revere monkeys. Monkeys that occupy sacred Balinese Hindu temple sites (like the Sacred Monkey Forest) tend to be revered and protected by the Balinese. One reason for this is that monkeys, in the form of a Barong, are believed to be capable of guarding temple sites against evil spirits. However, the Balinese belief that monkeys can be negative in nature is reinforced when, for example, they raid rice fields or snatch items from souvenier shops.

Adult male Balinese long-tailed macaques tend to be larger then females. In comparison to females, they have broader shoulders and larger canine teeth. In addition, females have facial hair that resembles a bear whereas males have more pronounced “mustaches.”

Mother macaques can be very protective, and tourists should always be cautious when approaching infant macaques.

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