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Coconut Toucon Bird

Monkeys Trained as Coconut Harvesters of Coconut Palm Trees

First comes Shelford’s account, dated 1916, and worded as follows:


Yes, they are called Pigtailed Macaque Monkeys and are trained by Dutch owners to climb coconut palms and pick ripe coconuts by the dozens. The monkey’s wrist is bound to a long string prior to climbing and sent up the tree.

After the monkey finds a coconut and removes it from the tree, the ower gently tugs the string to release to coconut from the monkeys grasp. Sounds crazy, well it is but it goes on all day long in the East Indies as health-conscious consumers demand more coconut products.

Macacus nemestrinus, (or Monkeys) the pig-tailed Macaque, or Brok of the Malays, is a highly intelligent animal, and Malays train them to pick coconuts.

The modus operandi is as follows:—A cord is fastened round the monkey’s waist, and it is led to a coconut palm which it rapidly climbs, it then lays hold of a nut, and if the owner judges the nut to be ripe for plucking he shouts to the monkey, which then twists the nut round and round till the stalk is broken and lets it fall to the ground; if the monkey catches hold of an unripe nut, the owner tugs the cord and the monkey tries another.

I have seen a Brok monkey act as a very efficient fruit-picker, although the use of the cord was dispensed with altogether, the monkey being guided by the tones and inflections of his master’s voice.” (Shelford, Robert W. C., A Naturalist in Borneo, London, 1916, p. 8)




These agile animals are trained to climb the coconut trees and detach the fruit. From below the owner of the monkey guides its actions by means of a long cord (not visible in the picture) that is attached to the creature before it is sent on its errand.

Photo by Dr. P. J. S. Cramer.


One of the most important of scientific voyages of recent times is that of the “Siboga,” sent out by the Dutch government to explore the waters of the East Indies in the years 1899-1900.

Its leader was the distinguished naturalist, Dr. Max Weber. His wife accompanied him, and in her book descriptive of the voyage, we find this paragraph relative to our subject.

“In 1888, we lived there [at Manindjau in Sumatra] for a month in a Kampong house. Opposite us was a Malayan family that owned two Lampong, or Lapond, apes (Macacus nemestrinus), big, impudent beasts, which had been taught to pick coconuts.

For this purpose, a band, to which a long rope was attached, was tied around the body of the ape, and then the animal was chased up into the tree.

Arrived there, the ape seated himself on a branch and began to twist with his hands and feet one of the coconuts that hung under the branch, until the stem broke and the fruit fell down. If he dallied too long over his work, the strap around his body was jerked unsympathetically.

How the ape knew which nuts he was to pick remained a puzzle to me, but a fruit never dropped that was not fully ripened.” (Weber-Van Bosse, Mrs. A. Ein Jahr an Bord I. M. S. Siboga, 1899–1900. Leipzig, 2nd edition, 1905, p. 229)

In 1904, Odoardo Beccari, the Italian explorer of Borneo, published the story of his journeyings on that great island during the years 1865-68. Of Macacus nemestrinus he writes that it is trained by the natives and taught to gather coconuts. (Beccari, Odoardo.Wanderings in the Great Forest of Borneo: Travels and Researches of a Naturalist in Sarawak [1865–68]. London, 1904, p. 30)

Miss Isabella Bird, the well-known woman traveler, writes as follows:

“A follower had brought a ‘baboon,’ an ape or monkey trained to gather coconuts, a hideous beast on very long legs when on all fours, but capable of walking erect. They called him a ’dog-faced baboon,’ but I think they were wrong.

He has a short, curved tail, sable-colored fur darkening down his back, and a most repulsive, treacherous, and ferocious countenance. He is fierce, but likes or at all events obeys his owner, who held him with a rope fifty feet long.

At present, he is only half tame and would go back to the jungle if he were liberated.

He was sent up a coconut tree which was heavily loaded with nuts in various stages of ripeness and unripeness, going up in surly fashion, looking round at intervals and shaking his chain angrily.

When he got to the top he shook the fronds and stalks, but no nuts fell, and he chose a ripe one, and twisted it round and round till its tenacious fibers gave way, and then threw it down and began to descend, thinking he had done enough, but on being spoken to he went to work again with great vigor, picked out all the ripe nuts on the tree, twisted them all off, and then came down in a thoroughly bad, sulky temper.

He was walking erect, and it seemed discourteous not to go and thank him for all his hard toil.” (Bird, Isabella. The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither, New York, 1883, p. 425)

How Monkeys Pick Coconuts

About eighty years ago Robert Fortune began his career as a botanical collector in China. From 1843–48 he collected for the Horticultural Society of London, while from 1848-56 he was a collector in the service of the Honorable East India Company.

During the latter engagement, his collections of tea plants and tea-making tools played a large part in establishing the tea industry in northern India.

The testimony of such a man regarding the general subject under consideration cannot be disregarded. In books published in 1852 and in 1853 he writes thus:

“I have even heard it asserted (I forget whether by the Chinese or by others) that monkeys are employed for the same purpose [i.e. gathering tea leaves] and in the following manner:—These animals, it seems, do not like to work, and would not gather the leaves willingly; but when they are seen up amongst the rocks where the tea bushes are growing, the Chinese throw stones at them; the monkeys get very angry, and commence breaking off the branches of the tea-shrubs, which they throw down at their assailants! . . .

Egypt monkeys

Egypt monkeys

I should not like to assert that no tea is gathered in these hills [of Woo-e-shan in the neighborhood of Tsong-gan-hien] by the agency of monkeys, . . . but I think it may be safely affirmed that the quantity procured in such ways is exceedingly small.” (Fortune, Robert. A Journey to the Tea Districts of China, etc. London, 1852, p. 237, and Two Visits to the Tea Countries of China, etc. 2 vols. London, 1853, Vol. II, pp. 199–200)

In Egypt monkeys apparently at times shared with men the tasks of harvesting. In the picture—the original of which appears as a painting on the tomb of Hui—one man and four monkeys are engaged in the common labor of picking the fruit of the dôm palm.

From Vol. IV, p. 341, of A History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria, by G. Maspero

For our next reference, we must go back nearly one hundred years, in fact to 1757, when Pehr Osbeck’s Voyage to China was published.

Family and Brother Monkey Picks Coconuts

Among the curious and interesting things that he notes was the keeping of monkeys as pets by the Javanese, and in this connection, he introduces the following statement appears as an afterthought:

“It is said that the monkies in China gather rhubarb and pound rice.”

(Osbeck, Pehr.Ostindisk Resa til Suratte, China, etc. [1750-52]. Stockholm, 1757. English translation by John Reinhold Forster, A Voyage to China and the East Indies. London 1771, Vol. I, p. 152)

Edward Tyson closes his Philosophical Essay concerning the Pygmies of the Ancients, published in 1694 (London, pp. 101-02), with a reference to the activities of certainly trained monkeys as recounted by three authors antedating him.

Instead of giving this citation, the authors concerned will be quoted directly.

It is perhaps needless to caution the reader that they wrote at a time when nature-faking was not condemned as it is today.

In 1670, Olfert Dapper published his book on Africa, and in his description of “Sierra-Liona” is found the statement appended below.

There is no evidence that Dapper ever visited Sierra Leone, nor is there any to show from whom he got his information though he may have known of the citation immediately following this one. His words are:

“Three kinds of monkeys are found here; and there is one, of a certain species they call Baris, which they catch when little; raise, and train so well, that these monkeys can give almost as much service as slaves.

Ordinarily, they walk quite erect like them. They can grind millet in the mortar, and go to draw water in a pitcher.



When they fall down, they show their pain by cries. They know how to turn the spit, and to do a thousand clever little tricks which greatly amuse their masters.” (Dapper, Olfert. Umbständliche und eigentliche Beschreibung von Africa, etc. Amsterdam, 1670. A French version is entitled Description de l’Afrique, etc. Amsterdam, 1686, p. 249)

Going back still farther, in Petri Gassendi’s life of the French scholar, Peiresc, published in 1641, is found the following interesting statement which agrees with the foregoing, in so far as the author’s very unclassical Latin can be made out.

Peiresc was informed by a certain physician named Natalis, that in Guinea a particular kind of monkey called Baris was of so gentle a disposition that it could be readily trained, taught to wear clothes, play on a pipe, husk grain in a mortar, assist in keeping the house swept and in order and in performing various other menial services. (Gassendi, Petri. Viri illustri Nicolai Claudii Fabricii de Peiresc Vita. Parisii, 1641)

Nearly seventy years earlier than Gassendi, José de Acosta, a Jesuit monk, one of the early explorers of the natural history realm of the new world, published in the natural history section of his work the following account. It will be noted that he claims to have been an eyewitness of the incident mentioned.

Perhaps, however, it is just as well that he did not print the account in that part of the work dealing with morals, for there greater sobriety of statement would seem to be required. He writes thus:

“I saw one [monkey] in Carthagene [Cartagena] in the Governor’s house, so taught, as the things he did seemed incredible: they sent him to the Taverne for wine, putting the pot in one hand, and the money in the other; and they could



not possibly gette the money out of his hand, before he had his pot full of wine.

If any children mette him in the streete, and threw any stones at him, he would set his pot downe on the one side and cast stones against the children till he had assured his way, then would he returne to carry home his pot.

And which is more, although hee were a good bibber of wine (as I have oftentimes seene him drink, when his master has given it him) yet would he never touch it vntill leave was given him.” (Acosta, José de.Historia natural y moral de las Indias, etc. Sevilla, 1500.

English version by Edward Grimston, Natural and morall historie of the East and West Indies. London, 1604, p. 315 [Reprinted 1880 by the Hakluyt Society, as its Volume LX])

For our next citation we must delve into the past about 1400 years to Philostratus called “the Athenian” to distinguish him from others of the name.

Philostratus, who was born circa 170 A.D. and died in 245, was a disciple of the Greek Pythagorean philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana, who was born a few years before the Christian era.

Apollonius traveled extensively and among the countries he visited was India. He died at the age of about one hundred years at Ephesus where he had established a school.

The narratives of the travels of Apollonius were collected and written out in full by Philostratus. In the English version of these we read that near the river Hyphasis, which traverses India, the parts of the mountains which stretch down to the Red Sea are overgrown with aromatic shrubs, as well as many other species of plants, including pepper trees, which he states “are cultivated by the apes.”