'Monkey king' earns primates' trust with daily breakfast

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 January, 2009, 12:00am

Hui Man-hon is definitely a human being. But when he calls and shouts, a large crowd of monkeys emerge from the forest and approach him as if he were the primate king.

Almost every day since June, he has driven to Kam Shan Country Park and placed a container of shredded fruit and peanuts inside a giant cage.

His task is simple, challenging and a little unscrupulous - to win the trust of the monkeys by feeding them - and then betray them when the time is right.

'I will shout whatever I like loudly at the forest to lure them out. With luck, the monkeys will show up in troops and enter the cage voluntarily,' says Mr Hui, who works for an ecology consultancy.

While the monkeys scramble for the food, Mr Hui quietly retreats and the cage is closed, leaving his colleagues with the task of applying anaesthetic and contraception injections.

'They showed no interest initially, but after a week they became less defensive. Gradually, the monkeys started to trust me and recognised my voice and car. Even if I do nothing now, they just follow my car as I drive into the park,' he says.

He has helped to capture males and females, infants and pregnant ones. In one case, a monkey gave birth in the cage. Mr Hui admits that he once felt guilty for 'betraying' the highly intelligent animals after gaining their trust, but this quickly passed as he believed he was acting in their best interests.

Conservation officials say the method has proved more successful than failed ones in the past, when monkeys used to flee after being hit by an anaesthetic gun, and others were smart enough to avoid simple traps.

It has been so effective that some monkeys have been captured twice, indicating they quickly forget their unhappy experience of being caught, locked up and injected.

Gail Cochrane, the veterinary surgeon who heads the contraception project, says: 'The desire for food overrides their fear of being captured. It might be difficult to judge if they have a memory of the capture but it seems they forget about it quickly.'