International Macaque Day is commemorated each 16th of March to bring awareness to these incredible beings whose populations are at risk due to human actions.

But what exactly are macaques? Is there one species of them, or several? Why are their populations decreasing, and what can be done to help save them? In this blog, we address all things macaque that will leave you wanting to advocate for these special animals–today and every day.

What is a macaque?

Macaques[1] (of the genus Macaca) are Old World monkeys; they consist of 23 species, all of which are Asian except for the Barbary macaque (of Northern Africa). Several groups (or ‘troops’) of the Barbary macaque call Gibraltar their home–in fact, about 230 individuals live on the Rock of Gibraltar!–making them the only population of wild monkeys in Europe; this has made macaques the non-human primate with the greatest geographical distribution, with their species naturally found across Asia, Northern Africa and Southern Europe. As there are so many species in such different parts of the world, macaques can be found in humid rainforests, temperate grasslands and frigid mountainous terrain.

For most macaques, their arms and legs are about the same length and their fur is typically either a shade of brown or black. Their tails can be long, medium, short or nonexistent. Macaques can range from 5.5 to 18 kg (or 12.13 to 39.7lbs), depending on their species and sex (females tend to be smaller). While most are herbivores (more specifically, frugivorous–preferring fruit), there are some species, like the long-tailed (also known as the crab-eating) macaque, that also feed on insects and small vertebrates.

Similarly to bonobos, macaque troops are extremely social and matriarchal. The social connections and cooperative nature of macaque troops have been shown to extend its members’ longevity–that is if these complex animals are not captured and used by humans for entertainment or experimentation (Animals Asia, 2019).

The plight of macaques

Multiple macaque species are finding their populations dwindling as the destruction of their habitats via deforestation increasingly takes place–this to make room for the expansion of land for grazing livestock and infrastructure (Butler, 2022; Jong, 2020). As if that isn’t concerning enough, macaques are frequently taken out of their habitats and used by humans in unnatural and cruel ways. This unfortunate combination is what’s led some species, like the long-tailed macaque, to be considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)[2] (Colley, 2022; IUCN, 2022; The Long-Tailed Macaque Project, 2022). Since 2017, US entities have imported nearly 175,000 nonhuman primates from Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Mauritius, the Philippines and Vietnam for experimentation purposes–with 94.5% of these primates being the long-tailed macaque (PETA, 2022). In the UK, around 3,000 macaques are imported and used for testing each year (RSPCA, 2023).

‘Between 2008 and 2019, 450,000 live long-tailed macaques were exported from Asia and Mauritius for use in research and testing, with over 50,000 wild-caught. Data shows that more than 700,000 “specimens” including blood, tissue, and body parts from an unknown number of macaques were also exported from Asia. There are fears the actual number is significantly higher’ (Colley, 2022, n.p.).

Demands in the US for primates to be used for experimentation increased during the pandemic and when vaccines were in their testing stage, with the long-tailed macaques once again being the most heavily targeted species (Colley, 2022; The Long-Tailed Macaque Project, 2022). Since 2020, the U.S. has been the largest importer of primates in the world, with Cambodia being the largest exporter (PETA, 2022).

‘Hunters in countries like Cambodia trap mother monkeys [including primarily macaques], pry their babies away, stuff the babies into bags, and cram the mothers—and any other troop members who have survived capture—into crates. Some monkeys are sold directly to U.S. importers, whereas others will be taken to commercial monkey factory farms…where the mothers will be forced to breed in filthy, barren conditions. Injury and illness are extremely common at these facilities, and many of the monkeys die’ (PETA, 2022, n.p.).

If macaques do not die after this traumatic experience, they are forced into the unnatural, lonely, confining quarters of a cage–deprived of the outside world and unable to carry out their normal behaviour (in the wild, they could travel for miles a day) (PETA, 2023).

‘Primates are highly intelligent animals who form complex social relationships, and experience emotions in a similar way to humans. This means that primates can suffer in similar ways to us’ (RSPCA, 2023, n.p.). This means that if you wouldn’t like being trapped in a cage, they don’t either. As if confinement and deprivation of their natural habitat were not bad enough, these macaques are then subject to painful, invasive experiments where they are deliberately sickened with chemicals or injected with diseases, used to carry out toxicity testing, then typically killed once their ‘purpose’ has been carried out (HSUS, 2023).

When macaques aren’t traded to be tested on, they are trafficked to become pets. Macaques thrive within their troop, and when taken out of it and forced to cohabitate with humans–no matter how ‘adaptable’ these animals are–they become stressed and aggressive. There is a disturbing trend on social media where people upload videos of their ‘pet’ macaques, dressed in human clothes and treated like toy dolls. In some cases, the distress is considered ‘unintentional’, as defined by Asia for Animals Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition (SMACC), such as when a macaque is seen ‘smiling’, which is their way of showing fear (SMACC, 2022). Other videos–many of which have attained thousands or even millions of views–show human ‘owners’ intentionally using aggressive disciplinary actions towards their ‘pet’ macaques, simply because the wild animals aren’t acting the way the human wants them to. Other appalling videos that have been allowed on platforms–such as TikTok, Facebook and YouTube–include sadistic ‘Monkey Hatred’ videos:

‘Creators of monkey hatred cruelty content have realised the monetary value of tormenting the infants in their care, deliberately placing the monkeys in fearful and stressful situations to film their reactions’ (SMACC, 2021, pg. 47).

Taking advantage of their intellect and ability to learn quickly, macaques are also used in live shows and as ‘street entertainment’, where, for example, in the US, macaques are dressed up as cowboys and forced to ride on the backs of dogs or sheep (Action for Primates, 2023). In other countries, particularly in Asia, tourist attractions will often have live performances using macaques, where, for instance, they are forced into ‘…riding bicycles or walking or standing on their hind legs for long periods’ (Action for Primates, 2023, n.p.).

In Indonesia, it is not uncommon for people to see macaques ‘performing’ on the street–oftentimes with a doll’s head put over their face to ‘look cute’ as their owners force them to ask drivers passing by for money (Action for Primates, 2023; Warfield, 2018). These animals are normally deprived of food to be trained to perform such acts. ‘In all cases where non-human primates are kept in captivity and used as “entertainment” for people, the animals are unquestionably deprived of a normal life’ (Action for Primates, 2023, n.p.).

With most wild macaque populations dwindling as the number of macaques in captivity– whether kept as a pet or used for entertainment or experimentation–are seemingly on the rise, it is imperative that we take action to help these beings who deserve better.

What can be done to help macaques?

🐒 Sign petitions to encourage an end to government supported animal experimentations, including those on nonhuman primates

🐒 Report videos that you come across online as ‘animal cruelty’ when they show macaques as pets and in unnatural settings

🐒 Boycott attractions that use macaques in captivity

“The long-tailed macaque faces many threats and it will take a global effort to ensure its survival in its native habitats, where it provides a crucial ecological and cultural service to wildlife, nature and people” (The Long-Tailed Macaque Project, 2022, n.p.).

Let’s work together to make the world a better place for macaques, this International Macaque Day and every day.