The hunted monkeys of Sulawesi


Noldy, an employee at the Tasikoki Wildlife Rescue Center (PPS) in Manado, North Sulawesi, has been taking care of an orphan baby yaki. Every day, Noldy, who’s worked at Tasikoki PPS for 14 years, has to feed milk to the motherless animal.

“This is the first time I’ve taken care of a yaki baby. Usually only adult yaki are brought here,” Noldy tells New Naratif.

Yaki, or Celebes Crested Macaques, are indigenous to the island and considered protected primates in Indonesia. They also have a slightly sexy nickname—”red-bottomed monkeys”—because their pink buttocks grow red when aroused.

But fun nicknames can’t hide the fact that the yaki are in trouble. On the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, they’re listed as critically endangered. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora includes yaki on its Appendix II list, which means the species is currently threatened with extinction if illegal trade isn’t halted.

The yaki population in Sulawesi is increasingly threatened. In addition to the destruction of its habitat caused by illegal logging, poaching is also a major threat to its existence.

Noldy is now the “mother” of a two-month-old baby yaki. When he was rescued by North Sulawesi’s Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA)—a government agency tasked with managing conservation areas—the animal, named 1ONE, had already lost its mother.

According to his previous owner, 1ONE had been taken from the Bolaang Mongondow district, an area that borders jungle where yaki are known to live, and kept as a pet. The family handed over the baby yaki willingly when approached by the conservation agency; they’d treated 1ONE like a human, and even given him perfume.

“Those kinds of action can endanger animals; their bodies can get irritated and there can be health risks as well,” says resident veterinarian at Tasikoki PPS, Dr Fahmi Agustiadi. According to Fahmi, they have to give milk made with special formula to 1ONE. It took several months before 1ONE was able to adapt to other yaki and was released to live with the adults.

At the Tasikoki PPS there are more than 80 yaki who are still being rehabilitated before they can be released back into their natural habitat. These yaki came from various raids on illegal owners carried out by the North Sulawesi BKSDA. Some had also been voluntarily handed over after their owners realised that they were not allowed to keep them as pets.

Every time Tasikoki PPS receives a confiscated wild animal, it’s given a name. The name “1ONE” given to the baby yaki now being raised by Noldy is a code name—he was the first animal to be rescued in 2019.

A traditional holiday meal

In the run up to last Christmas, harrowing photos were uploaded on Facebook. The images, widely condemned by netizens, showed several dead yaki. The post was accompanied by a caption asking if anyone was interested in eating yaki for Christmas. One of the dead yaki in the photographs was carrying a baby. “The baby at Tasikoki PPS is proof that hunting is continuing,” says the rescue centre’s manager Billy Lolowang.

Ahead of major holidays, including Christmas, traditional markets in Minahasa still do a roaring trade in meat from protected species. Two markets in particular, Tomohon and Langowan, are famous in Sulawesi for being “extreme meat markets”. It’s not just yaki; cats, monitor lizards, dogs, snakes, and even crocodiles are sold there. Many of the meat sources on offer, such as bush rat or bat, have been traditional food sources for the people of the area, although some of them, like yaki, are now endangered species. These markets are so famous for their wares that tour guides often bring foreign tourists to visit them. Unsurprisingly, environmental activists oppose these kinds of tours.

The yaki population in Sulawesi is increasingly threatened. In addition to the destruction of its habitat caused by illegal logging, poaching is also a major threat to its existence

Yaki, or Celebes Crested Macaques, are indigenous to the Manado and considered protected primates in Indonesia. They are also recognised as being critically endangered.  Ronny Buol

A number of institutions have campaigned for the cessation of the consumption of yaki meat and other protected wildlife. One of them is the Selamatkan Yaki (Save the Yaki) Foundation. They recently collaborated with the groups Tunas Hijau Airmadidi Youth Nature Lovers, Tasikoki Education, and Animal Friends Manado Indonesia, visiting Tomohon market ahead of the Christmas celebration. Once there, they tried to make people aware that yaki and other indigenous wildlife shouldn’t be hunted and consumed. As conservation activist, Simon Purser, explains, consuming wild meat can be a health risk as they may contain dangerous bacteria, or animals could be infected with rabies. “Protein requirements can be obtained through alternatives, they don’t have to come from wild meat,” Purser tells New Naratif.

Wildlife trafficking

North Sulawesi is an important hotspot in the protected wildlife trade in Southeast Asia, and North Sulawesi BKSDA often conducts operations on wildlife trafficking activities across the island and country.

From various wildlife trafficking law enforcement operations, a number of regional species from different provinces in Indonesia have been rescued, such as sun bears, green turtles, Javan slow loris and Javan langur. These animals are often caught in Indonesia and smuggled by sea to the Philippines before being sent on to various countries in Europe.

Local residents say that wildlife traffickers buy animals very cheaply from locals who trap them, and that the animals are often poorly treated and tortured on the way to being sold. Parrots, for example, have some of their feathers plucked so they can’t fly. Even if rehabilitated, these birds are difficult to release because they can no longer live normally in their natural habitat, and so they end up staying at the centre. “The animals in the PPS shows that North Sulawesi is an important route for wildlife trade players,” Billy says.

People often think that seeing hundreds of animals in Tasikoki PPS is a sign of progress. In reality, more and more animals at the centre indicate the failure of law enforcement in tackling wildlife crimes. Various confiscated animals from the North Sulawesi BKSDA are deposited in this non-profit institution to be rehabilitated before being released. Every day at Tasikoki PPS, officers and veterinarians take care of hundreds of animals so they can have a normal life back in the wild—including 1ONE, the baby yaki.

“It’s not easy. There are animals that can be released immediately, but some need a very long rehabilitation process, such as orangutans, bears and several species of birds from North Maluku and Papua,” explains Billy.

Poor law enforcement is still one of the main issues in combating wildlife trafficking. In some cases, the perpetrators aren’t afraid of breaking the law because enforcement is still so weak. So far, only BKSDA has the authority to act in accordance with legislation concerning the “conservation of biological resources and ecosystems”. Other law enforcement officials are limited to only processing a case when a crime has already taken place.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry has its own law enforcement unit in the field of wildlife and wildlife trade, the Quick Reaction Forestry Police Unit (SPORC). But government agencies struggle with resources: the North Sulawesi BKSDA, for example, only has nine forest rangers to cover 13 conservation areas that span thousands of hectares. There’s also a lack of synergy between different law enforcement units when it comes to wildlife trafficking.

“As a result, the eradication of the wildlife trade won’t succeed without the involvement and awareness of the wider community. The community must continue to be educated,” says Billy. He believes that while there are many institutions working in the wildlife sector, almost all of them work for population conservation and the restoration of habitats and ecosystems, rather than on fighting illegal wildlife trade or tackling poaching.

Educating the locals can be a challenge, especially when it comes to navigating the line between preserving traditions with the need to evolve with the times in the interests of protecting indigenous species. In Minahasa, where some yaki live, it’s common to eat wild animals, especially around major holidays or at village events. Wildlife hunting is also not only about the consumption of meat, but the use of animal body parts for cultural rituals. In Minahasa, for example, kawasaran dancers—who perform a war dance which has now been modified as an honorary guest dance—use a yaki skull as an ornament. A kawasaran dancer is said to be considered more handsome with wild animal parts adorning their costume.

“In the future we want to hear more about the culture, and whether consuming wild meat is indeed rooted in local culture,” Billy says.

A way of life under threat

Yaki prefer to live in primary forests and form groups with a single chosen leader. The leader of the group guards their territorial area; in this way, multiple groups are guaranteed food supplies and a place to live.

Since 1998, the population of yaki in the wild is estimated to have to dropped to less than 100,000. Protected yaki can be found in the Dua Saudara and Menembo-nembo Nature Reserves in Bitung, Bacan Island in North Maluku, and in Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park in Bolaang Mongondow. The yaki population, especially in North Sulawesi, is highly threatened.

Poor law enforcement is still one of the main issues in combating wildlife trafficking… the perpetrators aren’t afraid of breaking the law because enforcement is still so weak

Observing the yaki has become a pastime for some—it’s an attraction of the Batuputih Nature Tourism Park, which is part of the Tangkoko conservation area in Bitung on the northern coast of Sulawesi. There, visitors can observe a large number of yaki activities as they socialise in their groups.

Under the management of the North Sulawesi BKSDA, the Macaca Nigra Project Institute in Tangkoko has conducted research over many years to observe this species. Their findings show that the threat to the yaki comes mainly from human activities, and identified how yaki hunters install snares that cause the yaki to lose their legs or arms. In the yaki enclosure at Tasikoki PPS, some yaki have no hands. “Such defects are an obstacle to returning them to the wild,” Billy says.

Despite ongoing efforts, yaki are still commonly kept as pets in some parts of Sulawesi. Their amusing behaviour and cute appearance means that people are often reluctant to hand over yaki to animal protection officers. It’s an experience little 1ONE is familiar with; as a cute little yaki baby, humans see creatures like him as adorable and fun. Today he’s kept safe in the rescue centre, and looks cute for visitors, but the presence of this motherless baby in Tasikoki PPS is a real cause for concern.


Having worked as a journalist for the past 10 years and now managing local media in North Sulawesi, Ronny worked at for 6 years. Also working as a freelance writer and photographer, Ronny covers environmental and conservation issues and often travels to various conservation locations in North Sulawesi. He’s based in Manado, a city in North Sulawesi Province, Indonesia.

Artikel ini sebelumnya sudah tayang di Newnaratif dan dieditori oleh Aisyah Llewellyn

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