Wildlife provisioning can be defined as the “offering of food to a non-human animal, beyond its natural supply and the quality of the animal’s environment.” Food provisioning to wildlife is a common practice that is prevalent around the world. Primates, in particular, are affected by this trend, since many live very close to human civilizations.
Why does wildlife provisioning in primates occur?
Primates serve many social and cultural connotations in countries around the world. For example, in Hindu mythology, langurs are represented as Hanuman, the monkey god. In China, the epic and perilous journey of Song-Wukong, the Monkey King, is a popular tale for children. Such embedded respect and appreciation for primates encourages human and primate interactions. Food is presented to monkeys as offerings to the gods, and as a symbol of prosperity and good luck.
In addition, the growth of primate ecotourism has also increased provisioning to primates. By creating feeding grounds for monkeys, many monkeys aggregate to the delight of tourists, who are able to get in close contact with them. In turn, there is a reduced fear of humans in primates, and many associate humans with food. This creates a vicious cycle, in which more human-primate conflicts can occur.
Surprisingly, many primate research studies have also used provisioning. This can be seen across all species including macaques, chimpanzees, baboons, bonobos and more. Such methodology was incorporated so that researchers could observe primates at closer encounters, and to obtain more detailed information on group composition and group dynamics (such as dominance, sharing and cooperation). By providing the wild study subjects food, researchers were able to habituate the primates quickly. Many primatologists are now realizing how such provisioning may have affected their data, and some longitudinal studies of primate behavior have been called into question.
What are the consequences?
There are many negative health impacts associated with primate consumption of human food. Because human foods are more processed and contain higher contents of sugar and fat than their regular diets, it leads to weight gain, and increases in levels of insulin and cholesterol. This has been shown to increase blood pressure in provisioned primates as well as risk for cardiovascular disease in primates.
Provisioning can also increase the amount of disease transmission between humans and primates. For example, most macaques carry the herpes B virus, and while they do not become sick from this virus, it is pathogenic for humans. This virus can be transferred from monkey bites as well as exposure to monkey feces. In turn, humans can also transmit diseases to monkeys. In particular, tuberculosis has been devastating on many wild populations of primates.
Provisioning also changes the behavior of primates. Studies have shown that primates with more concentrated food resources might partake in more aggressive encounters within groups. Higher levels of aggression can change social dynamics and also increase the mortality of individuals that are ranked lower. Also, grooming is an integral part of socialization in primate groups because it reinforces social bonds. With a change in the availability of resources, it is hypothesized that these social bonds will be less valued. Overall, with less grooming and less cohesion, group dynamics can chance drastically and increase the likelihood of group fission. This in turn increases the vulnerability of the groups to stochastic events.
Perhaps what is most important is that wildlife provisioning continues to change the connection between primates and their ecosystems. Primates are natural seed dispersers of the tropical rainforest, but with less natural fruits in their diet, they are less likely to disperse seeds. This reduces the overall genetic diversity and gene flow of the plant communities, which can affect the diet and foraging patterns of other species in the ecosystem. As such, food provisioning to primates has far-reaching consequences beyond primates.
Important measures must be implemented and enforced to curb the provisioning of primates. In ecotourism, more accessible information must be provided to tourists prior to their trip so that they better understand the risks of zoonoses and anthropozoonoses. In addition, tourists must wear face masks and gloves at all times and view primates at a distance with limited visit durations. There are also many deterrence strategies that communities can implement to reduce primate raids, including recycling programs, and the construction of artificial watering holes and artificial sleeping sites that are far removed from the community. Collaborations between local governments and primatologists are essential to facilitating these changes. Moreover, it is crucial that there is continued funding for researchers better understand the effects of provisioning on primates so that we continue to be informed of its dynamic consequences. It is important to note that all of the consequences of wildlife provisioning are connected, and that it is tantamount to have a multi-pronged approach that can be scalable to the local level.
So, next time you are tempted to feed a begging monkey while you are traveling abroad, think again!