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Hungry Japanese Monkeys Look for Food in All the Wrong Places

November 28, 1996

ODAWARA, Japan (AP) _ It all started with some innocent tangerine snatching. Sweet potatoes came next, then candy bars right off the shelves.

Now, after having their shops regularly ransacked, their homes invaded and their farms vandalized by monkeys run amok, people in dozens of towns across Japan are ready to fight back.

If they only knew how.

``We’ve tried just about everything, but nothing has worked,″ said Shuichi Seto, a city official who tracks monkey troops in the hills around this resort city on Japan’s central coast. ``They are a tricky adversary.″

Japanese macaques, found only in this country, are one of the most common wild mammals in Japan, and monkey-related damage to crops long has been a problem in the countryside.

But steady growth in the monkey population in recent years has forced many troops to make increasingly frequent forays out of the forests and into the farms and cities.

The pressure to find food, victims say, has made them almost brazen.

``They came right into my house,″ said Naozo Hasegawa, who lives in Odawara’s monkey-plagued outskirts. ``My wife tried to scare them with a mop, but they chased her all the way to the train station.″

The frequency of monkey forays varies _ communities closer to forests see more of them. In Odawara, the pillaging primates have been reported about once a week.

Beyond growling and the baring of teeth, actual attacks on people are extremely rare. Some shopkeepers are armed with slingshots and air guns _ just in case. But most say the monkeys hardly notice.

Known for their intelligence and hardiness, macaque troops can be found from the semi-tropical south to the northernmost tip of Japan’s main island, farther north than any other primate in the world.

Gray or burnt amber in color, the macaques can reach nearly a three feet tall when standing on their hind legs and can weigh 26 pounds or more. They eat a variety of foods, including fruits, seeds, insects and shellfish.

Researchers stress that the monkeys aren’t to blame for the current problems.

Most of the big troops are located in or near macaque havens created in the 1970s and 80s to attract tourists to rural areas. Overfeeding fueled baby booms, and crowding pushed the macaques out into farmlands and city fringes.

At least 14,800 acres of crops are destroyed or damaged by monkeys each year, Japan’s agriculture ministry says.

To control the population _ estimated at between 20,000 and 60,000 _ the government has allowed 5,000 monkeys to be killed across Japan since 1980.

But even the hardest-hit farmers don’t like the idea of killing the creatures.

``They aren’t just any animal, after all,″ said Kenichi Akiyama, who heads a local farmers’ cooperative. ``They are like our distant cousins.″

He said nearly 200 monkeys living in the forested hills around Odawara cost farmers an estimated $100,000 each year in damages.

That figure is low compared to many other parts of Japan where monkeys are a problem, but Odawara farmer Mamoru Akiyama says such estimates can be misleading.

``The numbers would be higher, but we’ve had to stop growing things they like,″ he said. ``It’s as though the monkeys decide what we can and cannot plant.″

This year, the agriculture ministry is putting $370,000 into developing electric fences and other devices to monkey-proof farms.

Officials in Oita, in southern Japan, are experimenting with various kinds of birth control _ including hormone shots and IUDs _ on a population of more than 2,000 resident macaques.

Other local governments are investing in efforts to teach tourists not to feed the wild monkeys, or to relocate troops to more remote habitats.

Getting the macaques back into the wild, however, is not easy.

Hoping to entice the monkeys around Odawara and the neighboring city of Hakone to move, officials seven years ago began building what they had hoped would be a macaque preserve.

Although they planted more than 30,000 trees and spent $2 million, the monkeys have yet to call it home: The preserve _ unlike the tangerine fields _ remains empty.

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