Monkey thieves at Bali’s Uluwatu temple are more sophisticated than you thought, study suggests

File photo of a monkey at Uluwatu temple in Bali. Photo: Pixabay
File photo of a monkey at Uluwatu temple in Bali. Photo: Pixabay

Anytime one visits the Uluwatu temple in Bali, it’s just good sense to be cautious. It’s very likely that guides at this popular tourist destination will tell you to at least put away any dangling items from your person, lest you want it snatched away by the temple’s main inhabitants-slash-furry local thieves — the monkeys. 

The long-tailed macaques in Uluwatu are well-known for their robbery skills, with unsuspecting visitors often the target of their clever stunts, as they would cling to the stolen items until food is offered as ransom payment. 

As it turns out, these monkeys are skilled at evaluating which items are more valuable to the owner, and they are using this information to acquire better rewards — usually in the form of more or better food — according to a new study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society this week. 

“They preferentially selected tokens that were more likely to be exchanged for food (e.g electronic devices, pairs of glasses) over other objects that were less valuable for humans and typically not worth bartering (e.g empty camera bags, hairpins),” the study says. 

Researchers, who based this study on 273 days of filmed interactions between the monkeys and their human targets in the area, say this suggests that they’re not merely bartering, but also maximizing their profits in the process. In addition, this is apparently specific to the free-ranging population of the Balinese long-tailed macaques at Uluwatu temple. 

The research concludes that these behaviors are learned by the monkeys throughout juvenescence, or until they are about four years old in this species. As such, the adults are usually more successful at getting better rewards during the “negotiations.”

“This behavior was […] an established practice in this population, probably passed on cross-generationally for at least 30 years,” the study says. 

So the next time you’re visiting Uluwatu temple, it might be handy to have learned that the monkeys really, really know what they’re doing.

Read more news and updates from Bali here.

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