Close encounters with ‘Mike’ and company

BARANGAY NEW ISRAEL, Makilala, North Cotabato (MindaNews/02 July) — “Mike!” tourist guide Virginia Laniohan shouted in a prolonged manner when we arrived at the heart of Barangay New Israel. She made another prolonged call to Mike, facing the park of the village, but nothing came out.

I was a bit excited because I have long wanted to go back to this place to meet Mike and his company, whom I have been hearing from friends gave them fun when they visited this mountainous village.

Monkeys feast on bananas given by visitors in Barangay New Israel in Makilala, North Cotabato on June 30, 2013. The monkeys in the place have co-existed with humans since the 1940s. MindaNews photo by Ruby Thursday More
Monkeys feast on bananas given by visitors in Barangay New Israel in Makilala, North Cotabato on June 30, 2013. The monkeys in the place have co-existed with humans since the 1940s. MindaNews photo by Ruby Thursday More

Laniohan asked for P20 to buy something for Mike and his friends so that they would come out and welcome us. But before she could get back to us, I saw tiny creatures from a distance jumping and running on the park that sits on the sloping portion of the village.

As Laniohan approached us, around 20 tiny creatures raced to meet the tourist guide who was carrying a bag of bananas. And yes, I finally saw the pack: Macaque monkeys. So Ruby started taking photos while I also began shooting videos.

But I didn’t know who among them was Mike, although my friends told me that Mike was one of the elder monkeys and the recognized leader of the pack.

Then Laniohan started distributing the bananas and ensured that each of them got a share. The smaller ones were the quickest to grab their share while the elders waited for their turn. She handed some of the bananas to Gigi and let him distribute to the monkeys.

“This is Mike,” said the tourist guide as she handed a bunch of bananas. “He is the leader of monkeys, everyone respects him.”

Mike feasts on bananas given by tourists in Barangay New Israel in Makilala, North Cotabato on June 30, 2013.
Mike feasts on bananas given by tourists in Barangay New Israel in Makilala, North Cotabato on June 30, 2013.

Mike was on his feet as he reached for his share, standing about three feet tall. After getting his share, he sat on the gravel and started eating.

In less than 10 minutes, the five kilos of banana was gone. Mike and his company were slowly moving away towards the houses. So Ruby handed P40 to Laniohan to buy more bananas.

The tour guide rushed to buy more bananas in a nearby store. When she got back, she called for Mike again, and the pack swarmed on her.

Three other tourists came down from the park and took pictures of the monkeys. When one of them crouched to take a closer shot, one of the monkeys climbed on his shoulders.

“He’s really pesky, he’s the only one fond of climbing on tourists’ bodies,” Laniohan told the tourists.

One of them handed a banana to the monkey, who was on top his colleague’s shoulder. The primate playfully ruffled the hair of the tourist as if looking for lice. He then jumped to the ground, and we thought he would leave. Instead, he climbed the shoulder of another tourist.

After a few minutes, Laniohan pushed the monkey out of the tourist’s shoulder.

“It’s okay for them to climb on your bodies as long as you won’t touch them as they would get angry because they don’t know you yet,” she advised us.

As the monkeys were about to consume all the additional bananas, I crouched to get a low angle shot of Mike who was still eating. Then the same monkey, who loves to get on top of people’s shoulders, climbed on my shoulder. He tried to grab the camera as if he wanted to shoot.

He bit the monopod. He held the lens. Laniohan tried to push him because he was worried that the monkey might grab the camera. I let the monkey perched on my shoulder for about 10 minutes while I was taking pictures and video of his colleagues.

Gigi handed me a banana and the monkey quickly grabbed it.

Laniohan tried to push him again but the monkey wouldn’t get off my shoulder. He was holding tight to my hair. Luckily, I just had my haircut so his hand eventually slipped off my head.

“Mga kulit gyud na sila, tanawa ra gud na sila kung asa asa na sila ga dula,” Laniohan said.

I saw one of them trying to steal the banana of another monkey while the other one was hanging on a streamer. Some of them were already playing on the rooftop of the houses.

Some of the elder monkeys were quiet behaved. One tucked her baby to her chest as she was moving away from the pack. They sat on the side of the road and started eating bananas.

Chemical-free only

But Laniohan pointed out to us that the monkeys would only eat chemical-free bananas. “A multi-national company donated boxes of banana but the monkeys refused to eat them.”

She believes that the monkeys, who may have become used to eating organically-grown bananas in their village, can recognize the presence of chemicals.

“What about fruits that are grown with synthetic fertilizers,” I asked Laniohan.

“They could still recognize it, they will not eat them,” she retorted.

She led us to the higher portion of the place, which is about 300 meters away to talk to the village chief.

On our way up, she pointed to us a swimming pool, which is about 10feet x15 feet big. She told us that it was intended for the monkeys. But they didn’t like it.

“Nabagohan siguro sila sa tiles kay puti. Murag matingala sila na tin-aw kaayo ang tubig,” Laniohan said.

A row of giant white lauan trees provided shade on the dirt road leading to the view deck of the village.
From a clearing, I could see the portions of Bansalan, Davao del Sur and the banana plantation of a multi-national company at the foot the adjacent mountain range.

New Israel sits on the foot of Mt. Apo, the country’s highest peak, on the periphery of a tropical rainforest at an elevation of 1,600 feet above sea level.

Monkey factions

Village chief Lovely Guibernas-Paraiso said that Mike is the recognized leader of the pack, which they call “Democracy.”

“He acts as the leader, everyone is afraid of him. Whenever there are squabbles, he jumps in to stop them. Most of the younger monkeys are afraid of him, they respect him,” Paraiso explained.

She said Mike and his group are already the third generation of monkeys in the village.

Paraiso recalled that it was her late father who tamed the monkeys since the 1940s.

“I grew up in this village where the monkeys have been roaming around since then. Our father advised us to love the monkeys because they can help us in many ways,” said the village chief who is in late 60s.

But Mike and his group is not just the pack of monkeys in the village.

The other group, which they call the “Rebels,” is a little bit cruel because it doesn’t want any monkey from other groups to enter its territory.

“We saw them fight, we saw how they chase intruding monkeys,” Paraiso said in the vernacular.

But like Mike’s group, the Rebel pack also lives within the community, she added. Their territory is situated near the houses beside the creek.

Another pack is called LGU, which lives near the Rebel group. “Because we have the rebel group, so we call them LGU. They behave like Mike’s group.”

Each group consists of about 50 to 60 monkeys, Paraiso said.

As we were about to wrap up the interview, we noticed the rain was about to fall. The green view of the valley was already draped with grey. Then the drizzle began.

When the rain stopped, we started moving back to the heart of the village. “Tugnawa oi.Wala ko kadala jacket,” Gigi complained.

Even Laniohan also noticed that the temperature had already dropped. “Murag naa lang mi aircon dire basta ani panahon,” she quipped.

Part of their lives

When we arrived at the heart of the village, we heard rumblings on the roof. Mike and his company were already on top running and jumping.

Monkeys play in houses in Barangay New Israel in Makilala, North Cotabato on June 30, 2013. The monkeys in the place have co-existed with humans since the 1940s. MindaNews photo by Ruby Thursday More
Monkeys play in houses in Barangay New Israel in Makilala, North Cotabato on June 30, 2013. The monkeys in the place have co-existed with humans since the 1940s. MindaNews photo by Ruby Thursday More

“The people have become used to their peskiness,” Paraiso said, adding the monkeys would sometimes sleep on the roof of her house.

But most houses in the village were always closed while some have installed cyclone wires to prevent the monkeys from getting inside and destroying some belongings.

Laniohan said most of the villagers are changing their iron sheet roofs almost every two years.

“Look at the walls of Kapitan’s house, the dirty marks where the monkeys would lean are clear,” she said pointing to the mint green wooden walls of the house.

While the smaller monkeys play on the houses, Laniohan said, the elder monkeys would watch them. “They’re like people too, they would stop quarrels and watch where the small ones are going.”

Paraiso further said that the village has designated monkey feeders.

Amused with mirrors

Paraiso said his late father had built a pool for the monkeys. But since it was made of tiles, the monkeys did not like it, she added.

“It seems they don’t want the water in the tiles. So we built a new one without tiles near our park,”she said.

One of the strangest characteristics of the monkeys, she noted, is their amusement with mirrors. “They like to face the mirrors. They don’t like to leave, they always look at their reflection on the mirror.”

She added that they always advise their visitors who are bringing their vehicles to fold the side mirrors of their cars. Otherwise, the monkeys would gather near the side mirror or they will remove it.

Dos and don’ts

Paraiso said they always advise tourists to not tease the monkeys. “If you want to give them food, give it right away. Don’t tease them because they’ll get mad.”

The village chief added that the monkeys would get mad if people stare at them right on their faces.

Laniohan added that if tourists wanted to mingle with the monkeys, they just have to buy bananas in the sari-sari stores around.

How to get here

Barangay New Israel is around 4.7 kilometers away from the Barangay New Bulatukan. The junction going here is on the right side of the national highway if you come from Davao City.

The fare for motorcycles or habal-habal is P20 per passenger. Though road widening is ongoing, the village is still accessible by four-wheeled vehicles.

There is no entrance fee but tourist guides are asking for donations for the food of the monkeys.

Paraiso said tourists may stay in the village with their camping tents.

She added that they have yet to develop homestay services.

The village is also a home to a quasi-religious group known as Moncadista. (Keith Bacongco/MindaNews)

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