A scan copy of the official letter banning dancing monkeys in East Java. (Photo courtesy of Jakarta Animal Aid Network)

Jakarta, I'm Only Dancing


JUNE 14, 2018

Jakarta. In December 2017, a photo by Spanish photographer Joan de la Malla uploaded on Instagram went viral among Indonesian animal lovers. The photo showed two baby monkeys extending their arms to each other since their necks were chained to separate planks. De la Malla said the photo was part of his project to document animal cruelty on monkeys being trained for a street show called topeng monyet or "dancing monkeys" in Indonesia.

Many people felt sorry for the monkeys and shared the photo on social media, including Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN), which had been fighting to ban topeng monyet in Indonesia for years.

The show is now banned in Jakarta, West Java and East Java. The organization is on its way to obtain a national ban.

Monkey Business

JAAN coordinator Benvika told The Jakarta Globe last week the organization began probing into this monkey business in 2009 after receiving more and more reports from Jakartans seeing topeng monyet buskers performing at the city's busy intersections.

"Topeng monyet used to be more popular in villages but they've infiltrated the city," Benvika said.

JAAN started investigating the topeng monyet troupes and found many worrying things about them. Aside from animal cruelty – monkeys are chained by their necks, dressed up and trained to ride bikes – there are the health hazards. The monkeys transfer diseases including tuberculosis, hepatitis and cacingan (worms).

"There were a lot of safety issues. The macaques can be very aggressive. If they escape, they can turn violent and bite. Very dangerous [to humans]," Benvika said.

JAAN forwarded the results of their investigation to the Environment and Forestry Ministry (KLHK), but as it turned out the ministry has no authority to confiscate long-tailed macaques (macaca fascicularis) – the type of monkeys trained for topeng monyet – because they are not classified as protected wildlife animals.

JAAN then took up the issue with the Jakarta administration in 2013 when current Indonesian president Joko "Jokowi" Widodo was still its governor.

At the same time, JAAN tried to attract public attention to the issue with a campaign called "Jakarta Bebas Topeng Monyet" ("Free Jakarta From Dancing Monkeys").

That year, Jokowi ordered a ban on dancing monkeys in the capital.

"From then on, Satpol PP [Jakarta's municipal police] and the Animal Husbandry and Animal Health Department regularly held raids to catch topeng monyet buskers," Benvika said.

The buskers fled to neighboring cities. Reports pointed out most of them moved to locations in West Java.

JAAN's more ambitious campaign "Indonesia Bebas Topeng Monyet" ("Free Indonesia From Dancing Monkeys") in 2015 persuaded the West Java provincial administration to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) banning topeng monyet troupes.

"West Java is vast, so we also made agreements with the cities and districts, Cirebon, Tasikmalaya and soon Bekasi. Bekasi has already agreed [to ban dancing monkeys] and we'll make it official after Idul Fitri. They've asked for some time to educate the buskers, that's okay," Benvika said.

In May this year, KLHK’s Natural Resources and Ecosystem Conservation Center also released a letter urging regional Natural Resources Conservation Centers (BKSDA) to discipline topeng monyet troupes with help from NGOs, police, Satpol PP and the media.

In response to the letter, the East Java BKSDA has issued an official ban on topeng monyet.

Benvika said JAAN had made a concerted effort to push the East Java administration to issue the ban since many of the complaints about topeng monyet troupes came from the province.

JAAN said there is a training "school" for dancing monkeys in Surabaya, the East Java capital. From there, the monkeys are shipped to cities outside Java, including Pontianak (West Kalimantan) and Ternate (North Maluku).

A scan of the official letter banning dancing monkeys in East Java. (Photo courtesy of Jakarta Animal Aid Network)

Benvika said JAAN wants the East Java administration to close down the "monkey school."

"We will have a meeting with them again after Idul Fitri," he said.

JAAN also expects that a national ban on topeng monyet will be issued soon.

"We only need a single piece of legislation or an official letter from the Environment and Forestry Minister to ban topeng monyet nationally. That is more practical than us having to make agreements with every city and district. There's no knowing how long an agreement like that will last," Benvika said.


JAAN assists the rehabilitation of topeng monyet monkeys after they are confiscated and until they are ready to be released into the wild.

Animals entering JAAN’s rehab center are put in a quarantine and undergo medical check-ups including a blood test.

"If they are ill, we isolate them. But if the illness is dangerous, for example if they have tuberculosis, local and foreign vets have recommended euthanasia because they may infect humans," Benvika said.

Even when the ex-dancing monkeys are healthy, there are challenges when you keep them in one big group together.

"They'll still fight each other, so we have to move them into different groups constantly. We need at least 2-3 years to find the right groups for them," Benvika said.

JAAN's first shelter and rehab center for ex-dancing monkeys was housed at the Balai Kesehatan Hewan dan Ikan in Ragunan, South Jakarta.

Over 140 monkeys had been rehabilitated there since 2013 and they were finally released in Panaitan Island near Ujung Kulon, Banten, in 2016.

JAAN put electronic chips in the monkeys before they were released and monitor them every three months.

The shelter has now been moved to Cikole in West Bandung and houses around 50 monkeys, most of them from West Java.

JAAN also runs a sponsorship program for the monkeys in rehab, inviting people to "adopt" an ex-dancing monkey for six months to a year.

Ex-dancing monkeys in JAAN's rehabilitation center. (Photo courtesy of Jakarta Animal Aid Network)

Jakarta, I'm Only Dancing

The Jakarta ban caused a stir among topeng monyet buskers because most of them are poor residents who can't get any other jobs in the city.

JAAN got the Social Agency (Dinsos) on board to educate the buskers and train them to find other jobs.

"We work with regional Dinsos. We handle the confiscated monkeys, and Dinsos handle the buskers," Benvika said.

According to JAAN's investigation, most of the buskers don't own their monkeys. They have bosses who lend them the monkeys and whom they have to pay off every day. After the bosses take their cuts, each busker can earn Rp 60,000-Rp 70,000 ($4-5) per day.

"We found a case in Bandung where the buskers were buying monkeys from their boss on credit, just like buying a motorbike. They took the monkeys and paid a certain amount every month. They even had 'monkey distributors.' Each macaque was sold for around Rp 2-3 million," Benvika said.

The buskers have now learnt how to get away from topeng monyet raids.

"They choose to live in the suburbs, outside of Jakarta – Depok, Bogor, Bekasi. Technically, these areas are under West Java's jurisdiction. The buskers commute to Jakarta. Satpol PP officers can't raid their houses outside Jakarta," Benvika said.