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NATURE: The Funkiest Monkeys

Airs Sunday, June 21, 2015 at 3 p.m. on KPBS TV

Crested Black Macaque troop grooming on a log.

Credit: Courtesy of Dave Mothershow

Above: Crested Black Macaque troop grooming on a log.

There is an unusual looking monkey called the crested black macaque that is endemic to rainforests in Indonesia, which includes the island of Sulawesi. These striking black primates, sporting punk hairstyles and copper-colored eyes, first caught the attention and won the heart of wildlife cameraman and biologist Colin Stafford-Johnson 25 years ago. But since then, their numbers have dropped by almost 90 percent, so the filmmaker returns to the island to discover why and how he could help.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Giyarto

Wildlife cameraman and biologist Colin Stafford-Johnson being groomed while filming crested black macaques.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Giyarto

“Peanut,” Colin Stafford-Johnson’s favorite crested black macaque.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Dave Mothershow

Tarzan, an alpha male, in a tree.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Giyarto

Juvenile crested black macaque being groomed.

Upon his arrival, Stafford-Johnson finds a very different looking Sulawesi. An island once entirely covered in forest, is now undertaken with new roads, people and buildings. He meets up with the leader of a team of local biologists - Giyarto, or Ugi for short - who has been studying the macaques for seven years. Together they will make a film to show how special these monkeys are, hoping to involve the local community in protecting them before they disappear forever.

NATURE observes the troop of endangered crested black macaques and explores what is causing their decline when "The Funkiest Monkeys" premiered Wednesday, January 29, 2014 on PBS. After the broadcast, the episode will be available for online streaming.

The macaques Ugi has been following live in a special nature reserve known as Tangkoko in North Sulawesi. These extremely intelligent and social animals live in large family groups and forage chiefly for fruit. Each of the 70 individuals in this troop has been named which helps in documenting their relationships and strict hierarchical structure dominated by an alpha male called Tarzan.

Tarzan has exclusive access to all the females coming into season, but his position is never secure. Male macaques migrate between troops and he must constantly be on the alert for males looking to usurp his position. The rules for female macaques, however, are different. Females form the stable core of a troop, each one inheriting her position from her mother, including the alpha female, and none of them ever leaves the group.

The monkeys often head to the beach to indulge in their most important social activity: grooming. “They spend so many hours grooming each other every day, it just goes to show how important it is,” Stafford-Johnson notes, “not just for the practical job of removing all the little ticks and mites that live in their fur. An equally important role is to just affirm family bonds and friendships.”

But at night, the only safe sleeping location for the macaques is high up in the trees where their two deadliest predators, pythons and people, can’t reach them. Monsoon season is the most dangerous time for them because some local fishermen, unable to make a living due to rough seas, turn to hunting monkeys. Yet, year-round, markets sell wild meats like squirrels, rats, snakes and the particularly sought-after, expensive macaques. Though they are critically endangered and officially protected, the law is rarely enforced and the macaques remain at risk.

NATURE is on Facebook, and you can follow @PBSNature on Twitter. Past episodes of NATURE are available for online viewing.

NATURE: The Funkiest Monkeys Trailer

Twenty-five years ago, filmmaker Colin Stafford-Johnson travelled to Sulawesi in Indonesia and fell in love with crested black macaques. These feisty monkeys are beach bums with punk hairstyles, expressive faces, copper-colored eyes and some very unusual habits, making them some of the most charismatic of all monkeys. Learning that their numbers have dropped dramatically, Stafford-Johnson makes a return visit to find out why and to see if he can help.

Where Crested Black Macaque Meat is Sold Illegally

The scene inside an Indonesian market, where crested black macaque meat is sold illegally (contains graphic imagery).

Life Inside a Crested Black Macaque Troop

Meet the dominate male and female in a crested black macaque troop and see how their society breaks down.

Why Crested Black Macaques Fight

The scene of a macaque throwdown: the alpha male of a troop is challenged for his supremacy.

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