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Why are people getting injured in monkey rampages in Fukuoka Pref.?

A sign on a bulletin board at a community center in Kitakyushu's Wakamatsu Ward warns people of monkeys, in this photo taken on Sept. 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Aoki)

KITAKYUSHU -- Eighteen people in residential areas in this city's Wakamatsu Ward have been injured in monkey attacks since August. According to the Kitakyushu Municipal Government, many witnesses report the monkey as being small, and there is a possibility that just one monkey has been involved in all of the incidents.

    In recent years, there have been instances of wild animals appearing in urban areas -- including a case in which monkey sightings were reported in Tokyo day after day -- but it is rare for the animals to attack humans, as in the case of Wakamatsu Ward, puzzling zookeepers. What exactly is behind the monkey attacks in the area?

    At around 2 p.m. on Sept. 9, a 78-year-old woman living in Wakamatsu went out into her yard to bring in the laundry that had been hanging out to dry when her eyes met those of a monkey's. She inadvertently called out, "What are you doing?" As soon as she did, the monkey jumped on her, forcing her to fall onto her bottom. The simian bit her ankle and started pulling on her hair, so the woman took one of the sandals she was wearing and hit the monkey on the head with it. It was only then that the monkey ran away. "I'm always on the lookout for monkeys when I go outside now. Elementary school children have been injured, too, and I hope they find the monkey soon," she said.

    A monkey walks onto the grounds of a private home Kitakyushu's Wakamatsu Ward on July 12, 2021, in this photo provided by a Mainichi Shimbun reader.

    The rampage started with an attack on a woman in her 30s who was doing farm work on the morning of Aug. 7 when she was bitten. By Sept. 10, 18 people ranging in age from 9 to their 80s had fallen victim to monkey attacks on the street or in their yards. In many cases, they had locked eyes with the monkey, after which they were bitten from behind on their legs or their buttocks. The ward office is going around making loudspeaker announcements and distributing posters, calling on residents to stay on the lookout.

    The Kitakyushu Municipal Government's wild animal damage division believes the monkey involved in the incidents has been separated from its troop. The damage is concentrated in areas surrounding local mountains at an altitude of 200 to 300 meters, including 302-meter-tall Mount Ishimine, which is in the center of Wakamatsu Ward. A monkey caught on camera by a 74-year-old man in front of his home on July 12 matched the description others had given of the creature being small.

    It is not very uncommon for monkeys to stray from their troop, and monkey sightings have been reported all over the country. But it is abnormal for this many people to be attacked. "Under ordinary circumstances, (monkeys) don't go near people," said Noriko Takahashi, who is in charge of caring for and displaying animals at Itozu no Mori Zoological Park in the city of Kitakyushu's Kokurakita Ward. "If it is the same one monkey (that was involved in all the incidents), it's possible that it was given food from people and now it thinks that it can get food from human beings if it gets close enough."

    This photo shows a woman who encountered a monkey in her yard and used her sandal to scare it away after being bitten on her right ankle, in Kitakyushu's Wakamatsu Ward on Sept. 15, 2021. (Mainichi/Akiho Narimatsu)

    Tadamori Fujita, a guide at Takasakiyama Natural Zoological Garden in the city of Oita, southeast of Fukuoka Prefecture, where Kitakyushu is located, said, "Monkeys aren't interested in humans, so under normal circumstances, they wouldn't come near us." But, he added, if they are given food, or have succeeded in taking food from humans, they may learn that if they attack humans, they can obtain food. In addition, he said, "making eye contact is interpreted by monkeys as threatening behavior, so they may attack people thinking they've been provoked. If you ever come across any monkeys, don't incite them, and slowly walk away."

    The city of Kitakyushu is hoping to catch the monkey or monkeys with traps, but because the sightings are occurring in unexpected places, it's hard to know where to set the traps. It plans on setting them up at a nature park in Wakamatsu Ward after analyzing witness accounts in the near future.

    Fujita warns, "If monkeys learn that there is food on farmland (in the city), they will possibly end up staying in the city." Officials with the municipal government hope that the monkey or monkeys will return to their troop as soon as possible.

    (Japanese original by Emi Aoki and Akiho Narimatsu, Kyushu News Department)

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