Thiruvananthapuram, April 29 (IANS) Can a monkey do a man’s job? Yes, when it comes to climbing tall coconut trees and plucking its fruits – a skill that has been hit by labour shortage, say the Kerala authorities.
With fewer people in the state willing to take up the arduous and risky job, the coconut business has taken a beating. To keep up the supply of the fruit, trained monkeys seem to be the best alternative, feels the state’s agriculture department.
“Coconuts are essential to the traditional lifestyle and livelihood of the people of Kerala. However, the coconut business has dropped drastically due a shortage of tree climbers,” K.R. Vijayakumar, deputy director of the Kerala agriculture department, told IANS here.
“So we have a proposal where monkeys can be trained to carry out the task of plucking coconuts. The animals can be better than humans in coconut plucking. And it will also be cost effective.”
The proposal is not new since monkeys are being used for plucking coconuts in Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, he said.
But if implemented in India, he foresees animal activists protesting against the move.
“Due to animal cruelty laws, animal rights groups may protest against the move. So we have not been able to pursue the proposal,” Vijayakumar said.
However, he said like elephants are trained to pick up logs and ox trained to plough, monkeys too can be trained to pluck coconuts.
“Monkeys are smart animals and can get nuts from even tall and slender trees. Plucking coconuts is not a simple task,” he said.
Kerala has more than 15 million coconut trees and requires at least 40,000 climbers to pick the fruits, according to data from Coconut Development Board in Kochi.
However, with rising literacy rate and immigration to the Gulf, few people in Kerala are interested making a living by climbing coconut trees all day, he said.
“A trained monkey can climb 500 coconut trees a day. A human cannot climb more than 50 trees a day since it takes a person over 10 minutes to climb. This also involves a lot of risk,” he said.
He said a training centre for monkeys could be set up where trainers from Indonesia and Thailand teach some monkeys on a trial basis and make them pick coconuts.
However, others differ.
“A coconut tree produce about 60 nuts every 45 days and as it flowers continuously, the nuts ripen at different times. Monkeys being monkeys cannot decide whether a nut is ready to be plucked or not,” said a member of the Coconut Development Board who did not want to named.
The member, instead, favoured robots over animals when it came to picking climbing trees and picking coconuts.
However, an agriculture department official countered the objection, saying that the board’s efforts to use climbing equipments, including robots, for the job, and setting up a coconut climbing training institute had not worked out.
“We are facing an acute shortage of coconut tree climbers and we need to address the issue as since sale of coconut is one of our important industries,” said Biju Mathew, a coconut farmer.
“When the government can start a $20,000 competition to develop three coconut-picking machines, why can’t it accept the idea of monkeys climbing coconut trees?”
(Prathiba Raju can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)