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Tuesday, 19 September, 2000, 17:15 GMT 18:15 UK
Ape pickers scheme bears fruit
The macaques are allowed to relax between classes
A farmer in Thailand has come up with a novel solution to the country's labour shortage.

Up in a hilly village near Chiang Mai, Tawee Phanthachang, who owns orchards of tamarind, mango and coconut, is teaching monkeys how to pick fruit.

Cynics might suggest that employing 20 fruit-loving macaques on a commercial fruit growing venture could only end in disaster.

But according to Mr Phanthachange, although training his workers has been difficult, he is making progress.

Concerned by the rising cost of hiring farm workers, Mr Phanthachange, a former army sergeant, decided to recruit from the simian world.

Although monkeys have been used to harvest coconuts in southern Thailand for hundreds of years, Mr Phanthachange is believed to be the first northern farmer to use primate pickers.

Word association

The apes attend hour-long classes during which Mr Phanthachange attempts to teach his unruly pupils the names of the various types of fruit.

Passing a half ripe green coconut around the class, and referring to each of his pupils by name, Mr Phanthachange attempts to teach his charges by word association.

"It is not an easy task, but achievable by patience and affection," says the 54-year-old farmer.

The monkeys, it would seem, can barely contain their excitement, with several students attempting to gain some additional practice by climbing on his head.

The next stage is to allow the monkeys to twist the coconut around the stem until Mr Phanthachange lets go - showing how the fruit will come loose from the tree.

To harvest sweet tamarinds the macaques are taught to shake the branches of the huge trees to make the ripe fruit fall.

Patience needed

Despite his years in the army, Mr Phanthachange is a very patient teacher, rewarding each successful student with a banana and a hug.

"A banana is the usual reward, but affection is also a good stimulant since monkeys love attention," he says.

"They are allowed to eat as much fruit as they want as long as they keep shaking the trees," he adds.

Mr Phanthachange expects classes to last from six months to a year, and says he much prefers his long tailed labourers to their human counterparts.

"They are loyal and not afraid of heights and on top of that, they neither complain nor ask for a raise," he says.

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