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Our Beautiful Planet

July 21, 2017

Japanese snow monkeys enthrall many with their bathing antics in hot springs. But growing development in Japan is making encounters between humans and the macaques more frequent – with bad consequences for the monkeys.

DW eco@africa - Japanese snow macaques
Image: Getty Images/K. Kamoshida

Japanese snow macaques, more commonly called snow monkeys, caught people's attention after they started bathing in hot thermal pools to keep warm through Japan's icy winters.

This learned behavior was noticed in the 1960s in the highlands of Japan, where winters there can see the mercury falling as low as -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit) and where snow can be more than three feet deep.

It was in 1963 that a young female snow monkey waded into a hot spring in the Nagano Mountains to fetch some soybeans that had been thrown in by researchers who were trying to supply the monkeys with food to keep them out of local orchards.

But the monkey took to the warmth and soon other macaques were also enjoying the waters' soothing charms. Over the years, the rest of the monkey troop would dip into the 42-degrees-Celsius waters (109 degrees Fahrenheit) to take shelter from the bitter cold.

But when monkeys started to invade nearby human spas and springs, it was decided that the time had come for the monkeys to have their own hot waters built for them - to which tourists now also flock to watch the macaques relaxing.

Young macaques spend a lot of time playing, including making snowballs and rolling them along the ground to make them larger. This activity has no survival purpose – whole troops of Japanese macaques do it simply to have fun.

Although Japanese macaques are classified as being of 'Least Concern' on theInternational Union for Conservation of Nature's red list of endangered species, they face serious threats from habitat loss, poaching and use in biomedical research.

Despite snow monkeys being officially protected in Japan since 1947, the rights of farmers have taken priority over these laws - around 5,000 are killed each year, with the animals considered agriculture pests for stealing crops.

Deforestation has led to loss of important habitats for these monkeys - this has resulted in more human-wildlife conflict, which is set to grow as more development takes place in Japan.

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