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Monkey suspect killed in Japan after spate of attacks — but others may still be on the loose

More than 50 people were injured as residents in the southwestern city of Yamaguchi were terrorized by marauding macaques over the past three weeks, officials said.
Image: The Japanese macaque or snow monkey.
The Japanese macaque, or snow monkey, is native to northern Japan. Francis Apesteguy / Getty Images

TOKYO — Authorities in a southern Japanese city feared a band of marauding monkeys might still be on the loose Wednesday, even as they detained and killed a primate perpetrator suspected in a spate of recent attacks.

Local authorities in Yamaguchi, about 580 miles southwest of the capital, Tokyo, said they were remaining vigilant for any further incidents involving a simian gang of Japanese macaques. More than 50 people had been injured as residents were terrorized by monkey attacks over the past three weeks, they said.

One of the macaques, which are native to the region, was tranquilized after being caught near a local high school Tuesday evening, a Yamaguchi city official told NBC News. The monkey matched prior descriptions and photos taken of a known attacker and it was put down. 

While some news outlets had hypothesized that the crimes resulted from one rogue macaque, the monkey attacks have persisted. More attacks and sightings were reported after the primary suspect was captured. 

“In terms of monkeys attacking people, we’ve never had incidents like this,” said Kosaku Matsunaga, an official at Yamaguchi city’s Agricultural Policy Division Pest Control Room. While monkey sightings in Yamaguchi aren’t unheard of, attacks of this magnitude and frequency are, he added.

The incidents have included several break-ins through unlocked doors and windows, with one man in his 70’s attacked in his sleep, officials said. Still, the injuries have only been light bites and scratches, with a few precautionary hospital visits, they added. 

The local government began tracking the macaque attacks on July 9 in the southwestern Ogori district of ​​Yamaguchi city, which is surrounded by forests and hills. It reported 58 incidents as of Wednesday, indicating that nine of the attacks had occurred since Tuesday afternoon.

A local news station, TV Yamaguchim, reported that more than half of the victims have been women in their 40s or older, with at least six victims under 10 years old.

Patrols to capture the monkeys will continue, according to officials. Residents have been warned to lock doors and windows and to avoid the gaze of the primates while keeping their eyes on toddlers and small children.

“It’s a scary thing ... never heard of anything quite like it,” said Michael Huffman, a primatologist and professor at Kyoto University. He notes that elderly and child populations are most vulnerable, as they are least likely to intimidate the feisty monkeys that can weigh up to 24 pounds. 

According to officials, the macaque captured late Tuesday was believed to be a 4-year-old male. At this age, male macaques begin to reach maturity and tend to be more aggressive, Huffman said. The male also may have been moving around looking for another troop to join before the fall mating season. 

“When they’re in an unfamiliar location, humans and their homes can be the easiest source of finding food,” Huffman said, adding that summer is a time of food scarcity for the species. However, until more information about the other alleged monkey assailants comes out, no definitive reasons can be assigned, he said. 

Macaques, also known as snow monkeys, were once an endangered species in Japan, but their populations have since recovered, and they are now listed as a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. 

Causes of increased human-macaque conflicts include changes in the species’ habitat and food availability, as well as the diminishing of farms that once acted as a barrier between macaques and villages, according to experts. Many residents now see them as pests, the experts said.

However, it is doubtful that the spate of incidents in Yamaguchi have been committed by “wild” macaques,” Hiroto Enari of Yamagata University’s Laboratory of Wildlife Ecology & Management said via email. “We know several similar macaque incidents in Japan have been caused by highly habituated individuals who were artificially imported from other regions or raised in captivity.”  

“Wild macaques sometimes take a threatening attitude to people, but rarely launch physical attacks on people in general situations,” Enari said. 

Arata Yamamoto reported from Tokyo, and Dylan Butts reported from Hong Kong.