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The Japanese Alps.
Haunt of a remarkable population of primates. Snow monkeys.
The extremes of the seasons,
the complexities of family life,
and the stresses of the modern world
test their toughness and ingenuity to the full.
It thrust some monkeys into the limelight
and left others being hunted down like vermin.
This is the story of three troops leading very different lifestyles.
On their trail is a young primatologist
who wants to uncover the secret lives of Japan's snow monkeys.
It's autumn in Jigokudani or Hell's Valley
and one very special troop of snow monkeys is on the move.
These are wild animals, free to roam anywhere on the mountains.
But every morning they have a very important appointment they can't afford to miss.
For years now they've become accustomed to hand-outs.
But it's not just the grain that draws them out of the forest.
There are volcanically heated springs here, too,
and there's nothing like a hot bath to start the day.
But this troop hasn't always had these luxurious facilities at their disposal.
40 years ago, they were like any other wild troop.
But then one young monkey began to mimic the behaviour of human bathers
who came to the valley to take the waters.
Her boldness was about to change the life of the whole clan.
As others quickly followed suit,
the hot springs troop became international celebrities almost overnight.
But fame carries a price.
Every morning the troop must face their adoring fans.
These A-list primates
are some of the most photographed animals in the world.
Their lives may now be easier, but all food is valuable
and these clever monkeys have even puzzled out
how to retrieve grain from the bottom of the hot springs.
Each monkey has its own technique.
Some head for the deep end,
filling their cheek pouches on each dive.
Those that don't like getting their heads wet shuffle around in the shallows
which means some nifty footwork if they're not to go hungry.
Their ingenuity comes as no surprise to one particular visitor.
Biologist Takayo Soma has studied primates in Africa for ten years
but she's become increasingly fascinated by the monkeys that live in her homeland.
TRANSLATION: I was born just a few miles from here
and the snow monkeys I know are those I see around my family's farm.
Unlike the pampered troop up at the hot springs,
these monkeys lead a very hand to mouth existence.
When I was young
it was a rare treat to see them this far down in the valley,
but in recent years snow monkeys have started to raid farms
and begun to cause some real problems.
On the family farm, Takayo and her mother check the orchards,
as much for signs of unwelcome visitors
as for the ripeness of the crop.
I'm amazed how one animal can provoke such extreme reactions.
While the hot springs troop are adored, these crop raiders are hated.
I want to find out more about how and why
they've ended up living such different lives.
It's ironic that the hot springs troop can gorge themselves on apples to their hearts' content.
The daily feeding makes this the perfect place to watch monkeys going about their day-to-day business
and there's lots to be learned.
The wardens keep detailed records that stretch back over 40 years,
so individual family trees can be traced for generations.
These logs reveal the complex power struggles that shape snow monkey society.
And there's one character who dominates the rest,
the reigning queen.
Surrounded by her sisters, daughters and aunts,
she is at the helm of a fearsome female dynasty.
Anyone stepping out of line feels the full force of the sisterhood.
These aren't empty threats.
Serious injuries are not uncommon.
The sisterhood even decides the status of the males.
For the moment, this male is the chosen one.
Woe betide anyone who gets in his way!
But his future ultimately depends on him staying on the right side of the queen.
As long as his face fits and his performance is up to scratch,
then his legacy will be assured.
For the moment at least, his position seems secure.
On first impression, this troop seems to have it all.
Their extra food they are given
means this group is now far larger than most wild troops,
at last count almost 200 individuals.
Clearly, this is not how the vast majority of snow monkeys live.
And it's those other troops I'm really interested in finding out more about.
For this, Takayo needs to travel only a few miles away
but it feels like another world.
This is the Kamikochi Valley,
the very heart of one of Japan's most famous national parks.
All life here revolves around the Azusa River.
And eventually the mountain troop put in an appearance.
Every day they must brave the frigid water as they criss-cross the valley in search of food.
The first thing that immediately strikes me
is how much smaller these monkeys are,
maybe half the size of those living around the hot springs,
and they're much more wary.
The atmosphere within the group feels very different, too.
Here, it's generally much more subdued.
They appear to be so focused on finding food,
that there's just no time for all that squabbling.
The troop cover several kilometres every day
feeding on whatever they can find,
leaves, berries, insects
even tree-bark. There's certainly less drama than at the hot springs,
but power in this troop still lies in the hands of its females.
The subordinate monkeys often scout ahead looking for food.
But as soon as they stumble onto something tasty,
the dominant female and her family muscle in.
Rank always holds sway.
As the days shorten,
it's clear that it's not just status that matters up here,
but experience, too.
The intimate local knowledge of the older monkeys,
where to cross the river safely,
where to seek shelter during storms,
where to find food,
must be crucial, especially as they prepare for harder times.
For the next few months, deep snow and sub-zero temperatures
are the monkeys' constant companions.
Surviving in this frozen world ought to be a real challenge,
yet on the face of it, life for the hot springs troop carries on much as before.
They still roost in the sheltering forest
and roll out each morning for their daily feed.
Only a narrow stream stands between them and breakfast,
fed by warmed water from deep underground it never freezes,
even with the mercury stuck well below zero.
The hardest job of the day is sifting the grain from the snow
but compared to finding food in the wild, this is a minor inconvenience.
Being fed every day has obviously left them with time on their hands.
Time they fill in some ingenious ways.
For some of the youngsters,
playing with snowballs seems to have become an obsession.
It began when one juvenile started playing with chunks of snow,
but quickly spread as others mimicked what they saw.
It's the same kind of copy-cat behaviour
that got this troop into the hot springs in the first place.
All this spare time and excess energy can be a mixed blessing.
With so many animals crowded together, there's always some score to be settled.
However, targets must be carefully selected.
This young one may be small,
but it's from a high-ranking family and has allies to call on,
enough to make anyone think twice.
Frustrated, the bully vents his fury on a less well-connected passer-by.
Between these violent outbursts,
life revolves around the constant need to replenish energy and keep warm.
The hot water bubbling up from deep underground
keeps the pool at a constant 40 degrees centigrade, whatever the weather.
Because they have such thick winter coats
they don't get wet through to the skin.
Faces flush pink with the heat.
In this more relaxed atmosphere,
alliances are made and strengthened.
Grooming is the glue that binds this complex society together.
These monkeys must be just about the luckiest in the world.
Their fame now all but guarantees them a well-fed and relatively comfortable winter.
By contrast, life for the mountain troop is getting harder by the day.
In Kamikochi, the big freeze has hit with a vengeance.
With the roads closed until spring,
the only way into this mountain refuge is on skis.
It's exhilarating to be out in this beautiful, silent world...
but I didn't realise just how hard it would be to track the snow monkeys in these conditions.
Today, the temperature is -20.
Out here in this cold, a single mistake could be fatal.
I can't imagine how the monkeys survive.
Yet even now, there are some signs of life.
But where are the monkeys?
The mountain troop must have passed this way.
This is all very fresh damage and could only have been made by monkeys.
The layers beneath this willow bark contain small amounts of sugars,
but imagine having to eat this!
So far, this is the only evidence the mountain troop is still alive.
While the search continues,
Takayo pays her respects at a remote forest shrine.
Snow monkeys have been revered for centuries.
Perhaps this visit will bring a change of luck.
Two days later,
her persistence is rewarded as monkeys emerge out of the gloom.
Food is so scarce the monkeys have been forced to spread far and wide through the forest,
each locked in their own private struggle for survival.
They spend hours each day eating tree bark
just to get something into their stomachs.
I can't believe they can survive such a hostile climate on such a meagre diet.
When times are this hard, being surrounded by family and friends
is a great comfort.
But those on the periphery, usually young males,
can be left bitterly exposed.
The older monkeys are veterans of such intense cold.
As a last resort, they turn again to the river...
..still flowing thanks to volcanic springs along its course.
Insect larvae lie hidden amongst the rocks.
These tiny morsels can make the difference between life and death.
These are monkeys living at the absolute limits of endurance.
No other non-human primate is found this far north.
As night falls, temperatures plummet.
The open riverbank is no place to linger.
The troop retreats deep into the heavy foliage of the conifers.
This may take the edge off the wind,
but it's still perishingly cold.
Huddling together provides a degree of warmth...
..but not everyone has this safety net.
Again, the young males get the cold shoulder.
Each lonely hour of each bitter winter night will take its toll.
The urban troop is facing up to their own winter problems.
As supplies of wild foods dwindle, they make increasingly bold excursions from the forest.
The main valley through the region is intensively cultivated.
What was once forest is now rice paddies and orchards.
Rotted fruit, forgotten corn cobs,
even the husks of old cherries are precious finds for hungry monkeys.
Now I've seen just how hard life is for the snow monkeys high in the mountains,
I can understand why these orchards are so attractive.
For farmers, it must be devastating to see their precious trees being damaged.
But for the monkeys, these raids are definitely a risk worth taking.
But years of persecution have made the troop very jumpy.
Even me being here is more than enough to send them scurrying for cover.
Orchards are not the only source of food here...
..and monkeys not the only scavengers.
Bewick's swans spend the summer in Siberia, but they can tough out
the entire winter here on the frozen rice paddies.
Monkeys use the paddies, too,
but they often go a step further.
There's usually something to be scavenged in a backyard
and once the association between easy food and people has been made,
daily trips into town become routine.
Compared to fishing insect larvae out of a freezing river,
a plundered bag of rice husks must seem like a feast.
None of the troops appears totally immune to the brutality of the season.
Even for the privileged hot springs troop,
winter is something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
For all snow monkeys, starvation, disease and death are never far away.
Young monkeys are hit particularly hard.
Spring can't come soon enough.
The arrival of the cherry blossom heralds the turn of the year.
It's a very special time in Japan,
one that celebrates renewal and rebirth.
The new rice crop is planted...
..and the apple orchards get a spring clean.
Life returns to the mountains, too.
Takayo heads up to Kamikochi to see how the mountain troop has fared.
There's been an amazing transformation up here.
It's a relief to see so many familiar old faces have made it through
and there are some new ones, too!
It's incredible to think that these females have not only managed
to come through the winter on the poorest of diets,
but have been able to nurture all this new life, too.
Conditions here are so tough
and the demands of the growing youngsters so great,
females only give birth every second or third year.
These births usually happen at night in tucked away places.
But this baby has just arrived
so recently the mother hasn't even had time to clean up.
The new baby clings on tightly,
perfectly placed to start absorbing all the tricks it will need to survive.
At these higher altitudes, the wild cherry is only just coming into flower
and the monkeys can't resist.
Takayo is in her element.
I learnt about these forest plants from my mother.
Many of them are great delicacies, used in traditional cooking.
But you have to know what you are doing.
Some of them are extremely poisonous.
The monkeys seem to be just as selective,
knowledge they must start gathering almost from the day they are born.
The privations of the winter are just a distant memory.
The hot springs troop has experienced
a flood of new life, too.
Although some babies have clearly been delivered into more competent hands than others.
Within a couple of weeks, youngsters start showing that insatiable curiosity for the world around them.
A new arrival is introduced to one of the daily rituals here.
But despite their clever ways, young monkeys are vulnerable...
..and the transition into spring can often be a false dawn.
Spring storms are common
and can last for days.
This mother has recently given birth.
She couldn't have worse timing!
It doesn't take many hours in the cold and wet to extinguish new life before it's really begun.
After three days continual rain, it all feels very subdued here.
Even the hot springs don't seem to offer much in the way of comfort.
It's such a cruel twist that just as the trials of the winter are over,
and there's plenty of food around, the monkeys must suffer like this.
These cold, wet springs can be the final straw.
As spring eases into summer, the combination of stifling heat
and abundant water works wonders on the rich volcanic soils of the valley.
Ripening crops are everywhere
and that's good news for the urban troop,
at least for the moment.
Every young monkey in the troop is learning from the more experienced members of the gang.
But each daring raid draws the monkeys closer
to a more deadly confrontation with the increasingly frustrated farmers.
Up in the mountains, the sun and rain have worked their magic, too.
It's hard to believe that three months ago this was buried under snow.
Now it feels more like the tropical forests of Africa, where I'm more used to working.
The troop is back down at their old haunt by the river
and they seem to be thriving, despite the recent storms.
It's great to see the new additions so obviously full of the joys of life
and being so independent.
Despite their diminutive size, they've proved just how tough they are.
The summer's bounty means even this troop can afford to take some rare time off.
But for young males, the stark realities of life are never far away.
This play-fighting is just practice for when they must battle their way up the hierarchy as adults.
At this time of year,
gathering food takes on a more leisurely air.
In this relaxed atmosphere, watcher and watched suddenly stumble upon each other.
It's taken almost a year,
but it feels like this troop has finally accepted me being around.
Even the mothers with their new babies don't seem bothered by me being here.
All too soon, summer gives way to the chill of autumn.
As the year turns,
tensions in the hot springs troop seem to be escalating.
The whole troop is on edge.
Old allegiances are breaking down.
There seems to be a shift in the balance of power.
The top male doesn't seem to be getting the respect he once did.
After three years as their favourite, the ruling females are rejecting him.
It's a bad sign.
And it's now the former second in command who is the one holding court.
It shows just how powerful the sisterhood is.
The old male keeps trying,
but the females want nothing to do with him.
His dramatic fall from grace reveals the downside to membership of this super-troop.
With such unnaturally high numbers, there's always someone waiting to push you aside.
He slips quietly from the troop to fend for himself,
his future uncertain.
The urban troop is feeling a different kind of pressure.
These crops would set the monkeys up for the winter.
But for farmers, seeing their harvest heading for the woods must be too much to bare.
They call in local marksmen to hunt down the raiders,
who pick up the trail almost immediately.
-The hunters prefer to move the monkeys on rather than kill them.
But with such temptations right on their doorstep,
they'll soon be back.
Those farmers plagued by raiding monkeys have resorted to building huge traps.
Baited with fruit, these can catch whole troops at a time.
In this one small region of Japan,
more than 1,500 monkeys are now killed as pests every year.
As winter approaches once again, it's time for Takayo to reflect
on what's she's learnt over this last year.
I started out on this journey not really knowing much about snow monkeys.
Getting to know these three groups over the last year has been an incredible experience.
The three troops seem so different and are treated so differently by us,
but they're really all the same.
Each troop is just doing what snow monkeys do best, using their formidable ingenuity
and adaptability to turn every situation that confronts them
to its very best advantage.
It's understandable that the hot springs troop are treated like celebrities.
Their remarkable lifestyle is instantly appealing to us
and has rightly made them world famous.
But if we can so admire this one troop,
then I think surely be should able to celebrate all Japan's snow monkeys.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd