Animal Warfare: Could the Taliban Train Monkeys to Shoot?

The kipunji monkey is one of more than 120 species of animals found only in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania. (Image credit: T. Davenport/WCS.)

A bizarre report of Taliban insurgents training monkeys and baboons to shoot at U.S. and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan seems unrealistic at best, according to an expert.

The story that appeared this month in the Chinese People's Daily suggested that insurgents used a reward-and-punishment system to train macaques and baboons to target soldiers wearing U.S. military uniforms. The Taliban supposedly "taught monkeys how to use the Kalashnikov, Bren light machine gun and trench mortars," the People's Daily wrote. [Top 10 Animal Recruits of War]

But a researcher who has spent his career studying the social life of nonhuman primates cast a highly critical eye on the story.

"They can be trained to do things like turn off lights and open faucets and so on, but eventually that breaks down," said William Mason, a psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis. "If we're talking about animals going out into the field or a fortress with an AK-47 or whatever, it seems very, very implausible."

It didn't seem like something anyone would try seriously to do, Mason said. He added that humans might demonstrate aiming and pulling a trigger to nonhuman primates, but that doesn’t amount to the same cognitive skill required to actively aim and fire at intended targets on a battlefield.

The Chinese story cited unnamed British journalists and U.S. military sources when discussing the idea of insurgent monkeys. By contrast, the U.S. military's Stars and Stripes news source interviewed a NATO spokesman who said the notion had no basis in reality.

Humans have used a wide variety of animals in warfare before, whether as battle mounts, supply carriers, marine patrollers or bomb sniffers. Yet such actions all still fall far short of turning a nonhuman primate into a miniature soldier capable of operating weapons and making thoughtful decisions about where to aim.

"The closest you could come plausibly [to using nonhuman primates] would be strapping explosives on an animal and sending it off," Mason told LiveScience. "To give a monkey a complex device like a rifle and say ‘We're going to train it to become a soldier’ is purely fantastical."

Nonhuman primates such as chimps do attack and kill rivals in other gangs, perhaps even to acquire more territory. But such conflicts don't perfectly parallel human wars, just as animal monogamy doesn't bear full comparison to human marriage.

"The analogies almost always break down at some point," Mason said.

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Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.