Monkey relocation plan: Urban bias?

Published: Monday 30 April 2007

The fact that national-and state-level policy to tackle the monkey menace in the last five years has been driven by orders from the judiciary and not from the legislature is indicative of both the extent of the problem and the lack of interest displayed by the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef). Following a public interest litigation (pil) in the Himachal High Court in November 2003, the state's forest department and moef, submitted the 'Action Plan to Tackle the Monkey Menace in Shimla and Shimla Kalka Highway'. In April 2004, a completely separate petition was filed in the Supreme Court and the ministry had submitted the National Action Plan for Controlling [the] Stray Animal Menace (monkeys, dogs, cattle and pigs). Strangely, the national plan is virtually identical to Himachal's.It makes for strange reading in a national-level document to come across the words 'Shimla' and 'Shimla-Kalka highway' so often. Would the ministry have us believe that there is no human-monkey conflict in other states?

The plan is also replete with errors. Since the animal welfare division of the ministry has authored it, wild animals (monkeys) have been lumped with domestic ones. In submitting to the Supreme Court that the onus of managing monkeys lies with the municipal authorities, moef seems to be absolving itself of its primary focus--wildlife conservation and management. The problem should, in fact, be under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and state forest departments. It is important to understand that all species of non-human primates (a better term than 'monkeys') have the potential of becoming commensal (the ability to live close to humans) and thereby create conflict. However, different species of non-human primates have distinct conservation requirements: the lion-tailed macaques of the southern Western Ghats, the central himalayan langur of Himachal and the golden langurs of western Assam must therefore be dealt with quite differently from rhesus macaques. By clubbing together all these different species as 'monkeys', endangered and threatened species have been exposed to control-measures that are detrimental to their conservation.

Down to EarthFollies of translocation The national plan suggests translocation as a central management strategy, the idea being to shift populations in conflict to sanctuaries via temporary 'way stations'. However, translocation does little but transfer the conflict to a new location. The irony of the strategy became apparent when the Supreme Court in October 2006 ordered that monkeys from New Delhi should be released to (among other states) Himachal Pradesh, the very state that took the issue to the judiciary in the first place. More importantly, despite giving the appearance of performing an animal welfare service by 'giving them a second chance', translocation, in the words of Wolfgang Dittus, a primatologist with the Smithsonian Institute, "is a political solution, not a biological one: it is a coward's way of killing the animals" because survival rates among translocated animals is extremely low.

Astonishingly, the national plan suggests that male sterilisations be conducted to control the conflict. Because monkeys are polygynous (females mate with many males), it is females that need to be targeted for sterilisation. The national plan, however, claims that the sterilisation of males makes greater economic sense because there are apparently fewer males.Anyway, sterilisation is a long-term population stabilisation measure and can do little to contain the immediate conflict: sterilised monkeys can bite as hard as non-sterilised ones, and can raid crop fields with equal ease.

Most damaging to wildlife conservation is the urban bias the plan introduces into the definition of conflict: only biting, harassment and the destruction of property in cities is deemed a 'menace'. Two recent events are symptomatic of the problem with this line of thinking: the recent Uttarakhand polls saw, for perhaps the first time, the inclusion of monkey control as part of the election manifesto of major political parties; and, in December 2006, about 9,000 farmers took to the streets to protest government inaction in tackling the menace in Himachal Pradesh. It would serve the ministry well to remember that the only constituents who can ensure conservation in the long-term are communities living close to wilderness areas--ignoring the problems created by crop raiding. Creating additional problems by moving more monkeys to rural areas will erode any positive feelings rural people have for wildlife.

Sujoy Chaudhuri is managing trustee, Ecollage, an NGO based in Pune

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