Last Updated: Monday 21 September 2015 | 07:28:00 AM
Photo: Vikas Choudhary
Monkey-human conflicts on the rise in India
Himachal pradesh farmer Rajesh Bisht says he does not believe in the popular Hindi proverb Bandar kya jaane adrak ka swad (What does a monkey know about ginger’s taste) as he stands in his ginger plantation at 4 AM to guard against wild monkeys. Marching through the slush in his leech-infested field on a cold July morning, the resident from Chaukha village in Sirmaur district says farmers take turns to guard against wild animals.
At 10 AM, Ramesh Verma, a retired animal husbandry official who now does farming in Chaukha village, hurries from his farm to attend a meeting called at the sarpanch’s residence to address the issue of monkey menace. Monkeys had destroyed his entire corn plantation last year. “I had invested Rs 50,000 to plant corn on my 1.2-hectare (ha) farm. Monkeys completely destroyed it,” he says. Ironically, the drawing room where the meeting is convened has a big Hanuman calendar on its wall. “We worship Hanuman but these monkeys are not his descendants. They belong to the evil monkey king Bali who was slain by Lord Ram,” clarifies Chaukha’s sarpanch Mandakini Devi. Verma says that livelihood is more important than religious beliefs. “Our ancestors warned us that the day monkeys start raiding crops, you know apocalypse has arrived,” he says.
While Verma’s prediction of an apocalypse may appear farfetched, it is safe to assume that monkeys have left a substantial dent in the state’s agriculture production capacity. According to the National Institute of Disaster Management, Himachal Pradesh loses farm produce worth Rs 500 crore annually due to wild animals, including monkeys. The crop loss figure is higher than what the state spends on agriculture every year. The state’s budgetary allocation for agriculture for 2015-16 is Rs 450 crore.
O P Bhuraita, convenor of Shimla-based farmers’ rights group, Kheti Bachao Andolan, says the state lost crops worth Rs 2,200 crore due to monkeys between 2007 and 2012. “This includes the cost of diverting labour from farming to keeping a watch over the fields,” he says. Between 1990 and 2004 the number of monkeys in Himachal Pradesh increased from 61,000 to 317,000—a five-fold increase, according to the state wildlife department. The onslaught by monkeys remains high despite desperate measures by the state government, which has tried everything from culling to sterilising monkeys.
Himachal Pradesh is one example of how bad the situation is in the country. From Jammu and Kashmir in the north to Karnataka in the south, several states in the country are struggling to contain assaults by monkeys (see ‘Cost of menace’). In 2013, Jammu and Kashmir agriculture minister, G H Mir, issued a statement that said 250 villages in Jammu lose farm produce worth Rs 33 crore every year because of attacks by wild monkeys.
The story of Uttarakhand is equally bad with village residents opting to sell their farmlands than grow crops. One such village that falls in Dehradun district is Fulsaini, where close to 50 per cent of cultivable land lies fallow because of destruction by wild animals such as monkeys. Fulsaini’s sarpanch, Amit Kala, says a majority of the land that is still under cultivation is owned by a Delhi-based farm developer because many residents sold their farms at a throwaway price after monkeys started attacking their farms.
In 2010, farmers in two of Bihar’s worst-affected constituencies—Chainpur and Saharsha—formed an association, Bandar Mukti Abhiyan Samiti, to pressurise politicians to act. More than 50,000 farmers in the two constituencies lose crops every year because of monkey attacks.
In Karnataka, farmers lost crops worth Rs 5 crore in 2010 because of monkeys, according to the state’s agricultural department data. Media reports suggest that crop loss because of monkeys has increased in the state in the past five years, even though no government data is available. However, state forest department data suggests that close to 800 small farmers gave up cultivation in the Karkala taluka near Mangalore after monkeys destroyed 75 per cent of crops in the area in 2012. As a result, over 57 ha of fertile land lies fallow in the taluka today. “Traditionally, farmers assume that around 10 per cent of the produce will get destroyed by wild animals. But what do you do when the entire crop gets destroyed,” asks Verma.
Havoc in the city
Not just village residents, city dwellers are also struggling to cope with monkey menace. According to the Primate Research Centre, Jodhpur, which is one of the three Union government-run institutes on primates, more than 1,000 cases of monkey bites are reported every day in Indian cities. The other two national primate institutes are located in Mysore and Bengaluru. Almost all cities with high monkey population have abundant stories of monkeys “encroaching and destroying” property and “robbing” people. In Varanasi, monkeys have literally derailed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plans of making the city wi-fi-enabled. City officials say monkeys regularly chew the optical fibre cables that have been laid for the scheme. They are now planning to lay the cables underground.
Monkeys are wreaking havoc even in the capital. Former deputy mayor of Delhi, S S Bajwa, fell from his terrace and died in 2007 after monkeys attacked him. Monkeys have also laid siege on open areas of several Delhi restaurants, including the famous India Coffee House. “We warn our customers not to sit outside because of monkeys. At times, 30 to 40 monkeys attack together and our waiters have to use firecrackers to disperse them,” says restaurant manager Satish. In Chandigarh, a frustrated local administration issued an advisory to its citizens educating them on how to handle monkeys in 2013. In Shimla, residents have covered their water tanks with barbed wires to prevent monkeys from taking a dip. Haridwar residents refer to monkeys as bhikhari bandar or monkey beggars because they are often found near beggars and steal from people. Even the holy towns of Vrindavan and Mathura are struggling, where local newspapers regularly report stories of monkey attacks.
Why are monkeys entering human habitations?
Monkeys are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom and we have always peacefully coexisted and benefitted from each other. In fact, they are the second largest population in primates, after humans. But this relationship seems to have gone sour over the years (see ‘Monkey in our backyard’).
The reason is because monkeys, along with Grey langurs and bonnet macaques, have adapted to urban habitats over the years, says Goutam Sharma, a faculty member with the animal behaviour unit under the department of zoology, Jai Narain Vyas University, Jodhpur. “Out of the nearly 225 living species of non-human primates, these three species have adapted to the urban way of life,” he says.
As monkeys started staying with humans, their population boomed. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists Rhesus macaque under the red category of species that are least threatened. Experts say the reason the population of monkeys has multiplied after their natural habitat was destroyed is because of their ability to adapt to new habitats. “Macaques quickly discover new food and water sources in their environment,” says Sri Lanka-based primatologist Wolfgang Dittus in his study of Toque macaques, a close relative of Rhesus macaques or the common monkey. Dittus was part of a 12-member expert team that was set up in 2005 by the Indian government to formulate guidelines to effectively contain monkeys (see ‘Jumpstart’).
“In forests, a Rhesus macaque has to spend about 10 to 14 hours in search of food. However, if we look at the street-dwelling urban monkeys or even those living dangerously close to human settlements in a rural setting, finding food takes only 10 minutes,” says Satish Sood, who heads one of the state-run sterilisation centres for monkeys in Himachal Pradesh. “When there is food in abundance, monkeys spend more time procreating,” he says.
Experts also say that the proximity to villages and cities has increased their life expectancy. “In their native forest homes, their numbers are kept in check by a limited supply of natural forest foods and water. Rates of death are high among wild primates, with up to 80 per cent dying before adulthood, offsetting birthrates,” says Dittus.
Besides the behavioural shift in monkeys, the other reason for their moving to new geographical areas is the government’s practice of translocating monkeys from the cities to forest areas near rural areas. Residents of Chaukha village, which is at an altitude of 2,072 metres above sea level, say monkeys were brought to the forests from Shimla and Mandi. “Monkeys are never found at such high altitudes. But the government forcefully dumped the animals in our forests,” says Verma.
Even Delhi’s attempt to translocate monkeys has backfired. In 2007, the state wildlife department captured over 19,000 monkeys to translocate them to a wildlife sanctuary created at Asola Bhatti mines on the outskirts of the city. While New Delhi breathed a temporary sigh of relief by the move, the residents of Sanjay Colony near the sanctuary struggled. The illegal colony of the Od community, who for three decades mined Bhatti area of the Aravalli hills, registered an alarmingly high number of attacks by monkeys who would escape the sanctuary. “Every day, we have 10 to 11 cases of monkey bites,” says 55-year-old Seeto Od. She adds that they are harassed by the forest officials if they try to chase off the monkeys. Not just the people of the colony, even the monkeys are struggling. A member of the committee set up to oversee the translocation complained of irregularities in feeding of the monkeys at the sanctuary. In 2014, the Delhi High Court issued a notice against the Delhi government asking it to ensure sufficient food was available for the captive monkeys. On February 19, 2015, the court ordered the government to issue e-tenders to find a new contractor to supply food at the sanctuary.
States attempt to fight the menace
The extensive destruction by monkeys has prompted state governments to swing into action. They have tried various strategies—from culling and sterilisation drives to awareness campaigns not to feed monkeys. Himachal Pradesh was the first state to experiment with culling in 2007, after farmers started protesting in Shimla against government apathy. The then state Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Vinay Tandon, identified 200 worst-hit villages and employed sharpshooters to kill monkeys. Tandon used a special provision of the Wild Life Act that allows the chief wildlife warden to categorise certain herds of animals as “nuisance” and culled under the supervision of the state Forest and Wildlife Department.
“The state culled 480 monkeys during that phase,” says Bhuraita of Kheti Bachao Andolan. “The villages breathed a sigh of relief, but it lasted for only two years. Monkeys returned and this time they were more belligerent,” he adds. The state opted for culling even though there are studies that prove the method makes the animal more aggressive. It is this behaviour that explains the attacks on ginger plantations, a crop monkeys normally don’t eat. “It is only a temporary measure because the void left (behind) by killed monkeys is soon filled by other monkeys from surrounding areas. Monkeys are territorial; they monitor their neighbour’s movements daily and discover that a food source, like garbage, crop or home garden, is left undefended by their rival monkeys. New monkeys fill the void… and their numbers soon swell to match the original pest populations,” says Dittus. Primatologist Raghubir Singh Pirta says culling is at best “a temporary solution that is fast and relatively cheaper than other methods”.
Himachal Pradesh also launched a sterilisation drive in 2007, but even that has had limited success. The state government had spent Rs 6.4 crore to set up eight sterilisation centres. J S Walia, Himachal Pradesh Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), says only 96,500 monkeys have been sterilised in the state in the past eight years. The Tutikhandi sterilisation centre near Shimla, the first one to be set up in the state, at present, did not have a single monkey in the facility in July because capturing does not happen during the breeding season. Officials say that a monkey captured for sterilisation is usually kept for three days before it is freed in the wild. Sood, who heads the centre that was earlier a zoo, says it has a capacity to operate on 35-45 monkeys in a day. “June and July are the breeding months and it is unethical to capture them. It becomes difficult to capture the monkeys from August when it starts to rain. They normally stay inside forests till September and come out in October when the food starts to exhaust in forests,” he says.
The sterilisation rate at the centres has been poor. On an average, each camp has the capacity to sterilise 45 monkeys every day. This adds up to 54,000 sterilisations every year or 430,000 sterilisations in the past eight years. But just 96,500 monkeys have been sterilised since 2007. The last animal census in 2004 showed that the state had 317,000 monkeys. Sood says forest department surveys suggest crop damage in the state is done by 50 per cent of the population or 158,500—a number that should have been sterilised so far. According to a 2013 research carried out by A J Rao, a scientist from the Primate Research Laboratory of the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, Rheuses macaques in south India breed at the rate of 36 per cent a year, so the actual population would be substantially higher. Sood adds that at least 1/3rd of the population needs to be sterilised to be able to arrest the rate of population growth in the state, but authorities have failed to achieve the 1/3rd target. The state government plans to set up more sterilisation camps, instead of improving the sterilisation rate at the existing centres. “A new centre is coming up in Kullu district,” he says.
The reasons for the failure of sterilisation are many. “The number of monkeys we are able to capture is low. Also, 10-14 per cent of the monkeys we capture are already sterilised,” says Sood. The department earlier dyed the monkeys, but many of them would lose hair or get scarred which made it difficult for the capturers to identify them. A wildlife officer in Shimla says there have also been cases where monkeys have “stolen” bait from traps without getting caught. Walia says a new census is underway in which the forest department is using GPS to track the monkeys by plotting them directly on a map. They are also planning to install microchips in the sterilised monkeys for better identification.
Meanwhile, the country’s foremost wildlife research institute, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), is working on oral contraceptives for monkeys that can be administered through food. Experts say this will make capturing of monkeys for sterilisation redundant. “One of the main advantages of oral contraception is that it is non-surgical,” says P C Tyagi of WII. Media reports suggest the Himachal Pradesh forest department has asked several agriculture universities including Chaudhary Sarwan Kumar Agriculture University, Palampur, to develop feed for monkeys in which these contraceptives could be given.
The state government has also tried employing ultrasonic guns that can scare monkeys away and create van vatika or small sanctuaries for different troops. The plan to use ultrasonic guns, which cost Rs 20,000 each, was shelved after municipal officials said the ultrasonic frequencies jammed phone and internet services. Wildlife department officials say van vatikas were found to be unsustainable because of infighting within various troops of monkeys. Himachal Pradesh plans to spend Rs 12 crore in 2015 to control monkey population in the state.
Uttarakhand is now trying to emulate the Himachal Pradesh’s sterilisation drive, and has sanctioned Rs 17.5 crore for the same. The state also recently issued a notice that levies a Rs 200 fine on people feeding monkeys at pilgrim and tourist sites. The step was introduced after experts said the act of feeding makes them believe that humans are inferior to them. “Monkey society is built on a strong hierarchy of dominance, where the highest ranking is free to exploit all subordinates, and so on down the line of the hierarchy… The assertion of social rank translates into survival. Therefore, when a human donates food to a monkey, the person signals his/her social inferiority to it,” says Dittus.
Besides relocating monkeys out of the city, the Delhi government hired Gray Langur, the most common long-tailed monkey across south Asia, to chase monkeys between 2012 and 2013. The practice was discontinued after the Union environment ministry said it violated the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972, that says langurs are endangered species. The administration then tried to use young men dressed as langurs to chase monkeys, which had limited success.
Telengana, which is home to more than 200,000 monkeys, has proposed to plant trees across the state and create green islands to provide habitation to monkeys. Chief Minister K Chandrasekhara Rao in July this year announced the Rs 830-crore Haritha Haaram (Green garland) scheme. Under it, the state plans to its increase tree cover from the present 24 per cent to 33 per cent. “The chief minister feels that the monkey’s habitat and food-source has been greatly depleted,” says P K Sharma, Chief Wildlife Warden, Telangana. The government plans to procure 373 million saplings this year, out of which 365 million will be non-fruit trees. This means that while the tree cover may increase in the state in the coming years, it might not translate to more food for monkeys.
Though now banned, monkeys are illegally exported from India for biomedical research
At a time when monkeys are destroying crops across the country, farmer oraganisations say the government should look at removing the ban. India used to export monkeys for biomedical research till 1977, when the Janta Party government at the Centre banned it. A 2014 Wikileaks on the internal communications of the US State Department says the reason India stopped exporting monkeys is because the US was "illegally" using them for military experiments. It says that a US-based non-profit, International Primate Protection League, approached the Indian government with evidences that the monkeys were exposed to lethal neutron radiation. The Indian government implemented the ban even though the US Department of Defence denied the experiments.
An investigation by the Wall Street Journal in 2006 suggests that India used to ship 12,000 monkeys every year to the US for research purposes till 1977. The investigation says a single Indian monkey was sold for $80 in the 1970s. A 2002 report by the Zoological Survey of India says 500,000 monkeys were exported till 1977.
However, forest officials say illegal exports of Indian monkeys continue via Nepal and the animal currently fetches $14,000 each in the international market.
India has half a dozen biomedical research institutions today. They have about 300 monkeys for research, says A J Rao, a scientist from the Primate Research Laboratory of the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. "Procurement is done only from the wild, and no captive breeding is undertaken in any of the laboratories," he adds.
Primatologists also warn that Indian monkeys should not be used in research today as they could have developed infections because of their proximity to human settlements. A 1999 study conducted by primatologist Iqbal Malik on 2,000 monkeys captured in the Himalayan foothills found more than 40 per cent had at least one potentially harmful disease. "They are more prone to infections because of increased contact with humans," says Malik.
Understanding primate behaviour
India faces a monumental puzzle. On one hand, the monkey menace has caused unprecedented damage to local livelihoods, and on the other, efforts to mitigate the crisis have not been able to match the scale of the problem. Psychologists say that once monkeys construct a niche in urban areas, their aggressive behaviour is likely to increase due to competition for food and space.
As it emerges, there are two aspects that need to be addressed: our understanding of primate behaviour, and a consolidated national approach to the crisis. A decade ago, India took a step to acknowledge the problem. The Union government tasked 12 primatologists, including Iqbal Malik, Mewa Singh and Wolfgang Dittus, to prepare a plan to deal with monkeys. The team submitted the Action Plan for the Control of Commensal, Non-Human Primates in Public Places the same year. It identified 10 species of non-human primates in conflict with humans and recommended specific methods to handle each one of them. The expert group also recommended the setting up of central and local level committees to effectively run translocation, sterilisation and conservation programmes for various species of monkeys. The committees would oversee the treatment of monkeys in captivity and maintain a registry of the animal. But their recommendations were never implemented. “The government could not understand the magnitude of the problem,” says Malik.
However, to revive the national plan to control monkey menace, India needs a combination of strategies, from a new institutional mechanism to adopting new technological solutions. First, as proposed by the expert group, management of monkeys as a species needs to be brought under the Union list of the Constitution, which will enable a national programme to monitor, control their population and plan for effective strategies. This will also lead to the much-needed monkey census. A similar strategy was adopted for tigers and rhinos to protect and avoid conflicts with humans. “From here, we can kick-start the next phase: mitigation and adaptation. We need to reinvent existing strategies and incorporate innovative technologies,” says Mewa Singh, a primatologist at the University of Mysore.
For example, the experiences of Hong Kong and Japan combine well-targeted popular methods like sterilisation and culling as well as technological innovations to keep monkeys at bay. Hong Kong reported extensive crop loss because of monkeys till early 2000. The country then rolled out a comprehensive plan that included targeted sterilisation, strict rules on feeding and promotion of urban forestry. Between 2008 and 2012, the birthrate fell from 68.9 per cent to 30.2 per cent, according to a study by Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2013. Japan gained control over the monkey population with a series of policies that included targeted culling, reviving of natural habitats and employing people to guard crops against attacks.
Closer home, there are a few adaptation measures that have arrested the problem to a certain extent. For instance, a low-cost acoustic device—developed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), New Delhi, and Via Life, a Bengaluru-based company—can repel animals from entering the farms. “The device can be customised for different animals and covers up to 1.61 ha of farmland. It produces distress sounds of the same species or sounds to keep the animals away,” says Mahesh S S Iyer, CEO of Via Life. ICAR had used a similar device, Harmony Q, to protect sunflower farmers in Maharashtra and Karnataka. The device conveys the message to animals that the broadcast area is dangerous, says Vasudeva Rao, who has been working with the All India Network Project on Agricultural Ornithology.
In few desperate situations, farmers have even changed cropping pattern to evade monkeys. Farmers in Sonitpur district, Assam, who faced regular monkey raids, switched from paddy farming to tea cultivation. “The monkeys did not attack tea plantations because of the bitter taste,” says Deep Bhagawati, general secretary of a tea farmers’ association. The farmers are now able to earn a steady margin of profit. “I think it is time, we started protecting our crops. Farmers have to cover their crops with nets, a practice that is successfully followed in Israel,” says Malik. Simple techniques such as drip irrigation have been used in Israel to repel monkeys. They are scared of water, and drip irrigation constantly sprinkles water (see interview).
It is easy to paint the monkey as the villain. But nature has always pointed towards coexistence. We need to take a call, and, now.
With inputs from Rajeshwari Ganesan
INTERVIEW: 'Governments never listen to experts'
Primatologist Iqbal Malik is considered an expert on monkey behaviour and has authored several papers on human-monkey conflicts. She was also part of the expert committee that was appointed by the Union government in 2005 to devise methods to contain monkey menace. In an interview with Anupam Chakravatty, she talks about the reasons the situation has deteriorated over the years
Why have human-monkey conflicts increased in India?
In 1989, I was part of the team that drafted the first plan to help the Union and Delhi governments to translocate monkeys from urban areas. While we were identifying the various monkey troops in the city, authorities were randomly trapping monkeys and in the process breaking the troops. This resulted in the creation of many smaller groups in the city. Monkeys are territorial animals and the smaller groups started spreading to newer areas. One has to understand that monkeys easily adapt to new surroundings.
You proposed the first monkey sanctuary in India. Why did it not work?
In 1998, I submitted a plan to the Delhi government on how to set up a sanctuary outside the city for relocating monkeys. But the government did not follow the plan. Our proposal said specific plants should be planted at the sanctuary site before the relocation. But, the government started releasing these monkeys in barren areas. We had also suggested placing PVC sheets on the sanctuary periphery to ensure the monkeys did not escape the site.
Instead, the forest department used iron bars that helped monkeys escape from the sanctuary.
What is your take on sterilisation?
Catching monkeys randomly and sterilising them does not help. One needs to study these monkeys before proposing translocation or sterilisation. Loners and alpha males have to be caught first. Authorities do not pay heed to such details.
IN PICTURES: Monkey gods and demons
Monkeys are now living dangerously close to human habitations. Attacks by monkeys lead to crop losses worth crores of rupees in states like Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. City dwellers are also struggling to cope with the monkey menace. The animals destroy property, steal food and attack humans in cities such as Jodhpur, Varanasi, Delhi, Chandigarh, Shimla, Haridwar and Mathura.
In Nangla Mubarik village of Muzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh, farmers have no option but to resort to air guns to scare monkeys off their farms. Even this measure brings only temporary relief as monkeys continue to attack crops, whether edible or not.
The situation is worse in Nangla Mandaud, another village in Muzaffarnagar district, where monkeys have laid siege to the entry road to the village. They descend in dozens to attack people carrying food items. Local residents estimate there are four to five groups, each consisting of at least 15-20 monkeys, which have made life difficult for farmers and others.
To protect their farms, a group of eight farmers from Nangla Mandaud have bought a langur for Rs 16,000. Every other day, one of the farmers takes the langur on his motorcycle and rides into the fields. Whenever the langur sees a group of monkeys, it chases them away. The farmers can now identify all the groups that frequent the area and keep the others informed of the monkeys last seen near the farms. This method has brought some relief with monkeys staying away from farms for up to two days at a time.
The Union environment ministry has refused to declare monkeys as vermin. The ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) issued a notification in December, 2014, seeking opinion from states on the menace caused by nilgais or blue bulls and wild boars. Following the directions from the MoEF&CC, Uttarakhand declared certain species of nilgai and wild boar as vermin. Although both the animal species are protected under schedules 2 and 3 of the Wild Life Protection Act, state governments can now allow culling of these animals. The notification says that in some cases, the animals can be also be moved from schedule 2 to schedule 5 of the Wild Life Protection Act, which includes rats, crows and rabbits that are usually considered pests. According to forest officials, the difference between vermin and nuisance is that vermin animals can be killed by anybody, while nuisance animals can only be killed by the state forest department.
The environment ministry in March 2014 rejected a proposal by the Himachal Pradesh government to declare monkeys vermin. The ministry, instead, asked the state to scientifically identify the areas where monkeys were wreaking havoc.
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