Wildlife & Biodiversity

Bonnet macaque carcasses in Karnataka village highlight struggle between farmers and monkeys in region

Farmers cut down trees that produce wild fruits and monkeys ravage crops

By M Raghuram
Published: Monday 18 December 2023
Bonnet macaques. Photo for representation: iStock

The recent discovery of carcasses of 27 bonnet macaque monkeys in a village in Dakshina Kannada district, Karnataka has highlighted the human-monkey conflict in the region as human habitations and farming take over forests, leaving little for the wildlife, which in turn enter human habiatations to forage for food. 

The carcasses were found in a ravine in Guthigaru village, Sullia taluk, in the fringe areas of the Western Ghats. A post about the incident made the rounds on social media and brought it to light. Very young monkeys were also among the dead. Forest officials in the range suspect the animals were poisoned somewhere else and the carcasses were later dumped in this village. 

Forest officers said the incident was an indication that the bonnet macaques were inside human habiatations foraging for food in coconut plantations and fruit farms. Similar macabre incidents were reported in 2019 in Tumakuru and in 2021 in Uppinangady. 

Read more: Urban Menace: Make designated monkey zones

“This incursion is an indication of the fact that the bonnet macaques were growing in population and there was not enough food available in their resident forests,” Assistant Conservator of Forests (wildlife) in Sullia taluk Praveen Shetty told this reporter. 

Wildlife activists working in Western Ghat areas said human habitations and farming are extending into the forest areas in Kudremukh National Park, Biligirirangana Betta Wildlife Sanctuary, Nagarhole National Park, Bhimgadh National Park and many other reserve forests and wildlife sanctuaries. The fringe areas of the forests have turned into coconut plantations and fruit orchards that attract monkeys when they do not have food in the forests. 

While the incidents of monkey incursions are increasing, farmers don’t take such extreme measures like this one, conservationists pointed out, calling the incident ‘inhuman, macabre and anti-nature’. 

Farmers along the Western Ghats fringe areas are deeply concerned about the pervasive threat of monkeys wreaking havoc on horticultural yields. What was once merely amusement has now become a serious issue, particularly affecting coconut plantations and interfering with the cultivation of vanilla vines, pineapple patches and papaya trees. Farmers’ lives in the outskirts of Udupi, Dakshina Kannada and Chikkamagaluru districts have been severely impacted by the escalating monkey problem.

These districts’ outskirts have become a hotbed for monkey-related problems, covering approximately 5,000 hectares of land dedicated to horticultural crops. Farmer groups in the area report that monkeys have developed a taste for their crops, which include vanilla, pineapple, pepper, lemon grass, aromatic plants and medicinal herbs. 

Primates like bonnet macaques, which are endemic to the region, Diana monkeys and Lion-tailed macaques raid horticultural fields in large and intimidating groups, becoming a constant source of distress for farmers. 

Vignesh V Naik, hailing from Shankaranarayana village in Kundapur taluk, lost his entire coconut crop over the past three months, estimating a financial loss exceeding 4,000 tender coconuts, each valued at Rs 15.

Narasimha Naik, a vanilla grower, lamented the destruction of his vanilla vines. The primates consumed laid-out vanilla beans — about 300 kilogrammes, valued at Rs 300 per kg. While all the beans were no consumed, the extensive damage rendered the crop useless for a process value addition. Processing and curing the beans is crucial for medicinal, ice cream and confectionery production, according to officials from the Kundapur taluk Moorthedarara Sangha (Toddy Tappers’ Association).

Read more: Out of control: why monkeys are a menace

According to forest officials, monkey infestation costs nearly Rs 4 crore per season in Karkala, Kundapura, Puttur-Sullia and other affected areas. According to Horticulture Department sources in these districts, farmers have abandoned over 900 acres of horticultural land due to monkey infestations. 

Farmers are contributing to the problem, according to a forest official, by cutting down trees that produce wild fruits, which are a primary food source for monkeys, resulting in the depletion of their natural habitat. In response, the forest department is establishing a nursery for wild fruit-bearing trees, distributing them to farmers and planting them in affected areas.

However, the effectiveness of these measures is expected to manifest only after 3-4 years, according to the Assistant Conservator of Forests in Udupi.

Farmers have taken drastic measures in response to the prolonged resolution time, with many applying for gun licences not to harm the monkeys but to scare them away. Attempts to deter the monkeys with methods such as bursting crackers and erecting high-rise nets have been futile, but the fear of gunshots appears to deter them, according to Siddappa Naika, a farmer from Naravi in Karkala taluk. 

However, even the most affected farmers in these areas oppose mass culling of the bonnet macaque.

While hunting and burying monkeys was once common, stricter wildlife protection laws now make it illegal to kill wild animals. Monkeys are protected from poaching because they are listed on Schedule 2 of the Wildlife Act. Despite previous proposals for a monkey park in various locations throughout the Western Ghats, such initiatives have not materialised.

In Karkala alone, monkeys caused crop losses of up to Rs 5 crore in 2020, affecting a variety of crops and forcing many small farmers to abandon cultivation. Suicides have occurred as a result of the problem, as has widespread poverty and the abandonment of large areas of fertile land. Children are avoiding school in some areas due to monkey-related fears and various industries such as cashew factories, beedi manufacturing units, areca sorting centres and agricultural operations have also been impacted.

In response, a group of elders, led by forest officials, has devised a plan to either drive the monkeys back to the forests of the Western Ghats or, if that fails, capture and relocate them to a monkey park in Kudremukh National Park. A team had visited Himachal Pradesh and studied at a monkey rehabilitation centre outside Shimla. But the report submitted to the government has had no action on it till now.

Read more: Urban Menace: Focus on human-monkey conflict management

Noting the increased intrusion of monkeys into human habitation, officials cite the depletion of food sources in forest and fringe areas as a primary reason. Farmers, once accustomed to maintaining plantations of wild fruits and berries, have stopped this practice, contributing to the monkeys' invasion of fields and horticultural pastures.

Former Deputy Conservator of the Forest Karkala Range Prakash Natalkar attributed the monkey problem to population growth, highlighting the need for a balance in addressing the issue. Farmer leaders expressed dissatisfaction with the compensation offered by the forest department for crop losses due to animal interference, particularly with respect to monkey infestations. 

While farmers acknowledge the monkeys’ non-destructive approach by only taking fruits, proving such losses to the forest department remains a challenge, leaving them with limited recourse.

The Forest Department supports immediate relief for farmers facing monkey problems, suggesting the restoration of food sources in the Western Ghats area. Plans to distribute over 25,000 fruit trees annually in the taluks surrounding the Kudremukh Reserved Forest and Kudremukh National Park are underway.

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