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Monkeys in the city: Villains or victims?

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Monkeys in the city: Villains or victims?

As per an April 1, 2023 amendment, the Rhesus macaque was removed from the schedules of the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), which means the monkeys are now treated like stray dogs or cats...

Monkeys in the city: Villains or victims?

Urban monkeys are considered pests and whenever a human-monkey interaction turns nasty, the simians are painted as villains. But isnt it man himself who has lured them to urban areas through his irresponsible activities depleting food resources and natural habitats of simians, thereby forcing them to forage for food and shelter in cities? So, naturally, the solution must also come from humans. A peaceful co-existence is the only plausible solution, say experts. TreeTake takes a look at urban monkey challenges

Monkeys are important for biodiversity. They play a very important role in the regrowth of tropical forests.  When they feed, they spread the seeds of fruits throughout the forests. Their excreta too carry the seeds and also help fertilize the soil. So, they make a massive contribution to the maintenance of forest health and biodiversity. They often perform critical ecological functions in the ecosystems they inhabit.

As per a study conducted in 1997, primates provide pollination services in some ecosystems. The same study also concluded that in some plants, seed germination rates were positively influenced by passage through the primate gut and some other plant species depended solely on primates for dispersal. Research has also shown that primates are important seed predators in some ecosystems and it is possible that primate seed predators may help maintain plant species diversity by disproportionately preying on seeds of a common plant. Folivory by primates can affect the mortality, fecundity and growth rates of tree species.

The presence of primates can influence community structure across multiple trophic levels. For example, the loss of primates due to hunting in Nigerian tropical forests has resulted in changes of the relative abundances of other mammals, with cascading effects on plant communities. Primates are important prey species in some ecological communities. Some species, most notably chimpanzees, can also have considerable impacts as predators on primates and other animals.

Finally, primates may play a role in buffering against the detrimental effects of global climate change. They are typically the key dispersers of larger seeded plant species and large-seeded tree species often have higher carbon densities than trees with small seeds. Thus, the presence of primates promotes the sequestration of additional carbon in tropical forests, which serve as key buffers against global climate change

These examples demonstrate that primates play an important role in maintaining well-functioning ecosystems.

Evidence suggests that at least in some systems, primates serve uniquely important roles and that their loss has large effects. Primate conservation is therefore crucially important to maintain intact ecosystems and the many services these ecosystems provide to people, including clean and stable water supplies, prevention from floods and landslide, pollination, stable micro-climates and buffering of global warming.

Why are monkeys invading urban spaces?

Today, monkeys can be found in almost all Indian cities. In some places, they wreak major havoc through their marauding activities. Of the 22 primate species inhabiting India, a few have adapted to human-dominated landscapes, or rather, cityscapes and established themselves so firmly and successfully in urban areas that they are now referred to as “commensal” primates. The prime reason for primates foraying in urban spaces is food. Monkeys have to forage for food in the wild but in urban areas, they need not walk the extra mile. They find it easier to raid garbage bins or rely on being fed by humans. Little do people know that this provisioned food causes hormonal imbalance, increases stress, aggression and modifies the behaviour and reproductive patterns of the primates, commonly termed as “urban wildlife syndrome”.

Considered sacred, so fed

Monkeys are associated with the Hindu deity Hanuman, so they are considered sacred. It is considered a sin to harm a monkey and at religious places, people feed them with gur, chana, fruits and bananas. As a result, monkeys are found in high densities around temples. One can say that if humans tolerate monkeys in urban areas, it is due to their mythological and religious significance. The monkey-feeding goes on despite a Delhi High Court order a few years ago to not feed monkeys in public areas.

Man is increasing encroaching on wild habitats, through deforestation, agriculture, loss of natural resources, and urbanization. City sprawls are increasing and more and more urban blocks are replacing the natural habitat. This has forced monkeys to move from their natural environments and gradually invade human settlements. This worrisome shift ultimately enhances the chances of conflict between humans and wildlife. In fact, the spaces for wild animals are shrinking more and more. In some places, they exist in mere patches. In such a situation, some species, like monkeys, are able to exploit the human-dominated areas, where they utilize easily accessible food resources such as crops and garbage. Crop raids often add to the human-primate conflict. Unlike wild areas, there is no natural predator in cities, so there is no check on escalating monkey population. And monkeys are rapid breeders.

The primates become aggressive if they are not provided with food and  this often leads to human-monkey conflicts. Most cities of northern India, including Delhi, Chandigarh, Shimla, Lucknow, Agra and others are prone to monkey menace, where the primates wreak havoc.  Marauding monkeys encroach, damage properties and steal food from houses. They break into houses, take food from refrigerators and kitchens, tear clothes off drying lines and cause numerous types of destruction. Inefficient garbage and waste disposal systems offer the species ample amount of leftover food. But they are also at risk of getting killed and injured by vehicles while foraging for food or just hanging out near busy roads and streets.

So, urban adaptability has not in any way proved to be beneficial for the animal. Trying to avail food items through raiding and snatching, monkeys face the wrath of humans. Consequently, while they can be termed as urban wildlife, the flip side of their presence—the conflicts with humans, the risk of disease and the damage and destruction they cause—rings alarm bells. In fact, conflicts between humans and monkeys have become a serious concern amongst scientists, managers and policymakers.

An animal activist said on condition of anonymity: “The dwindling forest cover and fewer fruit-bearing trees being planted have compounded the problem. The need is to develop forests and plant more fruit-bearing trees rather than ornamental ones. The monkeys too are a part of the ecological system, they too have some rights. Let us provide for them instead of cursing them.” Another activist said: “It is we who have brought monkeys to cities, by offering them food and taking over their spaces. So, it is us who must find a solution to co-exist peacefully.”

Urban face-offs

Several cities in India are prone to large gangs of Rhesus macaque monkeys running amok and wreaking havoc. Lucknow, Agra, Mathura, Kasganj and even the national capital, all have been marauded by the simians.  Recently, in a Rampur (Uttar Pradesh) village, monkeys snatched a four-month-old baby sleeping on a cot and dropped her from a 15-ft high rooftop. Luckily, the child survived despite a head injury. Local people said there were frequent incidents of monkeys injuring people or individuals falling from rooftops while being pursued by monkey troops. No effective solution to the problem was found despite several complaints to authorities.

There have been several cases of simian attacks on unsuspecting tourists at the Taj Mahal and other monuments in Agra. Last year, fierce monkeys attacked a brother-sister duo coming out of the eastern gate of the Taj Mahal. Also last year, a Spanish woman tourist visiting the Taj was bitten in the leg by a monkey. In August 2019, a woman, Kusum Devi, 30, fell off a roof after monkeys attacked her in Raal village of Mathura district. She was taken to hospital where she was declared dead. In Vrindavan last year, Mathura district magistrate Navneet Chahal was talking on the phone in the lane leading to Shri Banke Bihari temple when a monkey snatched his glasses and climbed the wall. It took two packets of mango juice to recover the spectacles. In July 2019, Hari Shankar Goyal, 55, died in a monkey attack in Phullati area of old Agra. In January 2019, A woman died after monkeys attacked her at Raipura Jaat in Mathura district on Thursday. In December 2018, a woman died after simians attacked her in Dalpat Khirki area of Mathura. In December 2018, a 16-year-old student of class 11 died in Kasganj city when he fell on the road while jumping off the roof as monkeys chased him. In November 2018, A monkey snatched a newborn from the mother’s lap and killed the child in Runkata area of Agra. In November 2018, a 59-year-old woman died when monkeys attached her in Kagarol town of Agra district. In November 2018, a 40-year-old labourer died after falling off the roof of his house as he fled from monkeys in Shikohabad town of Firozabad district. In November 2018, a monkey attacked an Italian tourist in Agra when she was moving towards the western gate of the Taj Mahal after depositing her valuables in a locker. Also in November 2018, a six-year-old boy was injured and had to be given stitches on the head after monkeys attacked him in Pinahat town of Agra district. In October 2018, a biker died after losing his balance on MG Road due to a monkey attack in Agra.

In August 2018, a monkey attacked a Japanese woman tourist on the road to Purani Mandi crossing near Taj Mahal. In May 2018, a monkey attacked a French woman on the Taj Mahal premises. In May 2018, a monkey snatched a bag containing Rs 2 lakh (200,000) cash near a bank in Nai Ki Mandi area of Agra. In May 2018, a monkey snatched a snake from a snake charmer near Bankey Behari temple in Vrindavan. In August 2017, a man died after falling off the roof in Rawli area of Agra after being pushed by a monkey. In August 2018, a pinnacle embedded in an iron rod fell from top of the historic ‘Buland Darwaza’ at Fatehpur Sikri, once the capital of the Mughal empire. ASI officials blamed monkeys for the damage In March 2018, a monkey sitting on the roof of the main entrance of the Bankey Behari temple pushed a brick which fell on a woman devotee. In August 2017, a 45-year-old man died while chasing a monkey which had snatched his cell phone in Rawli area of Agra. The man fell from the third floor of the building in an attempt to get the phone back. In August 2017, an 80-year-old woman died after falling from her terrace while being chased by monkeys in Gopi Bagh Mohalla in Vrindavan town In August 2016, a monkey snatched a purse from a British tourist at the Taj Mahal.

The state capital too, is reeling under the menace. The cheeky beasts strut about almost everywhere, uprooting garden plants, breaking flower pots, raiding kitchens and scatter litter. Several institutions as well as households have resorted to putting up large cut-outs of langoors to deter the primates. Some others use the services of a mimicry man to mimic the call of a languor to scare off the monkeys. In Delhi too, monkeys constitute a civic problem, so much so that special steps were taken to ensure they did not create a nuisance during the recent G-20 summit. Experts said the national capital had been facing the monkey menace for years as there was no method to scare them away. States like Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka too are grappling with the problem. Relocation has failed to work as the simians almost always return.

What experts say

In animal activist Shakuntala Majumdar’s opinion: “Co-existence is always better than conflict. It is not just monkeys who seem to have made cities and towns their homes; there are examples galore of wildlife living on the edge of human habitats all over the world. Be it coyotes in North America, jaguars in Mexico or black bears in Colorado, humans have always perceived this as conflict, refusing to accept that native wildlife species need to be protected because they are essential for our eco -system and because we share a common world. Here-in lies the problem. And only humans can turn around the problem, being a species at the highest pinnacle of the food chain. Wild species like monkeys in Indian cities have started to thrive due to ample presence of food, very often offered by humans to them. In most cases, such food is meant for human consumption. This negatively impacts their ability to adapt back into the wild. Primates, with their acumen for speed and their aggression, can cause physical harm to humans. Only this reason should be enough for us to implement ways and means to maintain safe distance between them and us.”

“Firstly, we need to accept the fact that it is we who have invaded their territory, not the other way around. This will enable us to look at them as the victims and ourselves as the perpetrators.  We need to demand that human housing be strictly kept beyond the buffer zones, and that the sanctity of these zones be maintained. If perchance, occasional face-offs take place, we should not make eye contact with them, should not tease them, should not interact with them like fellow beings of the same species, keep our areas garbage- free to discourage foraging and most importantly, should not offer them any food. Easily available food is the best way to ensure settling of colonies for any species. Concerned authorities must devise strategies to provide relief in case of untoward incidents. We should make use of social media to equip people with community-based co-existence models,” the CPCA president added. She also said: “While it is true that monkeys are our biological relatives, and we may perceive them as such, it is highly unlikely that they would do the same. This is a very opportunistic species and will go to any length to procure what it wants. Do not befriend monkeys. Maintaining a respectful distance is the best way to deal with wild life.”

            Brij Khandelwal, convenor of RiverConnect in Agra, said: “A very logical solution to the problem is difficult given the religious slant. But still, so far as urban monkeys are concerned, they are now adapted to city life. They can no longer be termed wild, nor can live in the wild now. Like dogs, monkeys too have territories. If they are caught and translocated in other areas, they will either return or perish. Other monkeys can also kill them. In Agra, quite a lot of monkeys were caught and shifted to Chitrakoot but some returned while others died. Sterilisation is not very feasible, given the fact that monkeys scratch a lot. They scratch the wound open which may then become infected. This would pose a risk not only to the animals but also humans as the monkeys roam around in human habitats. A viable option is to make small sanctuaries in each city and house monkeys there after trapping them. If the leader of the pack is caught, the rest will inevitably follow. Enclosures of wire mesh can be set up along rivers or other water bodies, with fruit-bearing trees and the monkeys can be housed there. A few tyres can be hung for the simians to swing on. They will carry on their antics inside so long as they get food. Children will enjoy watching them as they pass by the enclosures. If gaushalas can be made, why not vanarshalas? But apart from funds, it would require will on the part of the authorities.” Almost all greens, animal activists and experts are unanimous that one should not feed the city monkeys, not even at religious places. It may motivate them to go back to the natural habitat they came from.

Roopak De, ex-PCCF, Uttar Pradesh said: “We should modify our behaviour towards the simians and stop feeding them. We should also try to educate the people to stop feeding the monkeys, even at religious centres. Denied food, they will have no option but to go back to their habitat. Secondly, sterilisation can be done. States like Himachal Pradesh have achieved success in this and as per reports the monkey population there has declined.”

In fact, feeding a monkey is a strict no-no with even foresters. Sanjay Srivastava, APPCF, Social Forestry, Uttar Pradesh said: “We have to co-exist. Instead of feeding monkeys around religious places, people should donate a certain amount there for the purpose. The money thus collected should be used to buy edibles for monkeys and this food should be left at some place away from populated areas. Monkeys will start gathering there when they discover food and so they will gradually shift. A board can also be placed there that those wishing to feed monkeys can leave food there. But this would require both will and some effort on the part of people and organisations. Shelters can also be made to house the simians, and people wishing to feed monkeys due to religious beliefs can arrange for food there.” However, he too said that people must be made aware to not feed monkeys on the streets or roadside, adding that sometimes monkeys met accidents on the road and died.

No longer under foresters purview

Earlier, the Rhesus macaque specie was listed under Schedule II of the WPA, 1972, which meant that killing, trading or hunting was forbidden, unless the animal was considered a threat to human life. But as per an April 1, 2023 amendment, the Rhesus macaque was removed from the schedules of the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), which means the monkeys are now treated like stray dogs or cats. In fact, when animal activists in Delhi spoke out against the move, the Delhi forest department said that since Rhesus macaques were not endangered and were found in as large numbers as strays, there was no need to keep them in the scheduled category and also that monkey menace would be treated as a civic issue and not as a wildlife one.

Sudhir Kumar Sharma, PCCF, Uttar Pradesh said: “Now that the Rhesus macaque is out of the schedules of the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), the forest department is no longer responsible. The department takes full responsibility for only those animals (including monkeys) that inhabit the forests or the wild. And we do make provisions for them. We ensure water holes and fruit-bearing trees for birds as well as monkeys, just as we ensure grasslands for herbivores. As for urban monkeys, I suggest people should stop feeding them, which would make them return to their natural habitat.”

Civic authorities pass the buck

Dr Arvind Rao of Lucknow Nigam said the civic body was in no way concerned with the problem of urban monkey menace, including their catching, shifting or sterilisation as there was no government order to this effect, nor any such provision in the Nagar Nigam Act. In fact, the civic body would not even attend to distress calls.

Possible way out

1.         Devising a mechanism within the legal framework to address the problem, given the religious sentiments attached with the simians.

2.         Making a green belt with lots of fruit-bearing trees on the outskirts of cities, to motivate monkeys to shift there.

3.         Setting up monkey shelters on the pattern of cow and dog shelters.

4.         Blocking their access to food in human settlements, forcing them to return to their natural habitats.

5.         Monkey census and then sterilisation.

6.         Monkeys are intelligent and can be easily trained. Monkeys can be trained to assist individuals with mobility impairments, particularly those resulting from spinal cord injuries, by performing a range of daily tasks. These animals can be trained to perform a variety of daily tasks—turning appliances on and off, picking up dropped items, dialling the phone and even scratching an itch.

During the recent plantation drive, the Uttar Pradesh government decided to create two dedicated ‘monkey forests’ (Vanar Vans) in Lucknow. These Vanar Vans would be created in three categories by the Nagar Nigam, forest and rural development departments. The plan is to plant saplings of fruit-bearing trees in these pockets that will take the shape of a forest when saplings grow. These Vanar Vans will help sustain simians often troubling locals when they move around in residential areas in search of food. The Vanar Vans will be located on the city outskirts so that monkeys may get food and water. If the project becomes a reality, it would not only save people a lot of trouble but also show the way to other states.


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