Monkey business: The oft-ignored menace in our cities

Did you know that the Prime Minister's vision of a free-wifi Varanasi faces major disruption because of monkeys that chew up the cables regularly? Or that even the elite in Lutyens' Delhi have to battle the menace every day? Here's a look at a pressing urban problem that hardly gets the attention it calls for.

Of all the headlines made by the state visit of US President, Donald Trump, the one that caught my attention was a news report about five langurs being included in his security detail during his visit to Agra to deal with the monkey menace. It provided great fodder to social media and meme makers as the jokes wrote themselves.

But now that the noise has died down after the return of the President, it is time we looked at the magnitude of the problem, because as the residents of these cities will tell you, it is no laughing matter.

So, just how big is this problem?

Accidents and fatalities

In 2018, the media reported the death of a 12-day-old infant in Agra who was snatched from his mother’s arms by a group of monkeys. When the locals gave them chase, they bit him on the head and dropped the child who didn’t survive the fall. The Municipality of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri have allotted crores of rupees to fight this menace as the monkeys wreak havoc at popular tourist sights.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream of turning his constituency Varanasi into a free-wifi city has also hit a road block because of monkey menace in the 3000-year-old city. They bite the optic fibre cables and disrupt connectivity regularly.

Even in Delhi, where the most powerful who walk the corridors are reeling under their onslaught.

A personal anecdote I would like to share comes from 2000.  I was part of the NCC contingent that marched the Rajpath on Republic Day that year; it is the glorious parade we watch on television. What you don’t see is the area where we all assemble at the start of the parade.  The parade starts from Vijay Chowk which is close to the powerful Ministry of Defence, and it is full of monkeys. In the 15 days that we rehearsed for the parade, I could never save my packed breakfast from the monkeys, despite us humans being there in huge numbers. We were hundreds of us there and yet you wouldn’t dare take them on when they bared their teeth at you.

Even our law makers cannot escape this problem. In 2007, Deputy mayor of Delhi, S S Bajwa was killed after he fell off his terrace after being attacked by monkeys. In November of 2019, Mathura MP and actor Hema Malini raised the issue of monkey menace in the Parliament along with LJP MP Chirag Paswan. While the actor spoke about the problem in her constituency of Mathura, Paswan spoke about the terror these guys raised in Lutyens’ Delhi where children couldn’t sit out for fear of being attacked. Another TMC member had his spectacles stolen by them and only had it returned when he bribed them with “Frooti”.

In another instance Gurjeet Singh Aujla, the MP from Amritsar, spoke about not being able to even dry clothes on his terrace because of the problem. The Lok Sabha Secretariat had to finally issue guidelines for the members on how to protect themselves against the monkey menace.

So, the problem goes beyond a few instances of monkeys being naughty. It is also taking a serious economic toll. In 2015, the Centre For Science and Environment, in an investigative study, stated that the menace was hitting farmers who were already reporting low productivity because of extreme climates.

The economic cost

Himachal Pradesh is among the worst hit states because of monkey menace because of obvious reasons. The fruit orchards that grow the fabulous Shimla apples are a magnet for the fellows, making life miserable for its farmers. The National Institute of Disaster Management had estimated that the state loses about Rs 500 crore of farm produce annually to wild animals, most of which are monkeys. The farmers in the state even have a “Kheti Bachao Andolan” against the menace.

Jammu & Kashmir, another state famous for its fruit orchards is also reeling under this problem. In 2013, the then Agriculture Minister, G H Mir had stated that 250 villages in Jammu had lost about Rs 33 crore worth of farm produce that year.  Farmers in Bihar started a “Bandar Mukht Andolan” to deal with the problem. About 800 farmers from a single taluk Karkala in Karnataka gave up farming because of monkey menace.

The health issue

Another important fact that isn’t commonly realised is that monkeys are also carriers of rabies. It isn’t just dogs who carry the disease. So there is a health issue to worry about as well. There are about a 1000 monkey bites that are reported everyday in Indian cities according to the Primate Research Centre, Jodhpur. The problem is so severe in Uttarakhand, that it is the only state in the country that pays a compensation of Rs 2 lakh to victims of monkey bites and the government even announced that those who were caught feeding monkeys would face a three-year-jail term.

The hurdles

Clearly there is a need for an immediate action plan to deal with the crisis and as reported, some municipalities too have spent a fair chunk of change to address the issue. But there is an important nuance to this problem as escapes public perception. Monkeys are a protected species under the Schedule II of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Animals protected under it are provided absolute protection and carry the highest penalties for offences. So, if Salman Khan were accused of shooting a monkey instead of a blackbuck, he would still face similar charges.

Though their constant presence around us would make us think of the monkeys as strays, the problem is, in fact, a human-wildlife conflict in an urban context. The problem may seem similar to the issue of stray dogs faced by cities, but is more perhaps on the lines of the human-elephant conflict (in terms of fatalities and economic costs at least). The issue is that the sight of an elephant as opposed to the sight of congress of monkeys evoke very different reactions

According to a research paper written by leading Indian primatologist Dr Mewa Singh, there are 22 species of the primates in India. Most of them are confined to jungles, but the Bonnet macaque, rhesus macaque, long-tailed macaque and Hanuman langur are now part of the urban landscape. The most common that we are familiar with in our cities are the rhesus macaque. This species is also on the ‘Red List’ of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s threatened species (yes, despite so many of them making life miserable for many of us!)

As is the case in all human-wildlife conflict, because they compete with us for resource and space, the loss of green cover and forest habitat is at the heart of this problem. Like dogs, this problem is also compounded by garbage dumps that litter our cities which provide food for these animals.

Then there is the more challenging area of religious belief that we have to deal with. Monkeys are considered representatives of the Hindu god, Lord Hanuman and their congress are found in large numbers around temples, constantly fed by devotees. They are often aggressive and sometimes attack devotees who do not feed them. This easy access to food has affected and increased their reproductive cycles and life spans, which would not be the case in jungles.

What is being done currently?

Himachal Pradesh, in February of 2019, declared monkeys as ‘vermin’ in 10 districts that removed the protections accorded to the animal under the Wildlife Protection Act. This allowed the state to cull them for a year. They also tried surgical sterilisation of the monkeys before mass culling to avoid hurting religious sentiments. The State has set up 8 sterilisation centres for this and vaccination to sterilise them has been proposed. After Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand has also engaged with the Central Government to declare monkeys ‘vermin’ in its state.

The Delhi Government on the other hand, tried to shift its monkey colonies to neighbouring states including Himachal and Madhya Pradesh based on a Court directive, before both the states refused to take any more of it. The idea of deploying langurs (like during the visit of President Trump) who are more territorially aggressive than the macaques was greatly critiqued by animal activists. It also created the problem of substituting one species with a more aggressive one. They then substituted actual langurs with loud speakers screaming out langur cries to scare the regular fellows. Nothing has worked so far.

The need of the hour is a comprehensive plan from the Ministry of Forests and Environment that identifies monkeys as wild animals and deals with the menace as such. Till such a plan is put in place, it will only be monkey business, even with the security of the President of the United States.

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