New Delhi: In 2007, the Delhi High Court ordered the national capital’s civic bodies to shift the monkeys inhabiting the city to the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary as the simian menace appeared to be uncontrollable. Eleven years later, the Delhi government formed a three-year plan to sterilise monkeys in a bid to curb their population.
But nearly a decade-and-a-half since the high court order, little headway has been made in the efforts to curb the “monkey menace” in Delhi.
The human-monkey conflict isn’t limited to just Delhi. Everyday, over 1,000 cases of monkey bites are reported in cities across India, according to 2015 data from the Centre-run Primate Research Centre, Jodhpur. The national capital reported over 950 cases of monkey attacks in 2018, and an estimated 20 such incidents daily in 2019.
The migration of monkeys to urban and semi-urban areas has become a major challenge for various state governments. Adding to the challenge, experts say, is shrinking wildlife spaces and the constant availability of food, especially for monkeys, who are revered and offered eatables by citizens in honour of the Hindu deity Lord Hanuman.
Why cities are infested with monkeys
A major reason behind monkey infestation, according to wildlife experts, is the rapid shrinking of their natural habitat, and the easy availability of food, which in turn helps them reproduce more.
“Monkeys can co-exist with humans, and in cities like Delhi there’s a lot of food so they can reproduce aplenty. Our studies indicate that every female monkey is giving birth every year. In nature, that doesn’t happen. Only in patches where food is of good quality do they reproduce (like this),” said Wildlife Institute of India (WII) professor Qamar Qureshi, who led a monkey management initiative of the Delhi government.
Under the initiative, the government sought to conduct a monkey census in the city a couple of years ago, but to little success.
“The reason why major cities are now unable to curb these monkey attacks is also because we kept dilly-dallying and didn’t act on time to control their population. The option of reproductive control was always available. So, I think it’s partly due to mismanagement,” said Qureshi.
Feeding monkeys such as the rhesus and bonnet macaques and langurs, because they are seen as descendants of Lord Hanuman, may have helped create a climate of tolerance against these animals, but it is believed to have aggravated the problem.
“Because we provide them food considering their sacredness with Lord Hanuman in Hindu mythology, the energy they are supposed to invest in searching and gathering food is now being put towards breeding. So, naturally, their population is bound to increase,” said Sharad Kumar, assistant professor, Department of Wildlife Sciences, Aligarh Muslim University.
While Kumar said shrinking of the natural simian habitat due to deforestation is a prime factor driving them to cities, Qureshi disagreed.
“It is a myth. Planting more trees or even fruit trees, which some governments have done, will not attract monkeys to live in forests. Their density is far lesser in forest and more in urban and semi-urban because of food availability,” he added.
Until 1977, India used to export species of monkeys such as the rhesus macaque and bonnet macaque to the US and Europe for biomedical research. But it was banned following reports of harsh treatment being meted out to the animals during research.
Delhi’s plans fail to materialise
Delhi has seen a huge rise in monkey-related attacks over the years. The gravity of the situation was the premise of a 2020 film, Eeb Allay Ooo! The dark comedy was about a migrant worker who takes up a job to keep monkeys away from government buildings.
The Delhi government’s plans to curb monkey attacks, however, haven’t materialised yet.
In 2019, the government brought in the WII, Dehradun, to jointly estimate the simian population, identify the areas they populate the most, and use that data to initiate plans to sterilise them. However, the proposed census couldn’t be carried out owing to the pandemic first, and then insufficient staff strength.
Moreover, despite the central government sanctioning Rs 5.43 crore to Delhi’s forest department in January 2019 for sterilisation of 8,000 monkeys in the first year of its three-year plan, not a single monkey has been sterilised so far, an 8 November PTI report said, quoting officials.
Earlier efforts to catch monkeys and release them into the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary backfired as residents of areas nearby, particularly those in posh areas such as Vasant Kunj and Saket, complained that these monkeys were escaping from the sanctuary and creating threats to their colonies.
Speaking about the Delhi government’s failures, Deputy Conservator of Forests Mandeep Mittal said, “The proposal was sorted and the fund was also available but the department could not find any organisation to carry out the sterilisation in 2019. Any organisation could apply for it but I think none had the manpower or the required skill to do that.”
Not limited to big cities
The monkey menace isn’t just limited to Delhi. In Bihar and Himachal Pradesh, residents have formed associations like ‘Bandar Mukti Abhiyan Samiti’ and ‘Kheti Bachao Andolan Samiti’, respectively, to raise awareness about the costs of monkey attacks.
A representative of the Himachal Pradesh body told Down to Earth in 2015 that farmers in the state lost crops worth Rs 2,200 crore due to monkeys between 2007 and 2012.
The increasing raids by the monkeys reportedly made agriculture “unviable” and turned farmers into monkey catchers in the rural areas of Karnataka, leading to a conflict between those who worshipped them and those who resort to capturing them to protect their plantations.
Managing monkey menace
According to a paper by the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department, Shimla, the state suffers loss of foodgrains and vegetables worth Rs 150 crore per year due to monkey raids. But while it’s one of the first few state governments in India that drew extensive plans and funds to tackle this — including the use of rubber bullets, acoustics, and sterilisations — it couldn’t completely pull it off.
“The Himachal Pradesh government has done a wonderful job in reproductive control but where they have gone wrong is that they were not able to sustain that effort, and failed to monitor the population scientifically,” said WII professor Qureshi.
Speaking about how the Delhi government has tried to tackle the problem, Qureshi said setting up a sanctuary and putting them in captivity forever would prove unsuccessful in controlling the simian population in the long term.
“Just capturing these monkeys from somewhere and dumping them into a sanctuary or some other place will not put an end to this problem since they’re not sterilised there. Our model indicates that 70-80 per cent of adult females need to be sterilised to control the population,” the senior scientist said.
“In places where the problem isn’t very acute, you do 50-60 per cent of surgical sterilisation and in the rest you do immunocontraception sterilisation. The latter is a non-permanent solution and can work only for two to three years,” he said.
Qureshi stated that “the effort should be sustained for at least 8-10 years to see a decline in their population”. “We need to keep on sterilising more and more animals during this time span,” he added.
Kumar agreed. “Most governments are capturing these monkeys and releasing them into some other places. The only permanent solution is to control their population by conducting vasectomy and tubectomy in monkeys like Himachal has been doing,” he said.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)