Why monkeys run amok in India’s cities

(First published by Motherland magazine in December 2011.)

By Shivam Vij in New Delhi:

Photo by Vikas Maurya for Motherland magazine.

From 2009 to early 2011, I lived in a south Delhi barsati which had an enormous terrace area. When I moved in, this open space looked sad and empty, so I spent many thousands of rupees doing it up with all kinds of plants. Then came the monkeys. A team of five to ten. On finding the kitchen locked, they would break the pots, and sometimes eat the plants. No flower was allowed to bloom.

I replaced the mud pots with heavy cement ones. The monkeys broke fewer of them but ate more shoots and leaves. They would come at night. Soon they’d come at dawn, and make such a commotion I’d wake up terrified. Mild banging on the door wouldn’t ward them off, nor would the other tactics I tried. I was afraid of them. They could be aggressive and strong and these traits were multiplied because they operated in gangs. I felt caged in the small room of my large barsati. All I could do was share my misery on Facebook. “Be careful,” a friend warned in a comment, “they once killed the deputy mayor of Delhi.”

In October 2007, Sawinder Singh Bajwa, the then deputy mayor, was trying to fend off monkeys from the balcony of his home. He fell off the terrace and died. Ironically, in the election he had recently won for the Bhartiya Janata Party, the opposition Congress had made the “monkey menace” a major issue. Apart from stealing food and clothing like dacoits, biting people, and scaling the parliament building, they’d also been known to create a scare on occasion by running through a Metro carriage or through the airport. After the death, mayor Aarti Mehra started worrying about monkeys. She said Delhi had only five monkey catchers for an estimated 20 000 monkeys. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) had also begun fining Hanuman-bhakts for feeding monkeys in public places. But the monkeys would not relent. A month later, a lone monkey went around Shastri Park in East Delhi, biting 25 people in a single weekend. People eventually beat him down with metal bars and sticks because they feared it was going to snatch infants away. “Primal Invasion,” the Hindustan Times had panicked on the front page.

If Delhi’s monkeys make less news these days it may be because since then, the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) and the MCD have hired more monkey catchers, raising the number from five to 50 odd, and have raised the reward for every monkey caught to as much as Rs 650. Private contractors act as go-betweens to find monkey catchers from across India, not an easy task because not many would want to be cruel to Lord Hanuman, the monkey god, the god of strength. The captured monkeys are sent to a monkey sanctuary on the outskirts of Delhi. But that we hear of them less is also because the monkeys have effectively been displaced from the media glare, from the areas of south and central Delhi, and no longer infiltrate the Defence Ministry and scatter files as they did in 2004, or kill children as they did once in a while.

My curiosity about Delhi’s monkey problem led me to the leafy neighbourhood of Asiad Village, where a very warm Iqbal Malik welcomed me inside her lovely apartment. There was nothing to do with monkeys on the shelves of the drawing room of India’s best-knownIqbal primatologist. Over the next two hours or so, she answered my questions, one after the other, explaining to me where it all began.

When Malik saw Delhi’s urban monkey population explode in the 1990s she wasn’t surprised. She’d seen it coming.

Malik had started working as a primatologist a decade earlier. In the late 1980s, she was studying a group of monkeys at Tughlaqabad Fort, having selected two sets of monkeys for comparative study and given them all names (such as Bluff Ram and Daagi Ram) and hired a team of eight to observe them round the clock. Soon, her monkeys started disappearing and her research was affected. She found that the monkeys had been trapped and taken away by the MCD – their way of keeping monkeys off the streets. “But what I then saw was that monkey families were disrupted. The mother is away, the infant is here, the father monkey unable to take care of it, and so on,” says Malik. This chaos caused monkey groups to be divided, one into two and two into four and so on. Their ecological balance thus disrupted by selective trapping led to what Malik calls “chaotic fission,” and they started entering houses to look for food. That is how monkeys came into our homes.

To begin with, the monkeys were shy with Delhi residents, but the people were more forthcoming, welcoming them with food. Malik asked some such people why they fed monkeys. “Lord Hanuman, who helped Ram defeat Ravan, good defeat evil, has come to our house!” they would say excitedly. But this religious enthusiasm lessened when people realised Lord Hanuman gets angry and aggressive when not given food, helps himself to the fridge and even takes away clothes and causes destruction. “I would see people come to Tughlaqabad to feed the monkeys, and give so much food the monkeys won’t even eat all,” she says. Later, when monkeys became a menace, she started hearing such complaints as, “God has no fear!”

Thanks to media interest in the monkey issue, Malik’s research brought her such fame in the late 1980s that she would get calls from strangers asking her for advice. “The monkey is in the bathroom and I am afraid,” she remembers one such caller say, “what do I do?” Her views on tackling monkeys have been sought by Rashtrapati Bhavan and by the courts. Once, an army officer met her to enquire if monkeys could be trained to work with landmines. She shooed him away like others do monkeys.

While the 1990s saw a proliferation of monkeys, it is not the case that the “monkey menace” did not exist earlier. A quick dip into the archives shows a report in The Miami News from 1950 titled, “New Delhi Seeks Monkey- Catcher.” There reportedly hadn’t been any monkey catchers since 1947, and when they found one, a Muslim, he soon left for Pakistan. Hindus wouldn’t take up the job, because, well, how could they be tormenting Lord Hanuman? The report said, “Besides perpetrating such annoyances as swiping golfballs right off the greens, the monkeys are occasionally vicious. Captured monkeys will be deported rather than killed. Municipal president Yudhvir Singh thinks they might bring some much-needed dollars in U.S. trade.”

Which points to the original sin that Iqbal also discovered: around the time India became independent, Indian monkeys became slaves to American scientific research. One of the first studies on the Rhesus macaques in India, by an American anthropologist in the 1920s, said that monkeys were present in groups in forest areas from Delhi to Dehradun. These groups or monkey families were disturbed by the American demand for middle-aged male monkeys. “I found that the sex ratio of monkey groups was not normal, and particular age groups were being taken out [of the country] for years,” says Iqbal.

That was when she started her research in 1980, two years after the devout Hindu Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, banned monkey export to the US. The ban happened partly because of reports from the US that monkeys were being used not just in vaccine experiments but also by the US army to test the impact of weapons, in contravention of the agreement between the US and India on the monkey trade. American newspaper archives suggest that the number of Indian monkeys taken out ranged between 20 000 and 50 000 a year.

Add to that the realisation that a lot of today’s central and south Delhi was once jungle and the natural habitat of the monkeys, forests, were replaced by Hanuman worshippers as the monkeys’ source of food, and there are plenty of reasons why the simians should live amongst us.

The MCD and NDMC’s inability to see the root of the monkey problem means that monkey catchers with cages, bait and sticks only make the problem worse; dividing groups makes them more aggressive. And catching and releasing them elsewhere also spreads the problem, as do langurwalas, introduced in 2001, whose langurs frighten off the smaller rhesus monkeys, and send them running.

In 2007, the Delhi High Court passed an order asking civic agencies in Delhi to ready monkey traps in ten days and to start shifting monkeys to a newly created monkey sanctuary in Asola, on the outskirts of Delhi. This was after the Supreme Court had transferred its own monkey case to the Delhi High Court, exasperated with several state governments’ refusals to take Delhi’s monkeys. On the Supreme Court’s orders in 2004, 250 monkeys had been shifted to the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary near Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. When the Supreme Court ordered another 300 monkeys to be shifted there, the MP government refused; it said they disrupted the park’s ecological balance.

In February-March 2007, the matter had become urgent. Three hundred monkeys had been lying in cages in Rajokri in Delhi and had to be moved somewhere. So began the relocation of the monkeys to Asola.

The Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary is where Delhites go on weekends for bird-watching. It is such a large sanctuary you may not see monkeys, because they have been settled at another end. To get there, you must go to Chattarpur and keep driving straight for about 14 kilometres, past a Hanuman temple (!), until you hit a dead-end near Bhati Mines. Drive through the village there and you’ll come to a tall, sturdy wall of green sheets enclosing an area, with a built-in gate.

You could be forgiven for thinking this is a secret military installation. But the door is at times open. Children go in to fetch water. Monkeys come out for reasons they know best. Despite the open gate, the monkeys climb up the sheets. They try to pull them down. They do so in unison and sometimes on their own, pulling to remove them from the iron structure that holds them. This is a jail, and jailbreak is common. No wonder the monkeys find their way into the city again.

Just as no one can simply enter and meet the inmates of a jail, entry here is prohibited. The guards call up their superior, who tells me no one is allowed in, and gives me the number of D M Shukla, Delhi’s chief wildlife warden.

One of the guards says a monkey once bit him. In the village just outside the reserve, monkeys try to snatch rotis from kids and from the women making them for breakfast before their children go to school. The women respond by brandishing their lathis. The monkeys careen through the neighbourhood as one resident says, using “the [electrical] wires like the Metro, causing us outages.” Every second person here seems to have been bitten by a monkey at least once. Dr Samar Sarkar of the neighbouring Fatehpur Primary Health Centre says he gets at least ten monkey bite cases a day.

DM Shukla sits in a government office at Vikas Marg. He is incensed that the subject of monkey bites is being brought up. He says that since 2007, 13 537 monkeys have been sent to Asola. He is not willing to discuss much beyond. “There is no problem with monkeys. We’re following the court orders. Why don’t you worry about real problems such as national security?” he asks.

Clearly, monkeys have been escaping, defeating the purpose of the sanctuary? “You can’t put them in a prison,” he says. “They like to go out but eventually return because the food source is here.”

He says enough food is provided in the sanctuary; but the trees planted for self-sustenance will take five to ten years until fruition. According to court orders, Hanuman bhakts deposit food at the Hanuman Temple in Connaught Place and Yamuna Bazar on Tuesdays and Saturdays, then the authorities deliver it to the monkey sanctuary in Asola. The authorities are to arrange for food if this collected food falls short. It likely does, if the monkeys have to snatch rotis from two-year-olds. What also attracts monkeys out of the sanctuary is the food left by Hanuman bhakts at the nearby Hanuman temple.

Iqbal Malik had given the Delhi government a detailed plan for how the Asola sanctuary should be planned, but she says none of it has been followed, because of which monkeys are still going out. She is not allowed into the sanctuary either.

Sonya Ghose of the Citizens for the Welfare and Protection of Animals, an NGO, is one of four members of a High Court-appointed committee to oversee the monkey relocation. She insists that Asola is India’s most successful monkey translocation programme, but admits that monkeys are not being caught in groups, and that remains a problem. They’re training the monkey catchers better, she says.

Ghose estimates that there are at best 5 000 monkeys remaining in the city limits. However, just a year after the translocation began, she was quoted as saying: “There are hardly any monkeys left in the city. A few stragglers can be spotted but that’s about it.”

The Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, could conduct a monkey census in Delhi but hasn’t been asked to. In the absence of numbers, and with the authorities not allowing any external scrutiny at Asola, it is difficult to believe that Delhi’s monkey problem is over. A few minutes at the gate of the monkey sanctuary, however, make it clear that for the monkeys it is a problem by itself, an imprisonment for the misdeeds committed by their more developed form.

And the problem is certainly not over for residents who still have monkeys as unwelcome guests. In late 2010, Dr Pratul Sharma in Mayur Vihar was showing his child how they could stand next to the Resident Welfare Association (RWA)-hired langurwala‘s langur, and it would not bite. The langur leapt and bit Dr Sharma on his arm. The RWA fired the langurwala. Soon, the monkeys returned in droves. A maid was passing by when a monkey, crouching behind a car, ran out and bit her. She was down with fever for days. The RWA was in a fix and called the MCD for help. The MCD sent across their langurwala. “Now my children are afraid to venture out as they are afraid of both monkeys as well as the langur,” Dr Sharma told a newspaper.

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