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Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Hardlook – Man vs Monkey: Born to be wild

20,000 monkeys shifted to Asola sanctuary in the last 11 years, yet the capital recorded 867 cases of monkey bites last year. With the High Court pressing authorities to act, The Indian Express looks at the possible solutions.

Written by Abhinav Rajput |
July 9, 2018 2:27:49 am
At the Asola Bhatti sanctuary. (Abhinav Saha)

In 2006, the Delhi forest department caught 300 monkeys from across the city and stuffed them into cages in Rajokri so they could be relocated to Madhya Pradesh. The state, though, denied permission for the animals to be shifted there, saying it was not in a position to provide a better shelter.

It was around the same time that animal activist Sonya Ghosh, who had taken a shortcut through Rajokri to reach her Vasant Kunj home, saw a horrific sight: bodies of around 50 monkeys, which had ostensibly died because of infighting in the cages, spread across the forest. “It was shocking — bodies thrown around, some on trees, some decomposed,” she said.

What followed was a case in the Delhi High Court, which, in 2007, directed that monkeys be shifted to Delhi’s Bhatti Mines, spread over 100 acres. To ensure that they didn’t escape, the court asked the forest department to provide them food. “We express a pious hope that Delhi would be free of the monkey menace within three months,” said the court.

Cut to 2018, when over 20,000 monkeys have been relocated to Asola Bhatti wildlife sanctuary, with about Rs 10.31 crore spent by the forest department on providing them food. Crores have also been spent by the three MCDs on catching and relocating them.

And yet, the capital witnessed 867 monkey bite cases last year.

The problem has reached an extent that the same court, last month, said: “Should we ask monkeys not to procreate or bite people till the government comes out with a method to sterilise them?”

Whose space is it?

The problem, said experts, is multifaceted. It was in the 2000s that Delhi witnessed rapid urbanisation, with trees and ridge areas making way for colonies. According to the NCR Planning Board, 32,769 hectares of green areas and 1,464 hectares of water bodies were lost from 1999-2012. This effectively meant space for monkeys shrunk.

The capital witnessed 867 monkey bite cases last year. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

“Another factor that led to monkeys turning more aggressive was an unscientific approach in catching them. Monkey catchers would use a heavy iron trap with a banana inside. The animal would put its hand inside and get stuck. Seeing this, other monkeys would come out and behave aggressively,” primatologist Iqbal Malik said, adding that a culture of providing them food at temples or outside homes encouraged the animals to swarm into urban spaces.

“Why would a monkey invest time climbing from one tree to another, looking for food, when it can find it easily in homes and on the streets. Unnatural feeding leads to faster multiplication and an increased man-monkey conflict,” she said. “The monkey lost a sense of wilderness… It was now at your doorstep.”

Wildlife biologist Faiyaz Khudsar also highlighted the perils of feeding animals “artificially”, which prompt them to stop foraging and reproduce more: “This affects other animals. When population of pigeons increased, it harmed nests of sparrows and their population declined. Similarly, when monkey population rises, it affects population of ground nesting birds. Monkeys are wild animals and people feed them chapatis, tomato. In which jungle do you find this?”

The space where monkeys have been relocated has its own problems. At Bhatti Kalan in southwest Delhi, 18-year-old Sanjeev keeps his phone in his pocket and carries a stick while taking the road next to the sanctuary. “Monkeys here often snatch phones. Most villagers cover their roofs with thorns to prevent them from entering. Small children often become victims of monkey bites as they have a habit of eating food in the open,” he said.

People living in areas bordering the sanctuary — Sangam Vihar, Asola, Jaunpur — have similar complaints.

Explaining how the plan to fix the menace has created a new problem, a South corporation official said, “Our control room gets the most distress calls from areas around the sanctuary, but we don’t send monkey catchers as that will not serve any purpose.”

“Relocation is just shifting the problem from one area to another. The monkeys shifted to Asola have a habit of living near humans, so they venture out often,” said behavioural primatologist Anindya Sinha of Bengaluru’s National Institute of Advanced Studies.

Many villagers at Bhatti Kalan said that while monkey bite cases are routine, polyclinics and hospitals nearby have no medicines.

The only hospital in Delhi that specialises in monkey bites and cases of rabies, Maharishi Valmiki Infectious Diseases (MVID) Hospital, has not had rabies vaccines for six months owing to the North civic body facing a cash crunch, claimed a doctor. “Only four-five government hospitals have the vaccine; we provide serum and refer the patient to other hospitals,” said the doctor.

Here’s the catch

Officials at the three civic bodies — South, East and North — admit that catching monkeys requires more resources than they have.

“We pay the highest in the country for catching monkeys (Rs 2,400), and still we have only one monkey catcher…. we have spent lakhs advertising in newspapers across India,” said director of SDMC’s veterinary department, Dr RBS Tyagi.

A North corporation official said that because the South body offers double of what they pay (Rs 1,200), monkey catchers prefer working there.

Mohammad Tasleem, the only monkey catcher with the south corporation, starts his day at 6 am with a call to the MCD control room in Green Park to know if any complaint has come in. Usually, there is.

After a two-hour recce during which he tries to ascertain the number of monkeys and their favourite sitting points, he sets up his net. “Monkey catching is an art. It’s more difficult than catching a leopard — where you see it and tranquilise it from a distance. We have to wait patiently for five-six days because we have been ordered not to catch just one or two monkeys but the entire troop,” he said.

Each troop has about 10-20 monkeys. “On the first day, one monkey will come and eat all the fruits. In the coming days, two-three monkeys come, but watch from a distance. When they are convinced it is not a trap, we fill the cage with bananas and mangoes so all enter. Once they do, we close the gate,” he said.

Tasleem came to Delhi to work as a mason in 2007 — the same year that Deputy Mayor S S Bajwa died of head injuries after falling from the terrace of his house, following an attack by monkeys.

The East civic body has not had a monkey catcher for the last one year. Consider this: While more than 1,000 monkeys were caught each year by the corporations between 2013-2014 and 2014-15, the number decreased to 302 in 2015-16, while 461 were caught the next year.

The relatively affluent New Delhi Municipal Council has also seen failed experiments in monkey catching. From hiring langur handlers to using airguns to rubber bullets, to arranging food for them at specific feeding areas, many ideas have been tried — and rejected.

“The Environment Ministry had objected to using langurs as it was a violation of animal rights. We then hired some people who mimicked the noise langurs make to scare monkeys away. But here you are dealing with an animal which is among the most intelligent species, so that too didn’t see much success,” said an official.

 

The leap forward

The High Court, while ordering shifting of monkeys to Bhatti Mines, had said the outer area of the forest entry shall be blocked by a wall so the animals don’t venture out.

It also said that no person shall feed monkeys in public areas, and doing so would invite a challan by the MCD. But a senior corporation official said they have not challaned anyone for such violations.

Malik, who had assisted the forest department, had recommended a “monkey sanctuary” in Bhatti Mines. “I had suggested placing a glass panel with no joints. But what they built had iron joints, making it very easy for monkeys to escape. The purpose of relocation was defeated.”

There were also suggestions to plant fruit-bearing trees, but not much has been done to enhance plantation there.

These monkeys, said Assistant Director, wildlife, Himachal Pradesh, Sandeep Rattan, multiply at the rate of 21.4% per year, while the death rate is 3.4%.

Animal activist Ghosh argued that the government should feed the primates until there is an effective mechanism for birth control because humans encroached on their space and not vice-versa.

But a senior official who works on conservation of the area cautioned, “The Asola area is a wildlife sanctuary and not a monkey sanctuary. There are species of birds, animals and butterflies. Monkeys have a tendency to destroy nests of birds like the green bee-eater, white-throated kingfisher and peacock.”

 

A report by the forest department also highlighted that monkeys consume green shoots and leaves of young plants, and as a result mostly thorny varieties of small trees survive.

Faced with such a scenario, a senior forest officer admits: “We have spent crores but the Asola model is not sustainable. Nowhere in India has so much been spent.”

Chief Conservator of Forests Ishwar Singh said, “We have now decided to sterilise these monkeys on the spot itself, and will tattoo them for identification. They will then be freed. We will use a special van with all facilities.”

In the meantime, an anti-fertility vaccine that works on the principle of immuno-contraception is also being developed, with the National Institute of Immunology (NII) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) involved in clinical trials. WII scientist Qamar Qureshi said it will take two-three years before the vaccine is developed.

Animal rights activist Gauri Maulekhi feels immuno-contraception is the way forward because if the Shimla model of sterilisation worked, the state would not have had to declared monkeys as vermin.

Under The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, states can request the Centre to declare some species as “vermin” if their population becomes unmanageable, thereby removing protections assured by the Act. This means the species can then be hunted or culled.

In 2016, the Centre had declared Rhesus macaque monkeys as ‘vermin’ in 10 districts of Himachal Pradesh to prevent crop loss and limit conflict with humans. In fact, the crop loss had become a poll issue in the 2017 Assembly elections, with the state claiming it had suffered losses worth Rs 2,200 crore between 2007 and 2012.

Assistant director Rattan said that had the state not started sterilisation in time, things would have been far worse. “The number of monkeys was around 3.17 lakh in 2004, which would have crossed 10 lakh by now. But we have restricted it to 2.07 lakh.”

Immunisation, he said, is not practical as it is very difficult to catch so many monkeys at once. “The vaccine that NII wants to bring costs $60 for a year, and $30 for the booster dose because it is reversible and works only for a year. The cost of catching so many monkeys every year will be in crores,” he said.

Sterilisation, on the other hand, costs around Rs 1,000-1,500 per monkey, he said. But for any sterilisation programme to have a considerable impact, at least 70% of female monkeys have to be sterilised in a year.

“Initially, in Himachal, we didn’t catch many troops. This is the challenging task before Delhi as well, given that the estimated population is over 40,000 and it has failed to catch monkeys in recent times,” he said.

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