Spend about five minutes in New Delhi and you'll probably meet a monkey hanging above the entrance to a nicotine shop, attempting to insert its head up its own anus. Amusing for a tourist, sure, but it's become an increasingly worrying sight for locals.
Over the last 20 years, monkeys have moved into the middle of a difficult Venn diagram of animal welfare, economic resources, and political clout. At last count, there were 50 million monkeys in India. To get a bit of perspective on this, imagine the whole population of England uprooting and moving to India, causing all manner of problems, and altering the course of India's path like something out of a Thomas Pynchon novel.
Take, for example, in 2007, when S. S. Bajwa, then deputy mayor of Delhi, was pushed to his death from a balcony. Or that weird visible damage in the brickwork of the famously impenetrable Chittorgarh Fort? Monkeys. And what about the 11,000 mysteriously misplaced political files taken right from the Home Ministry? You got it. Monkeys.
Monkeys have, apparently, been seen walking down the corridors of power with files tucked under their arms like furry middle management. Picture Congress being shut down because a harmless palm civet wandered in one day; imagine Ted Cruz bolstering his support by being pro-monkey culling.
Monkeys torment important people in India, like Manohar Parrikar, the defense minister, who has recently taken out contracts with two army personnel to defend him as he makes his commute through New Delhi's sprawling South Block, the political center. During a recent visit by Barack Obama, men were hired to chase monkeys from his path with slingshots and broomsticks. Last year, the news swept the world that men were being hired to wear large monkey costumes and squeal like langurs to chase off hoards of Rhesus monkeys.
On the face of it, it seems like the perfect stuff of political satire. Monkeys, of course, have no respect for status, creed, or power; they're the Shakespearian Puck of India, tiny little tricksters, screwing things up by not respecting order and hierarchy.
But it's not really a laughing matter. Monkeys are belligerent little assholes, a fucking menace, financial drain, and protected species all rolled into one. They're intelligent and pissed. They steal people's food, attack locals (in the town of Shimla alone there are a reported 400 bites a month), spread disease, and inherit houses.
However, at the same time, they're protected animals, who are only reacting to a situation they have been put into by mankind. It's not as if their actions are motivated out of anything other than a desire to survive.
"Cities are connected by forests and technically a city too serves as a habitat to different animals for a variety of reasons," Pawan Sharma, founder of Resqink Association for Wildlife Welfare (RAWW), told me. "Monkeys in the cities is not the actual problem. It's the human errors that have led to an increase in monkey population."
As India's urbanization rapidly expands into the forests and wilderness, the new blocks replace a monkey's natural habitat—so the only solution is either to co-exist (by scaring them off with ridiculous concepts like the " Langur Protection Squad"), cull them, or move them into sanctuaries—like the Bhatti Mines. None of which have worked and all of which are problematic on an animal rights level.
People don't, to put it simply, have a fucking clue how to live with monkeys. Not on this kind of scale. "The real problem is proper wildlife and human-wildlife conflict-management practices in the country," says Pawan.
Feeding is a pretty inefficient way to deal with intelligent creatures—it transforms a recently de-homed, feral animal into a semi-dependent creature that wanders the street stealing food that it believes is its own. Throughout Delhi, it's only a matter of time before new areas get "infested" with monkeys—who were there in the first place.
Weirdly, in 2013, the Indian Government reportedly spent $488,000 a year on feeding 16,000 monkeys at the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, which meant that, on average, they spent more on monkeys than they did on their human population. The problem is, the money is being terribly spent—they don't actually provide proper food or water supplies.
Human error in dealing with monkeys is a huge problem, obviously, as the government's Forest Department spends most of its cash on feeding them. "Monkeys can find excess food in cities," says Pawan. "And they have no natural predator." Vataran, a not-for-profit organization established to help humans interact with nature more reciprocally, calculated that re-homed monkeys rely 98 percent on their food from humans.
Governmental procedures and policies have created the monkey problem, rather than solving it.
Monkeys are also considered sacred by the Hindu religion, in connection with the god Hanuman, which is a whole different barrel of monkeys. "He is a super hero of Indian god stories, and people often pay tribute to him by feeding monkeys," says Pawan. During expansion in the pilgrimage site of Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, all the way back in 1997, for example, 600 monkeys were moved to a forest nearby, only to come wandering back a week later, more violent than before.
"What people do is feed monkeys," says Pawan, "then, when the monkeys return for more, the people try to scare them away. The monkeys then develop skills to snatch food, which is when they come into conflict with humans, enter houses, societies, apartment complexes. Even on 15th and 20th floors, it doesn't matter. They're in search of food. I receive hundreds of distress calls in Mumbai from people being attacked."
As the monkey population has boomed, with no end in sight, normal people have taken against the creatures. Recently, monkeys have turned up dead within the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mulund, possibly poisoned. As a protected forest, this is a serious security breach.
"Monkeys are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972," says Pawan. "Capturing, hunting, or killing them is a violation of the act which may lead the offender to a judicial trial with fine, imprisonment, or both. Having said that, these laws exist only 'inside the books.'"
"In reality, monkeys are one of the most exploited wild animals. For example, monkey charmers trap monkeys by separating juveniles and sub adults from their family, and train them. They're locked into rooms, hit, their teeth broken. They tie a rope around their neck and are taken from city to village, and forced to perform so that the charmers can earn their living."
You could go as far as to say that such attacks on wildlife—hunting, poaching, abject cruelty—is a sort of organized crime. Pawan agrees. "It's a crime from which animals cannot escape on their own. We must change our attitudes, create awareness, and modify our laws with stricter punishments."
Until then, the battle of India vs. Monkeys will continue to bubble away—a large-scale, but strangely under-the-radar, modern conflict.
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