Monkeys kill two people in Agra: Culling, trans-locating or sterilising primates won't end animal-human conflicts

Agra, famous for having one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is in news because of it monkeys, with two recent killings and attacks on locals and tourists.

Of all the recent accidents reported in Agra involving monkeys, the one which sends shivers down anybody’s spine is that of a baby being snatched from the hands of a mother by a monkey and left bruised and bitten in Kachhera Mohalla, Runkata.

Amit Shrivastava, deputy director at tourism department of Agra, said, “There is no denying the fact that monkeys are becoming a problem for the city of Agra but it’s not impacting the tourists alone. It’s becoming a threat to Agra, in general. However, some of the incidents of attacks on tourists happened when, out of curiosity or for taking few camera shots, tourists got dangerously close to monkeys and they reacted. Meetings are going on to tackle the problem, the forest department has to formulate some of the guidelines to solve this problem.”

 Monkeys kill two people in Agra: Culling, trans-locating or sterilising primates wont end animal-human conflicts

In March 2016, Centre had declared monkeys as vermin in Himachal Pradesh. Image credit: Deeksha Upadhyay

According to Municipal Corporation officials, the city has a population of more than 25,000 monkeys. The Wildlife SOS, who have been given the task of capturing and sterilising monkeys, has sterilised 500 monkeys as of now. The sterilisation of one monkey costs around Rs 3,200 to 3,500. The administration claims to have already spent Rs 1.86 crore to control the menace of monkeys but that has hardly changed anything in Agra.

However, Baiju Raj, director conservation, Projects at Wildlife SOS, said, “Rs 1.3 crore were spent and that too to build a hospital for monkey sterilisation and, as a sample project, we have sterilised 500 monkeys. The SOS has sent a new plan of sterilizing 10,000 monkeys, which will cost around Rs 3 crore, but it has been kept on hold by the administration for now.”

Divisional Forest Officer Manish Mittal said, “Forest department role is limited to giving permissions to local agencies to catch the monkeys. The implementation lies in the hands of agencies like Nagar Nigam. No agency has approached us yet. We are ready to give them the permissions, but even if the agencies catch hold of the monkeys, what will they do with them? We are planning a rescue centre and we are working on that project.”

In an email interview, primatologist Dr Wolfgang Dittus of the US-based Smithsonian Institution of Primate Projects, who was also a member of the expert team set up in 2005 by the Indian government to formulate guidelines to effectively contain monkeys, said, “Approaches such as culling, trans-locating or sterilising monkeys are all ineffective because they address the symptom instead of the cause. They are knee-jerk (often politically expedient) reactions by authorities based on ignorance. Studies have shown that sterilisation can be effective to control population growth but only in a small managed population and only if, at the same time, a feeding ban is imposed. It is not effective on a large scale. It should target neutering females rather than castrating males because one intact male can do the job for castrated ones in the monkeys’ polygamous social order.”

The reason why sterilization or culling is not a viable option can be easily understood from the case of Himachal Pradesh. In March 2016, Centre had declared monkeys as vermin in the state. But the number of monkeys are still growing in the state, keeping farmers, locals and tourists on tenterhooks.

However, the organisation which has sterilised around 1.50 lakh monkeys in Himachal Pradesh since 2007 sees it as a success. Baiju said, “As a biologist, I think sterilisation is the only viable option. What would have happened to Himachal Pradesh if those one lakh fifty thousand monkeys would have bred? So, the case of Himachal Pradesh is absolutely a success. When a monkey is sterilised and released back, it should be done in the place from where it was picked up. However, in some areas of Himachal Pradesh, this has not been followed. Locals have taken help of monkey trappers and so, those places are facing the monkey menace again.”

On the problem in Agra, Baiju said, “A similar problem will arise in Agra in the coming months. The reason is that after the Runkata incident, where a baby was killed, locals have hired money catchers from Kosi Kalan, who have captured around 150 monkeys as of now and have released them into a forest close to Churmura, 25 km from the city."

"Now, the SOS team at Churmura recently reported that monkeys are so aggressive that it’s getting difficult to come out from houses. And the new set of monkeys is moving into the empty place at Runkata. Capturing monkeys from one place and throwing them to another is not conflict mitigation, it is, in fact, increasing conflict.”

Dittus also believes that capturing and trans-locating monkeys does not reduce human-monkey conflict and is, in fact, animal cruelty. Dittus said, “Trans-locating problem monkeys merely shifts the problem from one area to another, and human residents at rural dumping sites are suddenly overwhelmed by street-smart monkeys. The void left by captured and removed monkeys is quickly filled by an influx of other monkeys that had been held at bay by the earlier monkeys. This happens because monkeys are territorial against other monkey groups. For the same reason, culling monkeys has no lasting effect in reducing human-monkey conflict. Wild protected areas, such as national parks, do not have a natural capacity to support large numbers of trans-located monkeys. Translocation is an inhumane method of injuring and killing monkeys."

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What has brought monkeys so close to human habitation? And why have the attacks by monkeys increased in the cities? Baiju said, “Cities actually don’t need monkeys, they don’t have any role there. But they play an important role in the ecosystem, being one of the food sources for them. Monkeys don’t need food from human beings, neither ‘vada pao’ nor ‘roti-sabzi’ is their natural food. So, feeding them because of religious sentiments is one of the prime reasons for increase in conflict.”

Reacting on the rising number of man-monkey conflict, Dittus said, “There is no single reason for it, it is a combination of factors that draws wild monkeys and people closer together. Some of the reasons are loss of forest that is the natural home for monkeys, encroachment of people into monkeys' habitat, replacement of the monkeys' natural forest food with agricultural products at sites where monkeys used to live, purposeful feeding of monkeys for personal, cultural or religious reasons, incidental feeding of monkeys by humans littering the environment (food refuse) or leaving human-sourced food. In a nutshell, the living spaces of people and monkeys overlap because humans have replaced the monkeys' population-limiting natural food supply — the forest, with year-round available, rich and easily accessible human food.”

So, does it mean that there is a behavioural shift in monkeys? Have monkeys lost the fear of humans? Or do monkeys now depend on feed by humans and become aggressive when they don't get it?

"Yes," said Dittus. “Firstly, monkeys have lost their wariness of people because humans represent sources of food, water and, in some places, even shelter from the elements. Secondly, people who do not chase monkeys, but feed them purposefully, lose the monkeys' respect, according to the rules of monkey social behaviour. Within monkey society, monkeys do not donate food to one another; instead, they take food or exploit their fellow monkeys for food, according to a strict hierarchical peck-order. Young monkeys learn their place in society from their elders. Therefore, by the rules of monkey social etiquette, a human who donates food to a monkey immediately signals his/her subordinate status to the monkey. This encourages the monkey to become aggressive and insists on its rights if the human is not compliant to the monkey's wishes. Throughout Asia, we have taught monkeys that humans are dupes, easily exploited by monkeys.”

So, what really is the solution, then?

Mittal said, “When the problem is multi-fold, there can’t be one simple solution. The first and most important thing needed is solid waste management. Second, people must stop feeding monkeys. Monkeys which are going rogue need to be captured and shifted to rescue centres. And last, of course, is population control measure.”

Dittus believes that human-monkey conflict is a problem that can be solved by removing its cause: Monkeys' access to human food sources.

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Updated Date: Dec 06, 2018 20:10:24 IST