In Delhi, more monkeys mean more problems | Global Ideas | DW | 21.02.2017
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Global Ideas

In Delhi, more monkeys mean more problems

Delhi's menacing monkeys terrorize the city, breaking phones, stealing food and attacking people. A sanctuary set up on the city's outskirts in 2007 to deal with the problem has in some cases actually made it worse.

"Look, this is what they have done to our phones," exclaims Kali Devi, a petite woman, flanked by her two young children. She holds up two damaged phones, their batteries removed and screens broken.

The culprits? Two rhesus monkeys sitting atop a green fence next to her house in the village of Bhatti Kalan in Delhi's southwest.

Behind the fence lies a wildlife sanctuary for thousands of monkeys, which originally lived all over India's capital. Although the fence is meant to stop them from entering the village, it doesn’t prevent monkeys from doing what they do best: They scale it with ease.

Phones are not really what they covet. They want food. "They grab everything in sight," says Kali's husband Indrapal, who works as a tuk-tuk driver.

"Little children carrying food items are particularly vulnerable. Nor do they spare women, although they keep some distance from the men, for the most part."

These cheeky monkeys have no qualms about entering houses, either.The family's roof is covered in thorny branches to prevent the small simians from jumping onto it.

Indrapal points to a large stick propped against the wall, which the family keeps at hand to chase them away. "The other day, a monkey grabbed my son's head in his hands, relenting only after we chased him," Indrapal told DW.

This family isn't the only victims of these ravenous primates. A monkey recently bit their neighbor's young daughter. She needed nine injections against rabies, tetanus and other diseases, and had to travel to a hospital 20 kilometers away to get the treatment (free of charge).

According to villagers, the local health center has no medicine for monkey bites. They feel abandoned by their politicians.

Kali Devi, her husband Indra Pal and their children in front of their home next to the monkey sanctuary

Kali Devi, her husband Indra Pal and their children in front of their home. They say they are being terrorized by monkeys living in a nearby sanctuary

Disappearing habitat

The problem can be traced back to India's rapid urbanization, as expansion into forests brought monkey and man closer together.

Initially, enthusiastic Hindus welcomed the animals as an avatar of the monkey god Hanuman, putting bananas on their balconies and in their gardens. Although they later realized that "Hanuman" was not always that friendly, by then it was too late.

At the end of the 1990s, Delhi's well-fed monkey population had exploded - and had become aggressive, says primatologist Iqbal Malik. Malik initially encouraged people to live alongside the monkeys, but she now thinks this is no longer possible.

The Delhi government started hiring professional monkey-catchers as early as 2001. Initially, the monkeys were held in cages and then released randomly across the city.

And in 2005, two truck loads of the animals were exported to Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India, says Vairakannu Bharatydasan, a wildlife inspector at Delhi's Wildlife Department. He thinks this was a good solution.

"But no other state wants them anymore. [The monkeys cause problems] everywhere, so they don't want to take Delhi's monkeys."

Attempt at safe haven

Then in 2007, monkey habitat - a 4,800 acre site within the larger Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary - was established after central Delhi's growing simian problem culminated in the death of the city's deputy mayor, who fell from his balcony in a monkey attack.

But 10 years on, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, or SDMC, said it's not equipped for the job. The government's Wildlife Department should take over, it suggests.

Since 2007, the SDMC has reportedly moved 19,000 monkeys to the sanctuary. But over the past few years, hardly any primates have been caught. The government body blames a lack of cages and skilled monkey-catchers.

As a result, it says, Delhi's monkey problems persist - and have now spread, to the area around Asola Bhatti.

A girl in a home beside the monkey sanctuary – Delhi (Aletta Andre)

Kali Devi's young neighbor (pictured) was bitten by a monkey and had to get a slew of injections afterward

Not self-sustaining

Primatologist Malik, who founded and runs the environmental NGO Vatavaran, says the main problem is that the sanctuary is not self-sufficient.

Between 2007 and 2015, almost 80 million rupees (1.1 million euros) was spent on food for the monkeys - but supplying this was mostly carried out by dumping a daily truck load of fruit and vegetables at its door.

"By planting fruit-bearing trees in a planned way, a self-sustainable sanctuary could have been created in two to three years," says Malik.

A tree nursery has been set up, but the seedlings are not demarcated and isolated from where the monkeys live, he explained. "At present, the monkeys are destroying them."

Malik suggests planting trees over time, and keeping them separate from the primates until they've had a few years to grow.

Lack of manpower

While in the 1980s Malik still advised people to find a way to live with the monkeys, today she acknowledges that this many no longer possible.

Inspector Bharatydasan doesn't believe the Asola Bhatti sanctuary can solve the problem, even if primatologist Malik's suggestions are explored. The Wildlife Department, which manages the sanctuary, is understaffed, he says.

"There should be at least 60 to 75 inspectors like us," said Bharatydasan, who is one of only two inspectors currently working there.

In response to SDMC's suggestion that the Wildlife Department should take over the catching of monkeys, he said: "We simply don't have the manpower."

Rather than catching and relocating monkeys, Bharatydasan thinks the government should sterilize the monkey population. "We have suggested this several times, but so far no one listened," Bharatydasan told DW.

Rhesus monkeys scaling a wall in central Delhi (Aletta Andre)

Forget fences and walls - nothing can keep a hungry monkey out

Fending for themselves

The monkey population in Delhi is still estimated at 7,000 - not counting those in the sanctuary.

To the monkeys, all humans are equal. In July 2016, a monkey was seen jumping on the tables of the Indian Parliament's library.

Although such instances make for a few newspaper column inches, the problems of the villagers in Bhatti Kalan remain largely unreported.

For them, the monkey menace has become part of daily life. And, like the monkeys, they simply have nowhere else to go.