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Quick solutions for human-monkey conflicts could lead to dangerous results

While ‘monkey menace’ is a term that is gaining traction across the Ghats, studies, such as this 2017 paper, have shown, paradoxically, that bonnet macaque populations may have declined by up to 65 % in southern India since 1989.

-- The death of 38 monkeys, which died of asphyxiation during an illegal capture and relocation operation, has highlighted the increasing number of instances of human-monkey conflict in Karnataka.

-- Farmers say crop-raiding monkeys are gradually making agriculture unviable in these areas. With no effective mitigation measures, farmers are increasingly turning to monkey catchers.

-- Experts say the Karnataka government’s solution of mass sterilisation and relocation of monkeys will not curtail the conflict and may end up having adverse impacts on farmers and simians.

Arecanut and coconut plantations sweep across the landscape and eventually into forests that creep up the hills of the Western Ghats. At a distance, windmills perched on a hillock oversee Ugane village near Sakleshpur in southern Karnataka. The nondescript village in Karnataka’s Hassan district was jolted out of its quiet pastoral existence when, on July 29, the carcasses of 38 bonnet macaques were found stuffed in a gunny bag nearly 40-km away.

Visuals of the scene were blared on local television and on the front pages of regional papers. The Karnataka High Court called the reports “very disturbing” and took suo moto cognisance of the issue. Pressure built on the forest department and local police. Officials descended on Ugane and nearby Kyatanahalli village after they received information that a few farmers had organised rituals at the local Anjaneya (Hanuman) temple seeking forgiveness for the killing of the monkeys (the monkey is considered sacred by many Hindus who worship Hanuman or Anjaneya, an anthropomorphised monkey-God).

Eventually, seven people were arrested: a “monkey catcher” couple from a nearby town; and five people from Ugane village, including farmers accused of hiring the couple and even shop owners and autorickshaw drivers accused of providing food and logistical help to the monkey catchers.

“Now, when people find out we’re from Ugane village, there is a visible look of disgust. They even ask how we could kill these sacred animals. We’re tired of people thinking we are blood-thirsty murderers when it was clearly an accident,” said Vishwanath, the Gram Panchayat President at Ugane, who met Mongabay-India as he helmed a meeting of villagers.

Those in the meeting chimed in with their own experiences of insult and humiliation. Vishwanath was the only one who consented to be quoted by his first name. “It is easy to sit in big cities and judge us. But let them take up farming as a livelihood here and then they’ll understand our struggle,” he said.

Contours of a simmering conflict

Though the incident has received considerable attention from the media and Karnataka High Court, the conflict has simmered for years along the Western Ghats. Bonnet macaques and other non-human primates are being increasingly reported as crop-raiders. Multiple studies have placed bonnet macaques in the top five crop-raiding species, and in some protected areas of Karnataka, it ranks only below the wild pig and elephant in terms of crop damage.

This anger has often been aired in the corridors of power. Effective and fast solutions are often sought. Earlier this year, an MLA representing a constituency in the Ghats asked the government for permission to shoot the monkeys that were “causing” losses of Rs. 2,000 crore in his home district. Even if the figure is not supported by empirical evidence, anecdotal reports, as well as small-scale surveys, point to persistence in the human-monkey conflict.

Often, this conflict reaches a violent inflection point. For instance, since 2020, scores of monkeys – similarly, poisoned and wrapped in gunny bags – were killed in districts along the Western Ghats. (Shivamogga: 36 monkeys); coastal Karnataka (six, 14 and 50 monkeys in three separate incidents) Apart from these incidents, 60 monkeys were rescued after having been found trapped and starving in a cage in southern Karnataka.

“Unbearable losses”

Ugane’s idyllic environment has a palpable undercurrent of tension and fear. The mention of ‘monkeys’ brings forth visible discomfort and hesitation. Since the incident, many farmers have left the village fearing further arrests. “Of course, killing monkeys is wrong. Farmers did not want that. But something had to be done as the losses were unbearable,” said a farmer in the village who identified himself only as Swamy. Many village residents, including him, insisted on talking anonymously.

He has a four-acre arecanut and coconut plantation and claims that up to 50% of his crop had been damaged by monkeys this year. “It’s hard to tell how many monkeys raid crops here (in Ugane). I’d say some 500 monkeys came in batches this year. We waited for them to migrate to other patches or forests, but they just hung around. It is a really irritating creature, for it eats little, but spoils a lot. It brings down bunches of areca and tears apart fronds for fun,” said the 65-year-old.

Bursting firecrackers and all-night vigils made little difference, he said. Instead, capturing and relocating monkeys to forests was an oft-preferred solution put into practice for decades, albeit on a smaller scale and done mostly by village residents. “Since there were a lot more monkeys this year, they decided to get these animal catchers. It’s the animal catchers that did the mistake, not the farmers,” Swamy said.

Forest department officials said while they were aware of an increasing human-animal conflict in the region, these villages had not approached them.

K.N. Basavaraju, Deputy Conservator of Forests (Hassan), said that the forest department had not received a complaint – either of the presence of crop-raiding monkeys or of extensive crop damage – from those in the area. “There may be an increasing conflict with wild animals due to land-use changes in these areas where plantations and horticulture crops are being cultivated in large areas recently. However, it may be premature to assume that human-monkey conflict, like that we see in other parts of the Western Ghats, has come here. This is a freak, one-off incident and we don’t see a pattern in the conflict.”

Farmers here overwhelmingly claimed that crop loss due to monkeys has been a recent phenomenon that intensified only in the past five years or so. But their presence has come at a cost in the largely agrarian landscape: some farmers claimed losses of Rs. 1-2 lakh per acre. Banana plantations, which was more abundant even a decade ago, has dwindled drastically in the area. Ginger farmers claim that monkeys and peacocks damage 75% of their crops; while coconut farmers said that in just one night, monkeys can destroy up to half the coconuts on trees.

Vishwanath, the Gram Panchayat President at Ugane, speculated that the increasing presence of monkeys in their villages was due to the disappearance of forest patches in the region. “Highways and roads have been built through nearby forests. There are encroachments, farms and plantations in places that were thickly wooded. Meanwhile, governmental schemes encouraged areca and coconut plantations. In just the past decade, paddy and maize crop has been replaced by these plantations. All of this attracted monkeys to the area. Their population has just grown beyond control,” he said.

The monkey in danger

While ‘monkey menace’ is a term that is gaining traction across the Ghats, studies, such as this 2017 paper, have shown, paradoxically, that bonnet macaque populations may have declined by up to 65 % in southern India since 1989. The paper postulates numerous reasons for this decline: road widenings, increasing urbanisation, land-use changes, loss of canopy connectivity and an expansion of the more aggressive rhesus monkey which often outcompeted bonnet macaques for natural resources.

“We had done this study till 2015 and there is no reason to think things have changed since then. What we also found while doing these surveys was that people’s tolerance for these animals was decreasing. The way farmers dealt with agriculture loss had changed over the decades,” said H.N. Kumara, Principal Scientist at Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) and one of the authors of the 2017 paper.

This change in attitude is reflected in the changing religious beliefs around macaques which are considered by many to be sacred creatures. However, studies have found that macaques are increasingly being considered pests and losing their religious status in human-monkey conflict areas of north and south India.

“Some species of primates, including bonnet macaques evolved to co-exist with humans. Traditional beliefs ensured the continuation of this relationship. At some point, tradition makes way for socio-economic concerns to arise. Human-monkey conflict was inevitable,” said Anindya Rana Sinha, a primatologist and Head of Academics at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru.

In search of quick solutions

Like most human-animal conflicts, solutions are not easy. Experts warn that hastily thought of solutions can lead to adverse results, not just for the monkeys but for farmers too. After pressure from the Karnataka High Court, the Karnataka government put forth two solutions it was considering: an exploration of the ‘Himachal Model’ of mass sterilisation of monkeys; and, relocation of ‘problem’ monkeys to a 170-acre park in the Western Ghats. In 2020-21, the Karnataka government announced a five-year programme costing Rs. 6.25 crore for the “rehabilitation” of monkeys.

“Relocation just ends up transferring the problem to someone else. You can see this in Delhi where macaques breed prolifically in areas where they are relocated and spill over to neighbouring villages,” said Sinha.

Research has shown that new troops of monkeys replace the displaced monkeys, while the relocation of monkeys is likely to increase conflict around the rehabilitation area and more likely to spread diseases in new populations.

“This leaves mass sterilisation as the ‘more humane’ option, but even that has its problems. For one, there is the logistics of capturing tens of thousands of monkeys which isn’t an easy task. Governments haven’t even been able to effectively implement sterilization programmes for urban street dogs which are far easier to catch. And second, is a biological reason. Macaques are promiscuous creatures where females mate with multiple males in a troop. Sterilisation of female monkeys is complicated, while even one unsterilised male in the troop can negate the whole programme,” he said.

Kumara, who gave scientific input to the Himachal Pradesh government in their mass sterilisation programme said sterilisation of the shifty simians was logistically possible with concerted policy effort. “Himachal Pradesh did manage to sterilise more than 1.5 lakh monkeys since 2007,” he said.

However, sterilisation doesn’t reduce monkey population. “It lowers the population growth, meaning its effects will be seen only in 10 years. But, crop-raiding was becoming an immediate problem and the government allowed farmers to kill monkeys instead. This resulted in a great decline, but we couldn’t scientifically evaluate if sterilisation actually worked,” he said.

Is co-existence an option?

Instead, Sinha said the better alternative would be to encourage co-existence and build tolerances through a robust, holistic strategy that protects farms, holistically considers agricultural practices, quick compensations and provides for alternative livelihoods. However, co-existence is easier said than done. In Ugane, the general consensus seems to be that farming is increasingly becoming unviable. The option to wait for long-term solutions can’t be afforded by all.

“I’ve just let my coconut plantation go. With monkeys constantly raiding my crop, it was just pointless to continue farming,” said Sundaraj Iyengar, a 70-year-old farmer in Kyathanahalli village. At one time, income from the farm supported his family of six. “Now, I can’t even break even. Fortunately, my children have migrated to the cities where they earn a decent living and I can leave my plantation to the monkeys,” he said.

This story was first published on Mongabay, click here to access it.