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Last Update: Sunday, Jan 21, 2024 07:16 [IST]

Forest foragers to urban raiders: Untangling the monkey mess

Priyadarshinee Shrestha

I remember a video posted on social media from the Namnang Viewpoint in Gangtok, (popularly called Hurhurey Dara) from 2 years back or so. It showed watermelon pieces neatly arranged in a row all along the stairs and on the railings of the viewpoint, in what seemed like an offering for the wild animals. For someone concerned about rising human wildlife conflict instances, it was a pretty shocking sight. The place where the viewpoint is located going up to the Secretariat are spaces that run like a boundary between the urban and the forest landscape. When looking down and beyond from the viewpoint, one does get the sense of standing on the town’s edge. So what happens in these spaces is very important in shaping human interaction with wildlife, especially monkeys in urban areas.

Any food left out in the open becomes an open invitation to wildlife, such as monkeys and bears, akin to leading them with bread crumbs into one’s house. Animals such as monkeys adapt quickly to urban spaces when they get drawn into towns; be it through deliberate feeding, improperly disposed waste, or even a callously littered pack of chips or bottle of soda. They will get habituated over time with these foods and may never leave. This is something we are already observing in parts of the town. Troops of monkeys raiding houses for food, snatching food from unsuspecting people and just generally creating nuisance have become common sights in places like Deorali, Tadong and others.


Easy availability of food from humans is one of the primary reasons why monkeys are leaving their homes in forests and are being pulled into human spaces. Undeniably, habitat disturbance acts as the push factor that cannot be ignored as one of the causes leading to displacement of monkey populations. What is certain is what we are observing today has not happened overnight. It has been some time in the making, through our own carelessness and sometimes ignorant actions. But, it is still not too late.


Measures to capture and sterilise monkeys from high problem areas is underway through the Forest Department’s recent efforts for population control in 2023. This is surely a longer term intervention and it will be a few years before any impact can be seen. Among the Himalayan cities, Shimla has undertaken a monkey sterilisation initiative since 2015 covering over 1.76 lakhs monkeys with mixed results.


While the Forest Department has initiated the programme for curtailing monkey populations, communities too have a larger role to play. Citizen action and contribution is going to be key in determining what the trajectory of the monkey menace in Gangtok will be in the coming years. If our actions have invited the monkeys into our areas and made them feel welcome by the food offered deliberately or unknowingly, through the food waste we have disposed of, it is now time that we turn around and make amends.


Feeding monkeys is seen as an act of compassion and good deed. The impulse to feed them is also sometimes hard to resist. This is common during travel along the highways too, when people purchase biscuits and bread to feed the monkeys on the roadside. I remember a particular heated argument with a driver who got very upset when we stopped him from his one good deed that morning.


Far from being a good deed, it is quite the opposite, as the act of feeding endangers the animals, eventually turning them into pests for humans. It changes their natural feeding patterns and behaviour from being forest foragers to urban raiders. Processed and cultivated food can get them sick and they also get addicted to the processed junk food, just as humans have. Wildlife needs a variety of foods in their diet, and consumption of junk food does not provide them good health.


With a taste for addictive processed food, they begin to raid houses, shops and waste dumps, losing all fear of humans, and even turning aggressive. They resort to what is seen as begging for food, resulting sometimes in attacks on humans, especially women and children, leading to grievous injuries. ?Monkey bites and scratches can spread diseases, such as rabies among many others. This spiralling effect that begins with a seemingly innocent act of feeding monkeys is something that needs to be understood by all.


The Sikkim Forest and Environment Department has already issued a notification that prohibits feeding of monkeys, with a fine of Rs. 5000. While such provisions are welcome as good deterrents, for it to be truly effective, communities too need to get their act together. So let’s look quickly at what all constitutes feeding and how everyone can contribute.


Obviously, the first thing is the deliberate handing out of food directly to the monkeys. Mostly this happens in the name of religion or people wanting to do a good deed. People also leave out food for monkeys and other animals in open spaces. Quite often leftover food from lunch boxes in many Government offices are also emptied outside windows, inviting wild animals to feed on them. This can also be considered feeding. There are also altars outside houses, where fruits are offered to deities regularly. These are prime attractions for the monkeys who get habituated to the food. All these are considered feeding, and if we are to manage the monkey menace, they have to be completely stopped.


Most crucially, how we dispose of our unsegregated waste from households, offices, hotels, shops and restaurants, religious places, is the determining factor in managing the monkey conflict. Improper disposal of waste is also considered feeding, as monkeys and other wildlife will be attracted to them. Especially for areas that are towards the edge of the town, bordering forest areas, it is imperative that we ensure that waste is not left out in the open. For such areas, even dustbins have to be made secure and animal proof.


Though the monkeys may already be habituated to humans and house raiding in many areas, attempts to chase them by making noises at every instant instead of friendly interactions would make them feel unwelcome. Simple things like securing windows and doors of houses to prevent them from entering easily, not displaying food near windows or leaving food out in terraces, verandahs, where monkeys have easy access, would go a long way in curtailing the problem.


Awareness generation is key to make people understand the root of the conflict, and much work needs to be done on this front. Educational institutions, social organisations, community volunteers, etc. have an important role to play to spread the correct message.


Let’s keep our wildlife wild.


Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi