Delhi despairs at running battle with monkeys

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 January, 2007, 12:00am

New Delhi has all the usual troubles of a big city: pollution, traffic jams, poverty and crime. But it has another problem: monkeys.

Throughout the city, thousands of fearless rhesus monkeys roam, loitering at roadsides, swinging over walls, and hopping through windows in search of food.

Last week, the city's monkey catcher, Nand Lal, resigned.

'He was being harassed by an animal welfare group,' said a spokesman from the Municipal Corporation of New Delhi.

This was not surprising. After luring monkeys into a box, Mr Lal would take them to an overcrowded shed on the outskirts of the city, which animal charities have described as a 'monkey prison'.

Mr Lal's resignation is the latest in a string of defeats in New Delhi's battle with the monkeys.

Ten years ago, there were only a few simians in the city. But as the human population soared - up 50 per cent between 1991 and 2001, to 13.8 million now - suburbs and industrial developments subsumed forest areas, driving monkeys into the city.

Iqbal Malik, India's leading primatologist, said the use of monkeys in laboratory experiments also plays its part. 'If you take monkeys from a group, that group is traumatised and scatters,' she said.

New Delhi's monkeys seem to have a particular fondness for the city's government buildings. In 2004, several broke into the defence ministry and tore up important papers. That year, India's Supreme Court ordered that the city should be monkey-free.

At first, the authorities hit upon what seemed like an ingenious solution: relocating the urbanised monkeys in the forests of neighbouring states.

But the states quickly tired of this plan. In November, Madyha Pradesh said it would not adopt any more. A batch of 250, released into the forest of Palpur Kuno near Gwalior, had run amok in local villages and eaten birds' eggs, causing concerns for the local ecological balance.

Next, New Delhi introduced Langurs - bigger, more aggressive monkeys - to scare their rhesus cousins away. 'This was very stupid,' said Dr Malik. 'It made the monkeys scatter even farther'.

Now, she said, New Delhi's monkeys are so widely dispersed, it is impossible to count them. Her current estimate is 6,000.

Dr Malik has a solution. She believes New Delhi's monkeys should be rounded up, placed in a sanctuary and used, in the place of forest monkeys, for laboratory experiments. Last week, she presented the government with a detailed plan of how this should be done.

In the meantime, animal rights activists are trying to dissuade local residents from giving monkeys food. This may prove impossible, especially around Hindu temples where people regard it a duty to feed these living manifestations of Hanuman, the monkey God.