Geetanjali Krishna: The Bandar-log of Shimla

Last Updated: Fri, Nov 18, 2011 19:31 hrs

They’ve just reproduced again,” I overheard an oldish man on the Shimla Mall say disgustedly, “after all, how can one stop monkeys from monkeying around?” Just ahead of us, an irate pedestrian had been deprived of his shopping bag by a pesky simian. “Be careful!” the man said turning towards us, “these creatures have a special yen for sunglasses...” United by the common fear of having our bags snatched and glares lifted, we beat a hasty retreat to a secluded bench. He’d been, he said, part of the Himachal Pradesh government’s drive to reduce the monkey population a few years ago. “The forest department would identify the alpha males in a pack, we’d catch them and sterilise them then and there in vans by the roadside,” he said, clearly enjoying his grisly reminiscences. “The government thought this may work when all other measures had failed. First, in the hope that it takes a thief to catch a thief, they trained langurs to chase away errant rhesus monkeys. Instead, I think the langurs cottoned on to the fact that they were on to a good thing here in Shimla…,” he said. Then, the forest department caught entire packs of monkeys and relocated them in the jungles outside Shimla. “But the monkeys just retraced their steps and returned to their old haunts!” he said. Unfortunately, just like the relocation plan, the alpha male sterilisation drive of which he’d been a part failed as well. “I think time’s come for us to sterilise not only the alpha males but all the monkeys we can get our hands on!” he declared, “that’ll show them!”

The man was clearly baying for a lot more than monkey blood. But as we watched people promenade on the Mall, screeching when a simian came too close, I realised he did have a point. Thousands of farmers around Shimla have incurred losses when packs of monkeys uprooted their cereal and fruit crops. In areas like Jakhu, Chota Shimla and Sanjauli, monkeys have practically held locals to ransom — they break stealthily into homes, wreck havoc, eat everything in sight and then leave. Walking around Shimla, we saw many picturesque hill-homes virtually jailed within iron grills to keep the monkeys out. Many locals have replaced their traditional slate roofs with red tin, as monkeys tend to dislodge the slate.

Their burgeoning population has certainly not helped. In the wild, where they’ve to forage for food and live at the mercy of the elements, monkey populations remain naturally controlled. However, in places like Shimla, it’s a different story altogether. On the one hand, they get fed and looked after as they’re believed to embody the Hindu deity Hanuman. One the other hand, years of aggressive interactions with the locals have made these monkeys practically impossible to get along with. They virtually blackmail people into giving them food en route to the Hanuman temple atop Jakhu hill. Some have had particularly long reigns of terror. One had to be put down after it developed the habit of slapping unwary pedestrians and biting anyone who dared to put up a fight. Another used to sneak into a government office and steal all the spectacles it could find…everyday.

It’s sad but true, human-animal conflict is as old as the hills and there’s no easy way out. “But the government has to decide whether we, the people, are more important or these pesky monkeys. I truly feel that sterilising them all is a humane and effective way to control the monkey menace,” said our bloodthirsty man on the bench, “I wish they’d hire me again…”

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