SUBASH RAIMonkeys, true to the fidgety characteristic attributed to them, are not naturally predisposed to remain in one place for long, at least not in the permanence one sees in their having settled down along Hurhurey Dara in Gangtok. They forage for food, and while they might do so within a particular territory, they do not hang around a particular place permanently. But when food is around in plenty, they will. And that is what happened with the monkeys along the highway and is happening now at Hurhurey Dara.
In fact, so well is the troop settled in that it is now branching out to other parts of Gangtok and is making wider foraging forays as its numbers grow. There are many other urban spreads around the country where a monkey menace has grown into a nightmare because nothing was done in time to check it while something could still be done. Gangtok still has the chance to pull things back but is still not doing anything halfway serious about it.
Till some years back, the monkey [Assam Macaques] situation was limited to the HRDD building at the Tashiling Secretariat, with the troop making occasional trips towards Hurhurey Dara nearby. It has however now spread over to the Power Secretariat and its adjacent areas including some residential parts of Kazi Road and along Bhanupath. These have the usual haunts of the monkeys now, but last week, a group of four or five of them was seen in Daragaon-Tadong as well. As the animal gets more used to humans and starts associating people with food, they also grow more aggressive and at least one incident of aggression was reported firsthand to this correspondent when a monkey snatched away a lunch packet from a lady’s hand as she walked down Namnang recently.
The monkeys are turning ‘residential’ now, and that is unnatural for them. But they can get used to it because finding food in kitchen waste, or even raiding kitchens or snatching food off people or being treated to food brought in by misguided good Samaritans is much easier than foraging for food in the wild, and all of these apply to the still small population of monkeys in Gangtok.
When asked how these monkeys came out of the forest and settled here, the Principal Research Officer at the Forest Department, Usha Lachungpa, explained it to poor civic sense and human carelessness.
“These monkeys have now become dependent on humans for food. On several occasions, we requested people not the feed the monkey but they continued to do so under mistaken religious or other sentiments and now the consequences are surfacing slowly,” she said, adding that some people still continue to feed the monkeys. Clearly, what the people who do so do not realize that they are making the monkeys more habituated to an “unnatural lifestyle”.
Ms. Lachungpa also believes that the garbage disposal problem of Hurhurey Dara is the main reason behind increasing population of monkeys in that area. Because there is a lot of litter and edible thrown around in the area, the monkeys congregate there. Unless the Gangtok Municipal Corporation takes urgent steps to resolve that issue, incidents of monkey attacks will become more common from that area, she believes.
Interestingly, addressing the monkey problem is also a mandated by court obligation on State Governments now. In March 2005, the Supreme Court had directed all the States to submit, within seven weeks, their response to an action plan filed by the Government to control and prevent monkey menace in cities and towns. The plan suggests a legal ban on feeding of monkeys to dissuade people from encouraging these animals to stay on in urban areas.
On this, Ms Lachungpa said, “Our people knew that feeding them is illegal but our people lack such consciousness. Until and unless human consciousness develops, wild animals like monkeys will continue to invade human habitation.”
The Supreme Court’s plan suggested that, “It can be in the form of a municipal regulation by the local municipality. This would also envisage a close involvement of the temple authorities. It would be an integrated strategy of enlisting their cooperation in regulating the system of food offerings by the devotees to only one fixed place so that the scattered food in various places is not available for monkeys.”
It was in February this year that the Forest Department had proposed for a team of officials to visit Shimla to study how Himachal Pradesh is tackling its monkey problem. But the team could not proceed for the tour as studies could not be done during breeding season. A five-member team is leaving for Shimla somewhere in August now for the study tour, it is learnt.
In the year 2013, Maneka Gandhi, animal rights activist and Parliamentarian, had advised the Himachal Government to plant fruit-yielding trees in the forests around Shimla so that the monkeys could return to the forest. On this, Ms Lachungpa argues, “There is no scarcity of wild fruits for monkeys in the forests, that is not the problem. The problem is that we have made them habituated to easy access to food in towns.”
When referred to Delhi Government’s move to chase away monkeys with the Langurs, Ms/ Lachungpa mentions that this option has worked to some degree in Delhi but again taming Langurs is also illegal now.
On several plans and suggestions put up to minimize the monkey population all over the country like sterilization and feeding contraceptive pills, she said, “Assam Macaques falls under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and we have to think on preserving the species but not to extinct them to get rid off from their menace.”
Last week, a group of farmers from Ranka and Rey-Mindu villages informed that a huge troop of monkeys entered their farms and damaged crop and vegetables. They also report that all the monkeys then vanished back into forest after feedings. This, according to researchers like Ms Lachungpa, is natural behavior for monkeys – returning to the forest and never staying in one place for food for long as they have been doing of late along the HRDD building and Hurhurey Dara.