Simian thieves steal state secrets, cheese

Knuckles scraping the ground, a gray-haired burglar cases the neighborhoods of Delhi. Just before sunup and just after sundown, he pops windows, wriggles under awnings, breaks into homes and offices, steals clothes, chews pencils and candles, opens drawers and refrigerators, finds the cheese you brought from Amsterdam - all the while having the greatest time, laughing at police and mocking his victims.

Want to catch him? Climb a tree.

India's simian thieves are the multiplying tribes of Delhi. Ten years ago the city wrung its hands when the hordes of rhesus monkeys reached 3,000. Now there are some 7,000 grinning infiltrators (nail those windows shut!). Almost half of them hang out, sometimes upside down, in the hallways, verandas, parking lots and parapets of the grand, British-built federal ministries here, especially the Home and Defense and Military Intelligence offices, where the signs say, "do not feed monkeys."

In 1998 a stack of classified documents was filched and later found scattered on the lawn with monkey prints. Senior officials now walk with nightstick-toting bodyguards after the larger males started showing up in elevators.

"All our ministries have monkeys, monkeys, and more monkeys," says Iqbal Malik, one of India's leading primatologists. "Monkeys like to live around VIPS. It's a phenomenon. But it is spreading to new areas."

The little beasties are a growing problem not only in Indian urban areas, but in Hindu Nepal and Bali in Indonesia, where monkeys are viewed as gods. Sweet while they are babies, and naturally shy in the forest, the new generations of urban monkey toughs are fed by humans near temples and parks. In return, the emboldened simians twist TV antennas, bite a dozen people a day in Delhi, annoy and frighten children, and pets, and cows. This month a monkey launched a flowerpot off an upper terrace, killing a landlord. Still, Delhi employs only one monkey catcher, and he isn't eager to talk to the press.

"Without a workable monkey policy, the gods are becoming pests," says Dr. Malik, who feels that allowing the animals to dwell in cities is bad for people, and especially bad for the monkeys.

Malik has done field research for two decades on the rhesus, the species that populates the cities and jungles of north India. Malik is also the official conscience of the fitful efforts to remove monkeys from downtown Delhi in a humane manner. In India, rhesus stocks have increased from 300,000 to 500,000 in the 1990s; of these, about 60 percent now live among humans.

In malik's view, the problem was exacerbated by monkey exports to the West during the first 70 years of the 20th century. Hundreds of thousands were sent live, often packed in small boxes, for experimentation in Europe and the US. Trappers and buyers sought young, or sub- adults, breaking up large colonies into smaller groups that expanded their living space into cities. In 1972, a wildlife preservation act made monkey exports illegal, though some smuggling persists.

Yet for a decade, Delhi has been unable to launch a relocation program. Red tape and funding are the main obstacles. A fight has also been waged against official efforts to capture monkeys with painful leg traps.

Malik has appointed seven municipal employees to be trained to move the monkeys using walk-in traps or nets. And last year, Delhi officials spent tens of thousands of dollars on cages to start the project. When the cages proved too small, Malik protested and new cages were ordered.

Good relocation sites - places with food and water and lots of trees, and where monkeys used to live - are not easy to come by. Environmentalists in Malik's nongovernmental group, Vatavaran, are concerned about the city monkey population growing so quickly that Delhiites may one day react in anger, demanding that the animals be pushed out quickly and with no effort to keep current groups together.

Stories of clever monkeyshines and tricks are rife. In 1997, after a finance minister was attacked in a federal building, authorities installed a high-frequency noisemaker that drove the monkeys off for several months. Yet once the monkeys learned which machine made the sound, they destroyed it.

In Brindavan, a city of nearly a thousand Hindu temples and the site of a successful relocation program, monkeys worked with shopkeepers in a mutually advantageous scam. Hindu pilgrims would visit a tree-shaded area of the city. Targeting pilgrims wearing eyeglasses, the monkeys swooped down with preternatural quickness and stole the glasses off the pilgrim heads - surely a spectacle of spectacles. Frustrated pilgrims were informed by sweet-shop owners that the glasses would be returned if they offered the monkeys a prasad, or sweet. The prasad would be placed on a bench, where the monkey would take the sweet, and return the specs.

The most significant attribute of the rhesus monkeys, says Malik, is the bond between mother and child. "I have never seen anything so strong as the attachment of the two." A mother will carry her baby everywhere for months after birth. Moreover, Malik has witnessed monkeys adopting babies that have lost their own parents.

Leadership dynamics are another aspect of monkeys that Malik says are unusual. Unlike many animal groupings, monkey leaders are rarely the most aggressive or powerful of the males, and leadership is not imposed from above. Rather, the leader emerges over time, and is usually a fairly reserved monkey - a male who makes the right decision at the right time.

"Monkeys fight, but they never kill each other," Malik says. "Plus, when a fight is over, it just stops. There is no recrimination, and the combatants don't seek revenge."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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