Delhi braces for return of some serious monkey business

The Indian capital had eased its rhesus monkey problems with the help of bigger langur monkeys. Now an animal rights activist argues the solution is illegal.

Ben Arnoldy/The Christian Science Monitor
Badal Kalandar brings his langur monkey, Pawan, to work every day on a one-hour bicycle commute in New Delhi, April 2011. Pawan hops on the back seat readily and is not afraid of the traffic in the city. Mr. Kalandar has trained Pawan to scare away smaller monkeys at the home of his employer, India's Minister of Power. Many monkey trainers are hired to prevent monkey infestations in India's government buildings.

Monkeys are poised to take back the corridors of power in the world's largest democracy. Once literally overrun with packs of small but troublesome rhesus monkeys, Delhi's government zone began to fight back the menace a decade ago with large langur monkeys who were trained to them chase away. 

Now, an animal rights activist is putting a stop to the hiring of langurs and their handlers, leaving residents of the capital poised for a return of the monkey business from years past: Packs of monkeys had broken into the parliament, invaded the prime minister's office and defense ministry, at times ripping up wiring and tearing through files. Those who resisted them sometimes got bitten – or worse. In 2007, one deputy mayor in Delhi died after falling from his terrace while fighting off a rhesus attack.

The arrival of the black-faced langurs brought the red-bottomed rhesus situation under control and became a normal part of life in Delhi. 

The langurs' human handlers keep them on a leash. It is commonplace on Delhi's clogged streets to see handlers bicycling to a job site with the giant monkey sitting side-saddle on a back rack. Each morning, langurs would chase the rhesus monkeys out of Parliament, then out of ministry buildings and down the streets past the living quarters of top officials. Each night, the rhesus would return, encouraged by offerings of food like bananas and peanuts left by Hindus who view monkeys as a living incarnation of the monkey god Hanuman.

So valuable were the langurs' services, that they commanded a salary higher than the vast majority of Indians.

But, now Delhi’s langur handlers have come under fire after animal rights activist and opposition politician Maneka Gandhi began protesting the practice of chaining and training the wild langurs and putting them to work. Under the country’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, the langurs are a protected species and cannot be owned, traded, bought, sold, or hired out. Any violation of the law entails a three year jail term or a fine or both.

Following pressure from the activist who is also a member of Parliament, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests issued letters to Delhi state government and several federal ministries alerting them that hiring service of the chained langurs was illegal.  

Then, last month India’s urban development ministry issued a notice to different agencies in Delhi asking them to stop using the langur guards. Fearing legal action some offices have stopped hiring the handler-langur teams to curb the rhesus menace. Some others are still using the langur guards in Delhi but are apparently in the process of ending the practice soon, said one New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) officer.

That has some in the city worried.

“The urban rhesus monkey population in Delhi is rising. So, the threats of rhesus attacks on offices are also on the rise,” says Mahaveer Singh, an NDMC officer who looks after the hiring of the langur guards by the city's civic agency. “The trained langurs provide a very efficient service. But the pressure to stop using them is rising following the recent ban by the [urban development] ministry. I think we have to stop hiring our langur guards soon.

“But it will be very difficult to tackle the rhesus menace in the absence of these langur guards.”

Mr. Singh adds that the NDMC have 40 langur guards on its roll and the agency would be in big trouble if it faced further pressure and was finally forced to stop using them.

Some handlers say their langurs would not lose the jobs in Delhi that easily.

“All other strategies to keep the rhesus monkeys at bay in Delhi failed in the past,” says handler Mohammad Nishar. “Only our langurs can keep the parliament, courts, police stations, and other offices free from the rhesus menace. Powerful citizens are working at these places. I believe they will help amend the wildlife laws and will let our langurs continue their smart service.”

* Monkey stories from India are a proud sub-genre of journalism. Here is an archive of some of the best stories.

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