Welcome to The Undark Podcast, which will deliver — once a month from September to May — a feature-length exploration of a single topic at the intersection of science and society. In this episode, join journalist Yardain Amron and podcast host Lydia Chain as they investigate the “monkey menace” in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, India — and how alleged mismanagement of a sterilization program meant to control the population could be making matters worse.
Yardain Amron: So, in the late 80s, on the outskirts of New Delhi, this young primatologist named Iqbal Malik was studying macaques living at a medieval fort called Tughlaqabad.
Iqbal Malik: So after some time, after a year or so, we realized that our subjects, the monkeys we had identified, we couldn’t see them in the field. One day we couldn’t see Kamal, second day we could not see Kussum also, third day we could not see Yatim. I mean everyday — then Burah Singh disappeared, then we didn’t know what to do. We knew that there’s something is wrong, something is happening. But we didn’t know what was happening.
Yardain Amron: One evening, Malik got a phone call from one of her local fieldworkers, who lived in the village next to the fort.
Iqbal Malik: And they say, “Madam they are taking the monkeys away, please come quickly.”
Yardain Amron: She and her team rushed to trail the truck and followed it to the Delhi Municipal Corporation Headquarters. And there, through the truck’s headlights, in cages on the roadside, were the monkeys. The team sat for a dharna, or sit-in protest, and secured their release that night.
Iqbal Malik: During these 10-15 days when our animals were disappearing, we not only missed our animals, we also saw its effect on the group. You know Kamal, one of the females, she lost her faith in humans. She became so aggressive towards humans. Burah Singh, one of the males, not Burah Sing, I think it was Hukah Singh, he became so quiet. One monkey male, who was so friendly, he just lost faith, he just disappeared. I mean, look at the trauma they went through.
Lydia Chain: This is the Undark Podcast. I’m Lydia Chain. Malik eventually pieced together why the monkeys had been trapped. The government had expanded the fort into a tourist site, destroying a water source in the process. The monkeys went looking for water and began pestering a nearby air force base, which called up the Municipal Corporation to get rid of the monkeys. Malik says MC had no real plan as to where they were going to put them — so long as they were away from the base.
As humans expand their own habitats, they come into increasing contact with wildlife — with deer, bears, boar, elephants. In India, macaque monkeys are a particular problem. They’re smart, social, and resourceful, and often a menace to nearby humans — who, to be fair, have destroyed much of their habitat. So far, monkeys have caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage across the country and forced the government to spend many more millions on potential solutions. Mostly to no avail. In the northern hill-state of Himachal Pradesh, the current plan is sterilization, but some question if it’s the right approach, or if it’s even being used the right way. Yardain Amron has the story.
Yardain Amron: Shimla is the state capital of Himachal and usually overrun with tourists in the summer. But in July, travel’s restricted because of Covid-19 and the main drag called Mall Road feels mum. Shops are opening late and shuttering early. Policemen are out enforcing a new mask ordinance. At the start of the pandemic, local news reported that even the monkeys had left the city for lack of food. But, it was clear they were back, or perhaps had never fully left. They loomed on the roofs and in the trees.
Krishan Gopal: You know they are creating so many problems.
Yardain Amron: This is Krishan Gopal, a tea seller.
Krishan Gopal: They keep jumping on roofs, they break the roofs, they break the pipelines, and sometimes they take our clothes. So we just lure them, we offer them food to get our clothes back. But you know, they just tore them apart. The government should do something, should take them away from here or anything.
Yardain Amron: Without skipping a beat, Gopal gestured down an alley, where he said a few days ago, a woman had gotten frightened and died in a nearby neighborhood.
Krishan Gopal: She was out there for drying clothes, monkeys came, and she was scared and she fell off and died. So it’s very, very, very serious here.
Yardain Amron: These days, Shimla breaks the local news bubble about three things mostly: water crisis, gridlock traffic, and — as the media has dubbed it — “monkey menace.” It seemed every other local had their own personal monkey story. And a mix of mostly horrible (but sometimes humorous) reports abound: Monkey attacks tourist for ice cream cone; throws stolen money down on people; raids government office and destroys official files; steals child from mother’s arms. In 2019, about 10 people were bitten by macaques per day on average. It wasn’t always like this though.
Sanjay Chauhan: You see, almost 45 years back, when I was a kid. It was early 70s. I could see monkeys around the city …
Yardain Amron: This is Sanjay Chauhan, the former mayor of Shimla. He’s also on the leadership team of a local peasant organization called Himachal Kisan Sabha.
Sanjay Chauhan: … and particularly there’s a place, Jakhu, there’s one temple…So it was confined to that place only, it was not widespread in the city. So now with the passage of the time, it has changed. And now I think it is a menace.
Yardain Amron: Like in Tughlaqabad, as the monkey’s habitat changed, conflict increased. Starting in the 70s, the government intensified commercial logging and hydro-development. Streams and springs dried up. Diverse, fruit-rich forests were razed, submerged, and fragmented. And in their place were planted monoculture pine plantations for their lucrative resin. Many big animal populations declined sharply. But monkeys, like their human relatives, proved especially resilient.
Himachal’s Department of Agriculture has cited research estimating crop damage statewide by wild animals (especially monkeys) at 400 to 500 crores per year. At the current exchange rate, that’s between 54 and 68 million dollars, which is equal to between a third and a quarter of Himachal’s annual agriculture budget in recent years. This has led to farmers abandoning their fields or, on the outskirts of Shimla, even beginning to lease spaces to car dealers to park their extra inventory. Inside the city, monkeys have learned to target women, children and the elderly. Now…
Sanjay Chauhan: … if you go around the city, you will find the balconies of the people, they are fenced because of these monkeys. You’ll find big doors, steel doors, in the houses of the people. You will find now that monkeys are free and people are caged.
Yardain Amron: It’s true that there are few open balconies to be seen in Shimla. But people haven’t just been giving monkeys free reign of the city. Chauhan says initially, the defacto policy was simple translocation.
Sanjay Chauhan: It is not only Shimla monkeys which have been displaced from one place to other place. Whenever there is some pressure from people on the government, what they do, they want to give immediate relief to the people. They just load a truck of monkeys and take it just in the nearby areas. If from Mandi, they may take it to Kullu. From Kullu, they may take it to other place in Mandi. From Shimla, they may take it to other place. So to give relief to a particular area, to a section of people in a particular area, you want to create a problem in the other area? That can never be a solution! You have to come with a holistic approach so the relief should be given to people in totality.
Sushil Sood: And I was asked if I could, uh, do something to address this problem with monkey. So that was the time in 2003, that I actually was interested with this thing, that, to do some trials.
Yardain Amron: This is Dr. Sushil Sood, a wildlife veterinarian working with the government of Himachal Pradesh. Sood actually thought that culling the population down to a more manageable size would be the best approach. But because in Hindu culture, monkeys are believed to be an incarnation of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, a government-backed slaughter wasn’t politically feasible.
Sushil Sood: And that’s when it came to my mind that in case we are not able to kill monkeys, I came up with an idea that lets put sterilization as the first priority for the time being so as to reduce their number and the birth rate, which was increasing every year.
Yardain Amron: Between 1990 and 2004, the macaque population doubled to an estimated 300,000 across the state and sterilization was supposed to be the answer. It was supposed to be scientific and systematic. It was supposed to be the core of a holistic approach to resolve the conflict. But today, citizens, activists and some ex-officials say the program has by and large failed. In fact, it may be exacerbating the conflict yet again by misplacing and mishandling monkeys. And with no solution in sight, some people have begun taking the problem into their own hands. But before we get too deep into that, here’s Sood on the start of the sterilization program.
Sushil Sood: So we had to start from basically from scratch about what sort of anesthesia, for how long duration, anatomy, where we need to intervene, cage design, operation theater, post-operative care, design, the facility.
Yardain Amron: All the mechanisms were standardized, starting from catching of monkeys, the sterilization procedures for both males and females, and then their release back into the wild. And after two years of trials, in 2007, the state government approved the program and built a monkey sterilization center just outside of Shimla; the first one in the country. Sood got the center up and running. And then, six months later he left for a doctorate in Australia.
Sushil Sood: So I think we were in a pretty good position before I left and handed over the baton to somebody else for the project to progress smoothly.
Yardain Amron: And for a while, smooth it seemed. The forest department built seven more sterilization centers across the state. A new laser technique cut the procedure from 30 to three-ish minutes, and recovery from 21 to three days. At the peak, the government could handle more than 100 sterilizations a day, though they recently capped it at 50 to ensure quality. By 2012, the government was sterilizing over 20,000 monkeys per year. Plans for 25 new centers were announced. And a target was set to ramp up to 200,000 sterilizations by the end of the year.
Sushil Sood: So as per our calculation, it would have taken approximately 15 to 20 years, and by that time we would have a population which was very less and the conflict would have reduced to an extent where there would be no objection from farmers and people as such about the monkey population. But unfortunately, it’s not gone that way.
Yardain Amron: The centers were never built. And rather than ramping up, annual sterilizations started falling and hovered around 15,000. Instead, the monkeys had gotten wise and the people sloppy. And over time…
Sushil Sood: The monkeys could identify the monkey catchers, their vehicles, everything.
Yardain Amron: Just the sound of the engine of the monkey catchers’ truck would prompt a distress call that sent the whole troop into the canopy.
Sushil Sood: And they outsmarted us by 2012-13, where there were very few monkeys that could be caught from any area as such.
Yardain Amron: While the government had streamlined the surgery procedure, they’d cut corners on the catch and release component. On paper, a forest guard is required to accompany each monkey catcher into the field to ensure monkeys are released in the same location they’re caught. This is critical to maintain the troop’s complex and sensitive social dynamics.
Sushil Sood: These monkeys, they’ll have a particular social hierarchy in their troop. So if you don’t catch the troop properly, they tend to exhibit aggressiveness and then become more ferocious because of the social disruption of the troop.
Yardain Amron: But when Sood came back to the center in 2013, he noticed things had changed.
Sushil Sood: Over a period of time, the monitoring mechanism diluted and that gave some sort of a liberty to the concerned monkey catching team which brought the monkeys. They were in the later stage doing all these things independently, rather than any government official monitoring whether they were being released at the same place or not.
Yardain Amron: And since the government uses a bounty system, the incentive is to catch as many monkeys as possible, as fast as possible. These days, it pays catchers 1,000 rupees per monkey caught, enough for five or six meals at a dhaba, or roadside restaurant. And then, in 2018, Sood left the center.
Sushil Sood: Yeah, there were certain issues with which … I was not happy to compromise with certain principles of mine and the way it should function, so I had to, I opted out of this project as such.
Yardain Amron (on tape): I see. And so you left on your own accord? Or were these sort of issues, you brought them up and then, did they transfer you? I’ve talked to many government officials who bring up some issue with the program that they’re working on, and when they make a little bit of a stir, instead of the change that should happen happening, their higher ups just transfer them somewhere else.
Sushil Sood: That’s it. You’ve just nailed it now.
Yardain Amron: Disciplinary transfer is a widespread practice in the Indian government. In a particularly egregious example, a too-honest civil servant was transferred from department to department 53 times over 26 years for doggedly exposing corruption.
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Yardain Amron: Last year, the Himachal government sterilized about 8,000 monkeys statewide, its lowest total since 2008, and futile considering monkey birth rates. Nonetheless, at the Forest Department’s Wildlife Wing, the principal chief conservator Savita Sharma is all about big numbers — real and theoretical.
Savita Sharma: Till date, we have been able to carry out sterilization of around one lakh 63,000 monkeys —
Yardain Amron: That’s 163,000 in 14 years.
Savita Sharma: And scientifically speaking, the analysis says that by doing the sterilization of one lakh 63,000 monkeys, we’ve been able to control the potential birth of more than 4.95 lakhs monkeys … I mean it is an established report which has been carried out by an established organization in the ministry.
Yardain Amron: Established or not, the monkey census she’s citing is not as clear cut.
Sushil Sood: The forest department has conducted at least three censuses for monkey populations. And every time the technique of census, or the methodology has changed. So it becomes difficult for any person or any organization to evaluate the success or failure of that project.
Yardain Amron: Even in the conclusion of a few population status reports, the authors call the data they were provided “problematic” “biased” and “poor.” Here’s the thing though. Even if the monkey population is decreasing, and that’s a big if, what is clear, according to locals, is that the conflict is increasing. At the biggest hospital in the city, Indira Gandhi Medical College, monkey bite cases have increased by nearly 130 percent since 2012. Nonetheless, Sharma is firm that catch-sterilize-and-release is working as designed.
Savita Sharma: What happens is when the monkeys are caught from a particular area … While handing over the monkey, there would be a signature of a forest guard, there would be a signature of the local panchayat representative, there would be signature of the monkey catching team captain. And generally a video recording also is done. After all, I cannot say for sure that 100 percent of the monkeys were being released at the same site. I mean there could be one or two cases here and there. Rule is that they are supposed to be releasing the monkeys at the same very place from where they were caught.
Yardain Amron: But, as Sood said, the monitoring had lapsed, and the problem isn’t just a few select irregularities. For one, a veteran forest guard from the Great Himalayan National Park said a truck or two of local monkeys were caught and taken for sterilization in Shimla, about a six-hour drive away. But the trucks came back mixed with the aggressive Shimla monkeys. Here’s the guard, Narottam Singh.
Narottam Singh, translated: Now these monkeys come, they are standing on your roof, they are watching what you’re making, they’re not afraid of you. Earlier monkeys, the monkeys from here, if you just did “this,” you would not even know where they went, they were so scared. But these monkeys are just not scared, they don’t even move if you try to scare them … The problem is happening at the sterilization centers where for them, it’s just monkeys. But you cannot pick a monkey from here and leave them in another range. And you cannot pick a money from Seraj division and leave them in this park. There are different categories of monkeys. There are different temperaments.
Yardain Amron: Sood said sometimes people would even show up to the sterilization center in Shimla …
Sushil Sood: … and say that yeah, monkeys are being released in their areas, and they’ve caught some people releasing the monkeys and then they have made complaints to the forest department about it. But certainly there is some sort of truth in this that monkeys were being dumped from one place to another.
Yardain Amron: Starting in 2016, an international team of primatologists spent two years in Shimla studying the human-monkey conflict. They were also told by the forest department that monkeys are released in the same place they’re caught, that the rules are being followed. But the team knew this not to be true — not entirely at least. Because, they had learned to individually identify about 150 monkeys across three troops.
Stefano Kaburu: And so I think about 15 monkeys from this group disappeared …and another group that we were following, I think at least 10 disappeared.
Yardain Amron: This is Stefano Kaburu, a primatologist at the University of Wolverhampton in the U.K., who led the research team.
Stefano Kaburu: And we know they were caught, because we actually saw them in the cages. And so at that time, me and my research assistants were very upset because also you kind of get attached to these monkeys because you see them every day and you follow them and you hope you also can get a lot of data out of them before doing any intervention. But then eventually they are trapped. So I just want to make sure that these monkeys were then released back.
Yardain Amron: After talking to the forest department, Kaburu went to the sterilization center to identify the monkeys he wanted released.
Stefano Kaburu: But interestingly, not all of the monkeys came back. Basically only one of two. The others were still gone. We never saw them back basically in the group. We also saw a cage there, it was a huge cage, where I think there were 40 monkeys there, and we identified one of our Jakhu monkeys as well there who was a very young female. And they told us that those monkeys are those they are not planning to put back in the field, in their own kind of group. And so because they were planning to kind of take away some of the monkeys from the wild basically and put them in cages.
Yardain Amron: By 2016, with the program still underperforming, locals and politicians alike began alleging corruption. Under pressure, the government released records of its payments to monkey catchers. But the payments were exorbitant and, for many, only proved their point. One local politician called the program “the biggest scam in the forest department.” Sharma, the head of the Wildlife Wing, denies the allegations of corruption.
Iqbal Malik: For 14 years, sterilization has been going on in Himachal, and in these 14 years, they have not been able to convert their forests into monkey friendly forests. The measures are half-hearted, the measures are incomplete …
Yardain Amron: This is Iqbal Malik again, the primatologist and monkey activist from the beginning. Malik’s solution to the conflict is to build sanctuaries. One for rural Himachal monkeys and an urban one for the Shimla monkeys — both filled with fruit and enclosed by high walls to keep the monkeys in.
Iqbal Malik: … and that is where I saw corruption. They did not follow it because that way they were earning lot of money. If they followed what I said, there was no money for them, there was no money for anyone. It was totally transparent system of making a sanctuary, running a sanctuary, everything.
Yardain Amron: In 2007, the Himachal government actually set up a fruit-stocked monkey park in a neighborhood outside Shimla. This was a smaller, more haphazard version of Malik’s vision. And it didn’t work. The monkeys that had been translocated into the park ate all the food, escaped, and then ransacked nearby fields. Still, according to Sharma, the main reason the government doesn’t want to build an actual full-fledged sanctuary is financial — the forest department receives just 2 percent of the state’s annual budget. The government’s priorities are elsewhere. Others wonder about the ethics.
Stefano Kaburu: Yeah, and also, sometimes I think about the ethical issues with that because, you know, we are destroying the monkey habitat. And so I think rather than thinking about monkey sanctuaries, I think the solution we should come up with, it’s my personal opinion, is that we should find a way to kind of promote the coexistence of monkeys and humans and to do that, rather than killing monkeys, we should kind of train the monkeys and train people to live together. I think the best solution is to promote coexistence. It is obviously not easy to do. It is very challenging. But I think we have the means to do that, or at least we have the knowledge of how to do that.
Yardain Amron: Recently, the government redeclared monkeys across the state “vermin,” which permits local citizens to kill monkeys in specific areas — including all of Shimla. This was supposed to be a relief for farmers. But few people are shooting the monkeys. For one, many residents still consider them holy. And for another, the government banned hunting about 50 years ago so few people still own guns.
Instead, some people have started poisoning them. In June, activists posted a video on YouTube, taken in 2019 in a village an hour out of Shimla. It’s late at night and a bunch of young guys are crowded around a cardboard box with a limp monkey inside. The cameraman starts narrating in Hindi:
Man 1, translated: Friends look here. Somebody has poisoned this female monkey. This has been going on for days. They’re giving poison to monkeys … She has a little baby. Look at the baby, it’s so small, clinging to its mother so desperately.
Yardain Amron: The video goes on for a while as the man narrates. The mother goes in and out consciousness. He emphasizes how much pain she’s in. How scared the baby must be. And then they pronounce her dead. He continues:
Man 1, translated: If any government employee is watching this video, it’s our humble request to get these people to stop poisoning monkeys. You government must find another solution other than getting monkeys killed.
Yardain Amron: At least according to the comments, though, not everyone agreed. “Just bury the monkey with the baby.” “Keep poisoning them!” “Thik kiya mardiya” or “Did good by killing it.” “It’s just a macaque there are way too many.” Sharma says they’ve received no official reports yet.
Savita Sharma: And whatever story you are doing has to be positive. Because we are doing with a very, very positive attitude. Ok? No negativity.
Yardain Amron: Thank you so much.
Savita Sharma: OK?
Yardain Amron: [Laughs] The story will be what the story is.
Savita Sharma: No, I mean, generally what people do is, “Forest department is not doing this, not doing.” I mean there are issues.
Yardain Amron: The story will be all the different people that I’ve talked to and what they’re feeling. But I would say that talking about this issue — is this a positive issue? No — there’s people that are getting very hurt. So, it’s more complicated than being just a straight positive issue, no?
Savita Sharma: No it’s not a positive issue, it is not a negative issue. Issue is that whatever efforts could a department make are being made. We are positive, we are receptive, we are always there to look for the new suggestions. We implement the suggestions, also. We are happy to take people on board in dealing with the issue.
Lydia Chain: Yardain, thanks for this story and for joining me here.
Yardain Amron: No problem, excited to talk about human-monkey conflict.
Lydia Chain: So, I know that in some cases around the world where there’s a nuisance animal, be that white-tailed deer, or pigeons, or rodents, some people have tried to control a population with chemical birth control rather than sterilization. Is that an option here?
Yardain Amron: It is an option, and the Indian government is exploring that option, actually, moreso than it ever has before, because sterilization has had its issues in multiple states. But there’s still some issues with contraception. Unlike sterilization, which, you know, you take a monkey in, you sterilize it, it’s sterilized forever, contraception you have to administer either with an injection or orally once a year. That means catching the monkeys in some capacity. Maybe you don’t have to transport them to a sterilization center, and you’ve solved that problem, but monkeys are still tricky to catch. And then also there’s a bureaucratic complication which is that right now they’re, for trials, importing this contraception from the U.S. at a hundred dollars a pop, which is way more money than they’re spending per monkey on sterilization. So they would have to start producing this in India, which as far as I understand, hasn’t started yet. So it’s a tricky situation, different techniques have different problems.
Lydia Chain: In the story you spend a bit of time discussing all the factors that led up to this population explosion. What else is important to understand about this situation, about how this conflict began?
Yardain Amron: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think that there’s a lot of focus on the population having exploded, and that’s why you get proposed solutions like sterilization and like contraception because those are specifically targeting population and the issue with that hyper-focus on population is that it ignores actually what is the more fundamental issue at play here which is habitat fragmentation. You have conflict between humans and monkeys happening in both rural and urban spaces, to higher degrees, because their habitat has been fragmented. There’s deforestation happening, there’s lots of, there’s increased development, big development projects happening all over Himachal right now. But it’s much more difficult to address that problem, or to at least link that problem to monkey-human conflict because it would require a much bigger reconception and reworking of how to solve this problem. And to be honest, there are no shortcuts. Oh and I should, I’m sorry for going on, Lydia, but actually I think one of the key pieces here that needs to be mentioned is that climate change has to be a part of this conversation. That climate change in our warming world, especially in the Himalayas, where temperatures are rising faster than they are in other parts of the world. This is leading to wildlife migrating to new areas. And what happens — they migrate to cities. And you find leopards in cities and antelope on farmland. And so if scientists, the government, these transnational institutions were really serious about solving any sort of wildlife conflict but here, specifically this monkey-human conflict, they would have to bring climate change into the conversation.
Lydia Chain: Yardain Amron is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Our music is produced by the Undark team and additional music in today’s episode is from Kevin MacLeod at Incompetech. I’m your host, Lydia Chain. See you next month.