Sunday, November 18, 2007

Monkeys, babies, rabies, et al

Dusk was approaching a lonely outpost on the outskirts of Delhi. The wide, well lit double carriageway had narrowed into a broken, unmarked road. Temples, schools and markets had given way to thorn-scrub on both sides before the road turned left to reveal a shanty hamlet that was now in the eye of a raging storm. This was Sanjay Camp, Bhati Mines – yet another battle-zone in a strange new turf war that has gripped the city of Delhi.

As the car rocked and rolled over ruts and road, the usual vignettes of India’s squalor waved past – a mangy dog and scrawny chickens; fetid ditches and broken walls; thin, bent women, their hard life etched on their faces, running after happy, hungry children - a slum like any other. However, at the break of dawn, fear grips Sanjay Camp. The children are scared to walk alone, the men huddle in corners over decks of cards, trying to bury their fears and frustrations in the game at hand, women hurry on the streets, hoping to get indoors before they are assaulted, while traders arm themselves with sticks and catapults, in a desperate bid to defend their homes, their families, their livelihoods and their person from the marauding bands that have terrorised this forgotten settlement of two-thousand odd families for the last 8 months. For now though, late in the evening, a sense of uneasy calm hangs over the slum as we drive past it to the great green gates that separate the dark and dreaded forests of Bhati Mines, the source of all their fear, from the hamlet. On top of the gates and the high boundary walls, in the gathering gloom, I could see scores of silhouetted forms, the villains of the piece – a rag tag bunch of starving monkeys.

Monkeys, more specifically Rhesus Macaques, aren’t easy to live with. They are wily bandits, opportunistic bullies who, when driven by hunger, wouldn’t run shy of raiding your kitchen, or snatching your lunch from under your very nose. Unpredictable and aggressive, they are known to bite, often without provocation. They carry zoonotic diseases so terrible - like rabies and herpes B- that such a bite could kill, and when not busy stealing or biting, they seem to enjoy demolishing car mirrors and cables. So here we are, stuck with a revered and protected religious icon that scratches and bites, robs and wrecks and makes babies faster than the Chinese can make brassieres. (In fact, macaque populations in some urban centres grow at the rate of 10% every year while by comparison, India’s fairly prolific human population grows at a measly 2% percent or so).

But why blame the little devils. The Indian government was once the largest exporter of Rhesus macaques for medical research and whole troops of macaques were callously trapped in India’s forests and then shipped to laboratories around the world. There they were exposed to atomic radiation, pitilessly cut open without anesthesia, shot, burnt and drowned alive for the sake of research. Stragglers from these troops became outcasts and drifted into the cities. As forests were cleared, more homeless monkeys entered the cities. Today, a city like Delhi has about 6000 of them. Since March this year, nearly 2000 of these simian refugees have been trapped and bundled off to Bhati mines, a poor habitat which offers little forage, thus pushing the brown buggers to thuggery. Under these depressing circumstances, where designated sanctuaries are ill prepared to hold or sustain a burgeoning primate population, there’s still light at the end of the tunnel and it’s from a Chinese lantern. You see, Hong Kong had a similar problem with monkeys, and instead of culling them, they started what was perhaps the world’s first monkey sterilisation programme. Himachal Pradesh followed suit with some success and it might solve Delhi’s problem too, at least for a while.

But sterilisation and culling are merely symptomatic measures. Forgive me for screaming from the pulpit, but the way I see it, every time we exploit nature – whether it is the nature of water, the nature of an animal or good old human nature – in a manner that is cold, callous and cruel, we trigger off a domino effect - like the hurricane in New Orleans, like the ‘monkey menace’ in New Delhi and like we did on ‘9/11’ in New York - that brings the chickens back to roost.

The slip stream

When monkeys attack!

The Deputy Mayor of Delhi, S.S. Bajwa, tumbled to his death last month while trying to chase away a troop of monkeys. Like most animals, monkeys too avoid coming into conflict with human beings but when the two primates are thrown into the close confines of urban living, something’s gotta give. Here are a few do’s and don’ts which might help with the primate protocol between cousins - A universal rule applicable with all animals and especially monkeys is to avoid eye contact. This might be taken as a threat, provoking an attack. Abstain from feeding the animal as this act of generosity would condition the monkeys to associate people with food and might prompt an attack when refused. If you feel threatened, pretend to pick up a stone to scare the monkey away and if it still charges, don’t let the animal get a grip on you because unlike dogs, it can only bite what it can hold. Monkeys are bullies and the sight of children emboldens the naughty ones, so protect your children in their presence. Treat them with respect but not with fear, and you should get by just fine…


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