Photo above: Langur monkeys forage for food in the grounds of a Hindu temple in Ranthambore National Park. Monkeys arehonoured by Hindus across India, thanks to the popularity of the monkey-god Hanuman. Rajasthan, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2008
There is plenty about life in Delhi that I failed to anticipate when I arrived to live in the city eight years ago. Among the most annoying is the menace of monkeys. More specifically, the rhesus monkey, a feral creature with plenty of confidence and – more frighteningly – a stubborn intelligence to torment all but the most zealous animal-lover.
As luck would have it, I have just such an animal-lover living across the road from me. While she scatters chapatis about her balcony for the benefit of the local monkey troop, so the rest of the neighbourhood must hope her simian friends don’t decide to roam in search of tastier fare. I have, on more than one such occasion, failed to keep the doors of my apartment firmly shut and discovered monkeys helping themselves to the contents of my fridge. Shouting at them doesn’t help. In fact, unless you have a stick or start throwing shoes at them, rhesus monkeys seem to consider humans more a distraction than a threat. A couple of years ago, Delhi’s deputy mayor S.S. Bajwa died when he fell from the terrace of his home after a gang of particularly ferocious rhesus monkeys attacked him.
The only means to avert such tragic encounters appears to be securing the services of a langur monkey. And this is precisely the solution employed by British High Commissioner in India. I don’t make a habit of visiting the High Commission but a few years ago I found myself relaxing on the ample lawn of the residence when I noticed a short man approaching me. Strolling alongside him was a monkey tied to a leash. As the man got closer, I realised that his companion was almost the same height as he was. This monkey was very different from the small rhesus variety that I had seen menacing my neighbourhood. Instead of the ubiquitous limp and incessant scratching that seem to be the curse of all rhesus monkeys, this creature walked with an elegant gait and wore a beautiful grey fur coat that appeared entirely fitting given the opulent surroundings.
As this langour monkey lunched on the leaves of a nearby bush, I ventured a stroke and asked it’s owner what had brought the two of them to the High Commission. The man explained that he and his langur were employed to take a daily stroll around the gardens so as to ward off a local gang of rhesus monkeys. Apparently the mere sight of a langur is enough to deter the most determined rhesus monkey.
The simple logic of this strategy appealed to me at the time. Only later did I come to understand that this approach might actually be the cause of my own neighbourhood’s monkey problem. Writing about the langur-strategy employed by the British High Commission and many of Delhi’s government institutions too, Iqbal Malik of the environmentalist group the Vatavaran Trust insists,
It was amply clear that the langurs were forcing the rhesus to disperse and move to newer localities. This led to monkeys visiting places where they had not been found earlier.
So, while the British High Commissioner is able to enjoy afternoon tea sans-monkey on the lawn of his residence, it may be those of us living in less salubrious areas of town who are paying the price of his privilege.
The two photographs in this post were taken eighteen months ago while I worked on a story about tigers for the recently folded National Geographic Adventure magazine. My most memorable encounter with langur monkeys on that occasion was beneath the canopy of a huge banyan tree in Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan. A group of about thirty langurs of various sizes had gathered there to play, groom and, I suppose, just catch up. It was a privilege to witness such an idilic scene and I was completely captivated by these sociable creatures, their behavior so reminiscent of humans.