During the initial days of my introduction to the field techniques of animal behaviour, I once accompanied two extremely experienced friends of mine, in order to learn a few tricks. We stopped our vehicle along one of the National Highways and were observing a group of monkeys, binoculars almost fixed to each of our eyes, notebooks in hand. Many of the plying vehicles stopped by us, eagerly inquiring about our object of interest. They usually left with a meaningful smile after their discovery that it was ‘just’ a troop of monkeys that stopped us. Their ‘meaningful’ smiles bore no significance at that point of time until I realized that they, perhaps, would have joined us if it were an elephant, a tiger or a leopard, even the most commonly sighted spotted deer or a very rare exotic bird. What could possibly be special about monkeys to get off in the middle of the road and watch with binoculars, for goodness’ sake!
Yes, monkeys are common. Some of us see it every day, along the roads, in the middle of the fields, in our backyards, or even on the balcony of our gated-community apartments. Why would one want to spend time on something so mundane, when they have managed a weekend amidst the wilderness? Why bother about the ones that apparently make their lives difficult back home?
When I started my own research project (which ironically involves the commonest monkeys of the region, the bonnet macaques), convincing funding agencies, authorities and peers about the choice of my study species was not quite a cake-walk! I was even, advised by a well-wisher, to change my study species into a rare, ‘valuable’ one, which might have reduced the thorns on the funding pavements. The easy availability of the species, thus, might have compromised the position of bonnet macaques in the professionals’ eyes as well and rendered them a status of not-so-valuable as far as scientific studies are concerned.
There are multiple factors that complement such ignorance towards the need of conservation of so called ‘pest species’, such as the bonnet macaques, making it more threatening for their survival. I will keep my entire argument confined to bonnet macaques, as I am comparatively well-informed about them at this moment than any other equally valid candidate. I am quite sure that some of the problems that your are facing might have stark resemblances with what I am going to present here.
Although most tourist vehicles are unwilling to spend as much time on these monkeys during their wildlife-sighting-hunts, they sure do not miss feeding these monkeys, throwing food from their slowed-down cars. While their intentions might be helping out the ‘poor’ monkeys by providing them with some food, and in turn earning the holy blessings of the Lord Hanuman, ultimately the curse of love is cast on the mistakenly accused avatars of the deity. The roadsides have now become the coolest joints to hang out for the monkeys, as the goodies are all clumped along its course. Some studies investigating the distribution of bonnet macaques reveal that there might not be as many troops left inside the forested areas as before, but the numbers keep on increasing along the roadsides and human habitations (see Sinha and Mukhopadhyay 2013). This invariably makes the monkeys more vulnerable to road-kills and increases the rate of intra-troop aggression significantly (Ram et al 2003). The increased aggression among the troop members, in turn, might have resulted in breaking up the group into smaller units and altering the socio-ecological history of the species (see Sinha et al 2005). All these factors, combined together, paint quite a grim picture for these ‘people’ of the forest. An apparent harmless act of feeding ‘stray’ monkeys can give you momentary pleasure- you might be amazed to see how similar they behave like us, and that might even amuse you immensely. But, remember, they are as wild as a tiger or a leopard, and believe me there are reasons why you are not allowed to feed a big cat when you enter a protected area. Then why do the same for the monkeys? They are meant to fetch for themselves; they are not pets or actual stray animals like a neighbourhood cat and dog whom you can feed and decrease your stress levels. Eventually, you are harming them, even if you do not want to!
It is noteworthy that systematic studies, like the ones mentioned above and many such others are conducted, efficiently bring out the crisis, identifies the problem objectively and quantifies the level of threat that the species or population might face. It is, otherwise, a tough task to decide whether a species needs protection. It is not enough to form conservation decisions based only on the rarity and immediate threats posed to a species, while subtle day-to-day actions, that we do just for fun, might actually pave the path for a silent exit for another. Systematic research is absolutely necessary to identify problems that a species or population faces much before its threat is apparently obvious- it is always better to prevent than cure! Much before ‘pest-species’ like bonnet macaques officially hit the red line of ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered’, there are ways by which we can secure a comfortable life for them. Little steps at a time can improve their status now, rather than regretting at the last moment. Scientific studies, providing information on the biology of the species, can be an excellent first-step to diagnose the ailment just at its inception and subsequently lead us on the ladder of conservation measures, their implementations and management decisions.
1. Ram S., Venkatachalam S. and Sinha A. 2003. Changing social strategies of wild female bonnet macaques during natural foraging and on provisioning. Current Science, Vol. 84, No. 6, pp- 780-790.
2. Sinha A., Mukhopadhyay K., Dutta-Roy A. and Ram S. 2005. Ecology proposes, behaviour disposes: Ecological variability in social organization and male behaviour strategies among wild bonnet macaques. Current Science, Vol. 89, No. 7, pp-1166-1179.
3. Sinha A. and Mukhopadhyay K. 2013. The monkey in the town’s commons, revisited: An anthropogenic history of the Indian bonnet macaque. In Radhakrishna S., Huffman M. A. and Sinha A. (Eds.) The macaque connection: Cooperation and conflict between humans and macaques. Springer, pp-187-208.