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Monkey business

The rhesus and bonnet macaque menace in many parts of the country continues to drive demand for langurs, trained to scare them off

Pendrao Bujji sells 10-15 langurs each month during pre-harvest seasons. Photo: Siva Babu D.
Pendrao Bujji sells 10-15 langurs each month during pre-harvest seasons. Photo: Siva Babu D.

Chained to a stone pillar under a thatched roof by the road in Narsapur village, 400km from Hyderabad, are three grey langurs with distinctive black faces and light grey bodies. Barely two-four years old, they are munching on the leaves and vegetables their owner, Pendrao Bujji, has thrown their way. But they are already formidable allies of farmers, helping them fight off hordes of rhesus and bonnet macaques that raid their fields and plantations, leading to significant losses each year.

Sitting on a plastic chair nearby, Bujji, a slightly built 39-year-old with a stick in hand, is on the phone with Rajiv Reddy, a farmer. Reddy’s 2-acre orchard, where he grows mango, chikoo and custard apple, is under attack and he needs help.

Reddy has learnt that Bujji supplies trained langurs for a price and they soon strike a deal. Bujji agrees to deliver two of them for Rs11,000 each. Business is brisk. He has been doing this for 15 years and sells 10-15 langurs each month during pre-harvest seasons.

The only catch here is that Bujji’s business is illegal. Under Schedule II of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the grey langur is a protected species and under the Indian Penal Code’s Sections 2, 8, 11, 40, 41, 43, 48, 51, 61 and 62, it cannot be owned, traded, bought, sold or hired. Anyone violating the law is liable to a three-year jail term or a fine of up to Rs20,000, or both.

Bujji is aware of the law. He has been arrested by the police twice but was let off with a warning both times after local villagers came to his support. “My livelihood is dependent on the monkey business, yes, but I do it for the welfare of the farmers," he says.

“It started 15 years ago, when a farmer from a village nearby asked me if I could catch a langur, saying he would pay me Rs500 for it," recalls Bujji. “I didn’t know what he wanted a langur for. But when I understood why, I saw a clear business opportunity. It’s easy for me to catch them by tricking them with bananas. I’ve never turned back from it ever since."

Langurs are better than any watchdog in keeping away rhesus and bonnet macaques. Their shrill screams, enormous incisors and aggressive behaviour seem to terrify the macaques. Their fearsome reputation, in fact, briefly earned them a living warding off macaques even in the nation’s capital.

Over the years, a growing horde of macaques has wreaked havoc in Delhi, breaking into houses, stealing food, damaging public property and injuring people. In the last four years, more than 4,500 cases of macaque bites have been reported by the authorities.

But controlling the macaque population is a particularly sensitive subject since they are revered by many Hindus. Culling them is definitely not an option and attempts to capture and relocate them to their supposed “natural" habitats have failed. The New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) has started catching and rehabilitating them in the city’s Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary. During 2015-16, 188 macaques were shifted to the sanctuary.

In 2012, according to a report in Hindustan Times, the NDMC deployed langurs in VIP areas to scare away macaques that had invaded government buildings. The ministry of external affairs, it turned out, had made a regular provision in its annual budget for hiring langur-keepers to rid its premises of macaques. Following this, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) issued a circular stopping the government from using langurs to control macaques.

During the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the authorities relied on langurs to keep macaques away from the stadium. This drew flak from the international media, including the BBC, The Wall Street Journal and The Telegraph.

In the early 2000s, the government had hired a langurwalla, Fazal, to guard the iconic South Block and Parliament buildings. But after protests by animal rights activists, including Union minister Maneka Gandhi, the government backtracked. In July 2014, it decided to ban the practice of hiring langurs and suggested an alternative: hiring young men to imitate langurs and shoo away macaques.

The issue has plagued even Parliament House. “Various efforts are being made to tackle the monkey and dog menace inside and around Parliament House," M. Venkaiah Naidu, Union minister for urban development, told the Rajya Sabha in July 2014. “The NDMC has hired 40 young persons for this purpose. The NDMC also acquired sure-shot rubber-bullet guns for scaring away the monkeys."

In 2016, in a bid to control the macaque menace, the Uttarakhand forest department collaborated with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and started a project under which female macaques were given oral immuno-contraceptives. But the professors at the institute say the process of identifying and marking the animals is a long and cumbersome one.

Suggesting a solution, P.C. Tyagi, the principal chief conservator of forests, Tamil Nadu, says: “The best way to control the monkey menace would be to create a primate park, say about 300-400 acres of fenced area, and put the sterilized monkeys there. They should be fed with natural food for a year and later taken to a forest. The vaccination method can work in a captive environment, but not when they are in the wild or in urban areas."

The Himachal Pradesh government estimates farm-produce losses of over Rs500 crore a year due to wild animals, including macaques. Yet, in June, the MoEF’s decision to declare macaques “vermin" in 10 districts of Himachal Pradesh came under fire from environmental bodies and Maneka Gandhi. For once they were declared vermin, they would lose the protection of the Wildlife (Protection) Act and could be culled for a defined period.

Himachal Pradesh was unable to implement the order since it was challenged in the high court, which promptly stayed it. To the relief of farmers, the Supreme Court refused to stay a July MoEF notification permitting the culling of nilgai (the largest Asian antelope) and wild boar in Bihar and Uttarakhand and macaques in Himachal Pradesh. It asked the petitioners to approach the high court again for relief. The matter is pending before the Himachal Pradesh high court.

Macaques continue to be a menace on the farmlands of Guntur and Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh, Medak and Karimnagar in Telangana, Dehradun in Uttarakhand, and in Himachal Pradesh. According to a news report in DNA, around 800 farmers cultivating paddy, spices and areca nut in the Western Ghats region of Karnataka suffered such severe crop losses owing to the menace that they were forced to give up farming.

Meanwhile, Bujji continues to trap langurs from the Rajahmundry forest range, about 150km from Visannapeta in the Krishna district, where his family lives. He works as a farm labourer when he isn’t busy with the langur trade. He domesticates and trains the kondamuchullu, as they are known in Telugu, before he sells them.

R.V. Prasad, range forest officer, Vijayawada, doesn’t think there’s a problem. “It has not come to our notice that people are still trading in grey langurs," he says. “It has reduced since 2014. We have not booked any case on this in the last two years at least."

The langurs fetch Bujji Rs3,000-12,000 depending on their size, build and age. “It takes less than Rs50 a day to maintain them," he assures his customers.

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