Invasion of the killer monkeys

The death of Delhi's deputy mayor – as he tackled simian intruders – highlights the problem of man and the long-tailed primates living side by side in India's capital. By Andrew Buncombe
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At the home of Sawinder Singh Bajwa, friends and relatives were honouring the victim – lighting sticks of fragrant incense and draping a framed photograph of him with garlands of bright orange flowers. Of the perpetrator of the crime, there was no sign.

Mr Bajwa, the deputy mayor of Delhi, died over the weekend after falling from his first-floor balcony while trying to ward off an anonymous intruder who was apparently attempting to enter his house. The only description the authorities have of the would-be criminal is that he had pointed ears, a long, looped tail and shiny red buttocks. He was a common rhesus monkey, a Macaca mulatto.

Mr Bajwa, a 52-year-old politician and, from all accounts a loving family man, became the most recent and certainly the highest-profile victim to fall foul of a growing threat that is plaguing not just Delhi but cities across India. With urban expansion pushing further and further into green areas that were once the sole habitat of the nation's flora and fauna, encounters between mankind and wildlife are becoming increasingly common. And in some cases, perilous.

In certain parts of India the problem has become such that the authorities have been forced to undertake special steps to confront what the local papers have termed "the Simian Menace".

In Delhi, officials have even constructed a "monkey prison" in the south of the city where animals that are captured on the streets of the capital are put in cages and then delivered to the walled sanctuary and released.

Some local communities have got together and hired men with larger, more aggressive langur monkeys to scare away the rhesus monkeys. Several years ago the federal government even put some of the langurs on its payroll, paying them around £7 a month in bananas to patrol the areas around some of the government departments after a number of incidents of rhesus monkeys biting staff. The authority that runs the city's recently opened subway also resorted to hiring langurs and their handlers to clear away the smaller monkeys who were following commuters on to the trains.

Tourist attractions, such as Delhi's sandstone Red Fort, and temples are often overrun with monkeys. Mr Bajwa's family said they believe the monkeys that caused his death came from a Hindu temple next to his house. "The monkeys sit at the nearby temple because people feed them," said his son, Arjun, an actor who was filming in Mumbai when he learnt of his father's accident and flew straight home. "Dad had the habit of coming and getting the newspaper from the balcony."

Mr Bajwa's son said that on Saturday morning his mother, Nimmy, had also been on the balcony when up to four monkeys climbed up to where they were. He said his father told his mother to go inside and that he picked up a stick and tried to scare the monkeys away. As he did so, he slipped and fell about 12ft on to the concrete courtyard.

Mr Bajwa, a senior member of the local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), did not die immediately from his injuries. Indeed, initially his family and the doctors who treated him believed he was not badly hurt. But when he was transferred to a second hospital, he was found to have several fractured vertebrae and a badly broken pelvis. He died on Sunday morning, apparently after doctors were unable to stop his internal bleeding.

"The thing about monkeys is that if you leave them alone they will just look at you," said Yuruf Bajwa, a cousin who was also at the family home. "But if you show them a stick then they get angry."

No one knows precisely how many monkeys there are in Delhi. Officials put the total as anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000, though this could easily be too low. Parts of the city, especially on the southern edge, are besieged with the animals, who sit on the roadside as traffic passes, or else play in the branches of the tree cover.

Dealing with the monkey problem has been a slow process, not least because devout Hindus believe that the animals are manifestations of the monkey god Hanuman and feed them bananas and peanuts. Monkeys were apparently regularly fed at the temple located close to Mr Bajwa's house. Culling them is out of the question.

Attempts to persuade a number of other states to accept the city's monkeys have also fallen flat. The authorities in places such as Madhya Pradesh said they had enough monkeys of their own to be dealing with, never mind taking in extra troublemakers from places such as Delhi.

But earlier this year the federal government demanded that the city authorities act against the monkeys. Exasperated by the monkeys, which had previously broken into a government office, torn up and destroyed secret documents and even broken into the complex in which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's office is located, they called for action.

Animal rights campaigners also got involved. Sonya Ghosh, the founder of Citizens for the Welfare and Protection of Animals, said she had stumbled over a set of cages a few miles from her home in which monkeys were being kept for months while a decision was made what to do with them. "We took a vet and got the animals treated," said Ms Ghosh, a college lecturer. "But a lot of them died."

In May, under pressure from various politicians and campaigners such as Ms Ghosh, the Delhi High Court ordered the authorities to begin rounding up the stray monkeys and relocating them to a specially constructed sanctuary. That, they believed, would be the end of the problem. They were wrong. The grandly titled Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary lies at the far southern edge of the city. This area contains one of the last surviving remnants of the so-called Delhi Ridge, the northernmost extension of the Aravalli mountains that begin in the state of Rajasthan. Once this forested ridge area extended throughout the city, but development has all but destroyed it.

The reserve is found at the end of a rutted track that leads through a dusty unlicensed village. Authorities have established a sanctuary by erecting a 45ft wall of hardened plastic that contains an area of many acres. Since April, officials say they have captured and released 1,650 monkeys into the reserve. Yesterday afternoon a truck was delivering a shipment of caged inmates. The city pays monkey catchers 450 rupees (£5.50) per animal and has vowed to increase the number it employs. "We trap them in cages and transfer them to the reserve," said an official in the city's wildlife department. Asked about claims that the monkeys were climbing over the wall and attacking people, the official said: "One or two may have climbed over but it is not really a problem."

But just five minutes spent at the entrance to the sanctuary revealed that there was more of a problem than the official was ready to admit. Those monkeys that stayed on the inside of the reserve did so out of choice – mainly because they were fed. And when they fancied a quick visit to the neighbouring village for a little foraging, nothing would stop them. "There are lots of monkeys, many problems," said one elderly man, as he indicated how the monkeys would come into the village and pinch people. Campaigners say that the only real solution to avoiding incidents such as the one that lead to the death of Mr Bajwa was to avoid encroaching on the animals' habitat. Given the growth of India's urban areas over the past 10 years, such encroachment is unlikely to end. Other steps, however, can be taken.

N G Jaya Simha, campaigns manager with the Indian office of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), said city planners needed to ensure that new parks being built had fruit-bearing trees that could provide food for monkeys and thus discourage them from foraging. He said: "A lot of cities are being beautified but while these parks look very nice there is nothing there for monkeys to eat."

The other solution is education. No matter what reverence the monkeys may deserve, people should be taught not to feed them, he said. "The animals' natural fear of humans is disappearing," he said. "They associate people with food."