Contributions of IIT Bombay researcher to the field that won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics

Can an animal behaviourist and an environmental geographer help the coexistence of animals and humans?

Read time: 4 mins
30 Jul 2018
Photo : Purabi Deshpande / Research Matters

Macaques are now a common sight in the cities of India. Perhaps, you have seen more monkeys in the cities than in the wild! But, how did they get to the cities? How do they survive in the cities amidst people and how did they learn to forage for food? Are they different from their wild relatives? Finding answers to these questions can not only satisfy our curiosity but can also help develop policies that can help us coexist with these ‘urbanised’ animals. In one such attempt, a new study by Dr Anindya Sinha from National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore and Dr Maan Barua from University of Cambridge, UK, explores these questions to fill the gaps in our knowledge about the lives of urban animals.

Animals survive in our cities depending on their experience-based knowledge, speed, and rhythm, which is sometimes against the grain of urban societies. While urban geographers tend to examine the human-centric influence of urbanisation on animals by asking questions like ‘how do the lives of these animals affect human societies’, animal behaviourists take a different animal-centric perspective by exploring ‘how animals behave in urban spaces and interact with humans’. This study marks a start to a conversation on what urbanisation means for the animals by studying the semi-urbanised macaques.

About half of the 5 lakh macaques in northern and north-eastern India live around human habitats and have become an essential part of the 'urban living'.  However, how did they become ‘urbanised’, you wonder? If you have ever fed them while visiting sanctuaries, you have contributed towards this ‘urbanisation’ of nature. Urbanisation is not something that merely takes place in the cities, any space with heavy human traffic often transform animal lifeworlds, the authors argue.

“In the 1980s, troops of wild bonnet macaques in the Bandipur and Mudumalai National Parks were made up of multiple males and females. But, in 2000, the macaques had smaller troops with a single male and multiple females”, say the authors about the observed effects of such urbanisation. The newly available but scattered food provided by the tourists, they believe, is one of the reasons for this change. Similarly, in the cities, regularly feeding fruits and other food to the macaques has contributed to an increase in their population.

The process of urbanisation has a slew of consequences for the macaques, ranging from behavioural to metabolic. Obesity from feeding on junk food, increased aggression between males and frequent migration of females due to lack of mates are some of these. In fact, a previous study by Dr Sinha shows that bonnet macaques employ gestures to ask for food from humans in urban settings, a behaviour that is absent in their wild relatives. “Macaques learn unusual behaviours such as bipedal begging for food from tourists, by mirroring human behaviours that generate sympathy. Such beneficial behaviours then spread rapidly within a group”, explains Dr Sinha.

However, not all macaque troops learn and spread the same behaviours nor to the same extent, the study found. While some troops raided homes for food, others did not. Even between troops in the same locality, there are differences in the ways they consume the same food, and the ways they interact with humans. “Paying attention to such differences is perhaps critical for future interventions to regulate macaque populations in Indian cities”, the authors say.

In 2017, when the monkey menace became intolerable in Delhi, one ‘solution’ that was adopted was to relocate the macaques to rural and semi-rural areas closer to forests. However, as an unexpected consequence, the macaques carried with them the behaviours they had learnt in the cities and other macaque troops soon learnt to raid houses and neighbourhoods by imitating them! The researchers cite this as an example to point out that such proposals should recognise that animals do not heed 'human' policies, and hence policymakers should consider aspects of animal behaviour.

The researchers also argue that we need to dispel the idea that animals ‘encroach’ upon urban spaces and that humans alone are not entitled to occupy the cities. “Many macaque troops choose their home territories based on the availability of human-provisioned food sources. They negotiate these territories with other troops while forming strong attachments to specific areas in the territories”, say the researchers, pointing out that animals are equally involved in transforming the urban world as humans.

The current study argues that ethological understanding, in combination with the geographers’ knowledge of the power relations in urban spaces, will translate to a deepened understanding of the world shared by animals and humans. Animals no more live only in the wild; we have seen them share our spaces in the cities. It is time that we include this evidence when forming urban policies, and welcome the emerging conversation.