You might love them or hate them, but you can never ignore monkeys! For some, they are our godly ancestors; for others, they may be mischievous thieves raiding our kitchens, stealing our food and just ‘monkeying’ around. Thanks to massive deforestation and disappearing natural food resources, our interactions with monkeys have become more frequent than ever. Do we influence each other’s behaviour or ecology in such situations? If so, how? In a new study, researchers at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) have tried to answer these questions.
The researchers studied a group of rhesus macaques -- monkeys found commonly in India and other parts of Asia -- at the Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal for a year. In a first-of-its-kind study, they investigated not only how human-provided food affected the macaques, but also how macaque behaviour influenced humans.
“In India, people seem to have a love-hate relationship with the rhesus macaque. While on the one hand the species is revered as an incarnation of Lord Hanuman, it is also considered to be a ‘pest’ species because of how it forages on crops or procures food from kitchens or by snatching from people”, says Dr. Asmita Sengupta from ATREE who is one of the researchers who conducted this study.
Rhesus macaques play an essential role in the forest by dispersing seeds of various plants and trees. But when food becomes readily available, thanks to human interference, instead of spending their time foraging in woods, these macaques wait near the roads, hoping to get food from humans. The study found that the diet of the macaques had drastically changed when they had access to food provided by humans, also called provisioned food. During the months of May-September, when there were few visitors at Buxa, the macaques primarily fed on leaves, flowers, insects and fruits. However, during the months of October-April, when Buxa received a high visitor footfall, macaques consumed lesser amounts of leaves. In fact, the macaques spent nearly 26 times more time near the streets during high visitor months as compared to months with fewer visitors!
The researchers point out that people feed the monkeys cookies, biscuits, cakes and banana chips from nearby tea stalls, or from moving vehicles. Thanks to this, almost 27% of the monkey’s diet is now constituted by provisioned food. “Human food products are calorie-rich and an easily digestible source of food for macaques. However, these foods can cause hormonal imbalance, elevate stress levels, increase inter-group aggression, and change reproductive patterns”, says Dr. Sengupta.
The act of feeding monkeys also impacts their behaviour, the study found. When monkeys start gathering near the roads, people, either out of sympathy or love, start feeding them. Hence, the monkeys become used to being fed by humans and lose their sense of fear and actively seek provisioned food. They slowly turn aggressive and could cause harm to visitors and local communities.
But, isn’t feeding wildlife illegal? Of course, it is! So why do visitors feed macaques in the first place? The researchers interviewed 86 visitors to get some answers. Of the 60 visitors who admitted to feeding monkeys, 27% said they did so for religious reasons, 11% said that this was because they ‘cared’ for wildlife, and 62% claimed that they fed the macaques because they either felt sorry for them or were frightened by the aggressive monkeys. Thus, macaque behaviour impelled humans to feed the macaques!
The researchers also interviewed residents of Buxa to find out how they interacted with the monkeys. They found that the local communities were aware of the danger of feeding the monkeys. In a survey that they conducted, 69% of the locals knew that feeding wild animal was illegal and 31% said that feeding monkeys would encourage them to raid their houses for food. About 72% of the residents claimed that they do not feed the monkeys since this influences their behaviour.
Another problem with the increased human-monkey interaction is the higher risk of disease transmission between the two species. Also, since the monkeys spend more time near the roads, they risk being run over by passing vehicles.
Since visitors often feed the monkeys based on religious views, the law is unlikely to fix the problem. To help these monkeys, and ourselves, the researchers recommend involving local communities in educating the visitors about the impacts of feeding these primates. So, the next time you feel like feeding wild animals - don’t! That is the best you could do for yourself and the wildlife you seem to care for.