On the morning of Friday last week, PD Bhutia, a resident of Bojoghari, found his kitchen in a mess. Some leftover momos had disappeared, packets of bleaching powder were torn and maize cobs lay strewn on the floor. He blamed the neighbourhood cat but did not understand where the maize cobs had come from. A few hours later he heard something on the roof of his house - a monkey. Together with some neighbours he chased the monkey away and found out that it had also destroyed a neighbour’s TV set.
Monkey menace is not a new thing for Sikkim but it is now spreading to urban areas alarming citizens and officials alike. The areas of Gangtok with significant monkey population like the Hurhuray Dara and the entire stretch of Namnang – Deorali road now has a permanently “settled” population of monkeys. Branching out further to other new areas of town, they have now started gathering food from residential areas like Pani House and Syari. Every year vast swathes of agricultural land in the countryside are damaged by the activities of animals, especially monkeys. Towns like Rangpo and Singtam have always had a major problem of monkeys barging inside kitchens and shops, sometimes even harming humans.
“Homes have now become a source of food for these wild animals. Slowly but steadily with the rise in population these groups of monkeys are expanding their territory for food gathering. Hence the problem of human-animal conflict is arising,” says Divisional Forest Officer (Wildlife), Sangay Gyatso Bhutia. One of the long term processes to keep the monkey population under control is through sterilization and trapping of monkeys in a well-designed cage. Taking cue from the Himachal Pradesh Government – which has a Monkey Sterilization Program underway - the state government had sent a group of doctors, compounders and staff for training to Shimla this year. “This was done to improve our ability to capture wild monkeys and other animals in a better way,” says Mr Bhutia.
Other methods like the introduction of Langur in places like Delhi is ruled out in Sikkim. “The method requires a person to be with the Langur 24/7. We also can’t let them out in the wild as it will create a bigger problem for the state,” remarks Mr Bhutia.The clever species have become accustomed to human ways of trapping them through caging techniques, with monkeys simply not entering inside any form of cage even if it has many edibles. The bursting of crackers, which is often deployed to chase away hordes of monkeys, is a temporary solution. As they quickly reclaim the area within a few days.
The trapping of the group leader or the Alpha male, which can disperse a huge group and make it easier for forest officials to trap them have also failed. “After trapping the Alpha male the group does get dispersed for a brief time but there is always another monkey who becomes the Alpha male and reorganises the group,” adds the DFO.
Trapping of such huge monkeys like the Alpha male is a difficult process which sometimes can require the help of tranquilizers. A process described by Mr Bhutia as “very risky” and “costly”. The instinctive response of the animals to attack in the direction from where the tranquilizer is shot can be dangerous for even a trained official. If there is a crowd - which usually happens - the wild animals become more aggressive which may cause serious fatalities.
Tranquillisers such as Ketamine and Xylazin, made in countries such as Germany and Australia come at very high price but are more effective than tranquilizers made in India. “Foreign made tranquilizers are more powerful than their Indian counterpart,” opines Mr Bhutia. Last year alone there were around 400 complaints of damage to life and property by animals of which “80 to 90 cases” were by monkeys, said Mr Bhutia. This year too, there are many complaints received by the department. Most complaints of loss of Maize plantation have come from Bhusuk and Pendam villages. The damages include agricultural loss, creating nuisance in residential areas and even attacking humans. The affected people are required to register their complaint to the concerned Range Officer who has to act within 24 hours of the complaint received. After assessment and field visit by the authorities the compensation ranges from Rs 5000 to Rs 1 Lakh.
The risk of man-animal conflict looms large not only in East Sikkim but now is a frequent occurrence across the state. Few weeks ago, there were reports from West Sikkim of Maize plantations being destroyed by monkeys. Of late, Gangtok and its suburbs have also seen a spate of such incidents. “I was peacefully walking near Tashi View point when a group of monkeys attacked me and even bit my right hand. I was not carrying anything,” tells Neelam, a 24-year-old woman.
Apart from monkeys, other wild animals and birds have been reported across Sikkim to cause damage to human settlements, cattle and agricultural land which includes the Deer, Wild Boar, Peacock, Snow Leopard, Tibetan Wolf and Yellow throated Marten. Fuelled by increasing human population and a loss of habitat, wild animals are being forced to enter areas of human settlements. A world-wide phenomena and a burning problem for South Asia, a mechanism needs to be developed for tackling the man-animal conflict.