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A Monkey Food Court

Rooting for co-existence

- Shruthi Suresh Sawulla, September 16 2021 

Existing through the tiniest intricacies of life, we are born to encounter different species that try to co-exist in this enchanting ecosystem. All of history proves, co-existence gives rise to a variety of conflicts. Addressing and tackling them is essential. If that is avoided, unresolved conflicts lead quite often to a lasting detrimental impact on co-existing species and on humans.

We have somehow built this perpetual ideology that we are superior in this ecosystem. It is the wedge that splits us apart from co-existing with wildlife and natural heritage. It works against conserving other species.

Macaques, social grooming

Macaques grooming themselves in Telengana, India

I learnt and discovered during my Master’s degree in wildlife conservation from Bharati Vidyapeeth, Pune, that “Conservation” is not just about conserving species. It is also about managing and communicating with people from different communities, gathering and acquiring resources, and mitigating conflict by understanding the underlying cause and hidden impacts of the strife.  These critically important aspects should not be left out in practicing conservation.

Here is a great instance of co-existence and conservation from Thirumalapur village in Jagtial District, Telengana.

Human versus macaques

The small word ‘conflict' has a baggage of pernicious impacts. While I was working on a dissertation to conserve the fragile flagship species of Lepidoptera butterflies, I came across intriguing anti-conservation stories related to macaque monkeys.

Thirumalapur Hills, Jagtial District, Telengana, India

Hills with an interconnected tree cover canopy near Thirumalapur

A lot of land is cleared in Telangana to cultivate invasive, exotic plants, eucalyptus and teak plantations. Nobody asks or bothers to understand its detriment to the native ecosystem, hampering the local flora and fauna thriving in it. Tree crowns with interconnected canopies is the essential natural habitat to arboreal animals like macaques, Losing it and its ecosystem services to plantations wipes out the food source for macaques and many other wildlife in the jungle.

Macaques migrated to human societies with the sheer wish to survive, and to evade the harmful impact on their lifecycle caused by man-made pressures.

Numerous articles and headlines concerning human-wildlife  conflict, attacks and behaviour grab our attention. In Telengana, many of it are about macaques invading villages and towns to eat food that littered streets and garbage disposal areas. In some instances, humans feed them in the name of religious beliefs.

Macaques on the roof

Macaques on a rooftop in Thirumalapur village

Macaques eating at a human settlements.

Macaques eating mangoes at a residential colony

Indian epic literature Ramayana gives heroic status to the monkey character Hanuman. Yet macaques do not automatically get all the attention and glamour. Quite the opposite.

Increasing number of macaques inevitably resulted in daily traumatic attacks by humans and stray animals on macaques in Telangana’s rural and urban areas. It caused a drastic decline in  macaques.

Singularly different

Jagtial district’s Thirumalapur village is singularly different.  All I could hear during every visit in the past, was “these monkeys are a terror!”. But today, instead of referring to terror, locals say, “these monkeys didn’t have food in the jungles, so they invaded our homes, looking for food. Instead of us feeding them, we made sure they get food in the jungle”.

Jagtial Forest department took a whole year of effective adaptive management strategies involving local communities as stakeholders. Multiple brainstorming sessions brought about the conclusion of developing a food court for monkeys.

“Along a hill-side, 5 acres have been devoted to sustain macaques in the jungle,” says Forest beat officer T Shekhar.  “No forest patch was cleared. This land was a teak plantation earlier. 4 kms away from villages, it has a lake next to it. 

Monkeys' Food Court
Monkeys' Food Court
Lake near Monkeys' Food Court

The lake near the Monkey Food Court

Local communities and the forest department planted 50 saplings of native fruit-bearing trees, shrubs and herbs raised in a government nursery - Custard Apple (*Shipalapandu), Gooseberry (*Usiri), Jackfruit (*Panasa), Guava (*Jama), Figs (*Juvvi), Jamun or black plum (*Neredu), Tamarind (*Chinta), Wild Almond (*Badam), Papaya (*Bobbaya), Pomegranate ( *Danimma), Mango ( *Mamidi), Hog Plum ( *Maredu), Stone Fruit or or wood apple (*Velaga), and Indian plum or Osoberry  (*Regu) - on this acreage. Invasive species such as Lantana camara and Horse purslane were uprooted and used as manure for these saplings to grow. As these saplings grew to maturity, Rhesus macaques, Bonnet macaques, Langurs began feeding at this site. It eventually became Kothula Aharashala in Telugu, the 'monkey food court’ ”. ( * gives the fruit names in Telugu, the local language)

“As the lake dries up in summer, the local municipality’s water tanks fill it. The existence of the monkey food court,” says Shekhar, “has reduced the conflict in Thirumalapur”.

Routine battle

Effective measures were taken, but it didn’t happen within a day. It took months

  • to collect data on the conflict issues and feeding patterns of the macaques in Jagtial region,

  • to understand the underlying factors crucial for resolving the human versus macaques conflict.

Jagtial Forest department educated the local communities on the importance of macaques in the ecosystem. They explained why the local population should abstain from feeding macaques and how feeding them has further bad consequences on their dietary patterns.

Raised in metropolitan Mumbai, I am definitely familiar with ‘Human versus wildlife’, ‘human versus big cats’ conflict headlines. I used to come across these headlines daily, referring to big cats: leopards, trying to co-exist alongside Mumbai’s urban environment. I learnt the importance of co-existence and co-involvement of communities in every root aspect of managing these conflicts in wildlife conservation.

Even today in the 21st Century, conservationists and environmentalists routinely battle such grave disheartening conflicts, mitigating these issues present in every corner of the country. A small initiative and innovative technique managed to resolve an issue beleaguering Jagtial district for ages. All it takes is concern, awareness and sensitivity among the citizens, asking questions at the right time. Why is the conflict arising? What are its implications ?

Macaques in dense tree canopy, Lake near Monkeys' Food Court

Macaques thriving in a dense canopy of trees provided by the Monkey Food Court

Win-win situation

These conflicts cannot be reduced all by themselves. It involves working with multiple target groups and communities to conserve a species, while keeping its benefits to both the species and the communities in mind.

 

Instead of neglecting or avoiding conflict situations, we root for co-existence.

Success in conservation is not always about losing something.

It is about building the bridge and filling the missing links while simultaneously working on achieving the goal. It is about succeeding without losing scientific temper and passion towards conservation.

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