It's Bananas: India Hires 'Monkey Mimics' To Scare Away Real Ones
In the elegant neighborhoods of central New Delhi, monkeys perch on water tanks, prance on the balustrades of the manicured homes of government VIPs and sift through garbage bins.
The horde seems only momentarily disturbed by the ear-piercing screech of Mahendra Nath.
His quick succession of "ah, ah, ah's" followed by a staccato of "oo, oo, oo's," punctuates the air, mimicking the gray-colored langur monkey that can scare off the nettlesome Rhesus monkeys that swing in the trees of this leafy glade.
Nath patrols a section of the city that houses India's president, the Parliament, Cabinet ministers and Supreme Court justices.
Nath's caterwauling is Delhi's latest scheme to curb the enthusiasm of its pesky primates that also prowl the halls of government ministries, terrorizing bureaucrats.
Dr. P.K. Sharma, the officer of health in the New Delhi Municipal Council, oversees the monkey menace and says the hairy creatures carry rabies, can be aggressive and pose a threat to public health.
A Source Of Chaos ... And A Hindu God
Sharma says religious beliefs complicate efforts to control the chaos the monkeys create. Many Indians consider primates the incarnation of the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman, and therefore feed them, which encourages monkeys to frequent public places and invade private homes.
Reporting monkey raids, Sharma says, residents complain that " 'they've just taken away my clothes,' or ... 'they have opened the fridge' ... and 'they've taken out the food.' "
The monkeys have also been known to intimidate fruit vendors and get intoxicated on stolen whiskey. Sharma says when they fail to find food, they can raise a rumpus.
"They usually entered into the offices. And they destroyed many things like ... the computers, the wires, the electricity wires," Sharma says. "But sometimes if the door is closed and if the monkey's inside, he will make havoc of the room because he feels that he's imprisoned."
The Delhi municipality tried capturing the monkeys and sending them to sanctuaries. But these rapid breeders rapidly filled up the shelters that wanted no more of them.
Culling has been ruled out.
Sharma says sterilization is tricky, too.
"It's very difficult to catch a monkey and then operate on him," he notes.
Langur Monkeys Are Banned From The Job
Officials found success when bigger, more aggressive langur monkeys were deployed to frighten off the smaller Rhesus monkeys.
Tethered by handlers, langurs patrolled the streets for years, including the grounds of the U.S. Embassy. But animal rights activists deplored their use, and the practice was recently banned.
With the long-tailed langurs barred from duty, their impersonators were promoted.
Mahendra Nath, 26, is just one of the 40 men the city has hired to replicate the call of the langurs. Many of them, like Nath, are members of the Medari caste that has for generations tamed monkeys for human entertainment.
Fellow mimic Pramod Kumar laments that their caste has evolved from training langurs to copying their call.
"Having the company of a langur was effective. You would do the job better together. It was like a partner," he says. "But now it's just men, aimlessly running around chasing monkeys."
Kumar adds that langurs kept the monkeys away for three to four days.
Watching Nath dart between trees, screeching, he's at pains to scare the monkeys for more than five minutes, especially the cubs. He says they are the most mischievous and the least afraid.
"We have to cultivate fear in them. Because they just are not scared. They haven't seen a langur," he says. "So we have to chase them, just hound them."
Kumar, 32, recalled how Delhi's deputy mayor fell from his balcony to his death trying to fight off a monkey assault in 2007.
Kumar himself witnessed a female monkey viciously attack an entire fire brigade attempting to rescue her stranded cub. He says he's also been called to chase monkeys at the home of Sonia Gandhi, the country's best known politician after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has his own posse of monkey-spookers.
Protecting The Prime Minister
Vinod Kumar Singh reports for evening duty at Modi's residence. He's philosophical about the stream of schemes authorities have hatched to keep the monkeys at bay.
"I may work at the prime minister's office, but I have no job security," says the 44-year-old former langur handler whose vocal styling sounds nothing like the bark of a long-tailed langur.
Mahendra Nath, however, appears positively inspired on the job and says his biggest hazard "is a sore throat."
He gargles night and day in order to perform.
Both Nath and Kumar pray at the temple of the monkey god on Saturdays even as they shoo monkeys away during the week.
"Faith and work are different," Nath says. His faith tells him to worship a monkey ... while his work, which pays less than $120 a month, says "it's just another animal."
You can follow NPR's Julie McCarthy on Twitter @JulieMcCarthyJM
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
For decades, there has been a menace in India's capital, New Delhi - monkeys. The pesky primates ransack market stalls and terrify garden parties. They've bothered people in Parliament, in government ministries, even the president. These rhesus monkeys, which can carry rabies, also pose a public health hazard. From New Delhi, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on efforts to curb the monkey business.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: India's British rulers erected stately Delhi officialdom in an area that adjoins a 2000 acre forest reserve. Over the decades, development has encroached on the natural habitat for monkeys, and they began scavenging homes and offices of the bureaucratic and political elite.
New Delhi's medical officer of health, Dr. P.K. Sharma, oversees the monkey menace, and says many locals also consider primates the incarnation of the Hindu monkey God, Hanuman. And therefore, feed them which encourages monkeys to frequent public places and invade private homes. Sharma says residents report...
P.K. SHARMA: They have just taken away my clothes, or some people say that they open the fridge, also, the refrigerator. They've taken out the food from there and public is scared of them - this type of complaint.
MCCARTHY: The monkeys have also been known to terrorize fruit vendors and get intoxicated on stolen whiskey. And when they failed to sate their appetite, Sharma says...
SHARMA: They usually entered in the offices, and they destroyed many things. Like sometimes, they destroyed the computers, the wires - the electricity wires. But sometimes if the door is closed, and if the monkey's inside, he will make havoc of the room.
MCCARTHY: The Delhi municipality tried capturing the monkeys and sending them to sanctuaries, but these rapid breeders rapidly filled up the shelters that wanted no more of them. Culling was ruled out, as was sterilization.
A different scheme was introduced - bigger more aggressive langur monkeys were deployed to scare the smaller rhesus monkeys away. But animal rights activists deplored their use, and the practice was banned. However, abolishing the use of the long-tailed langurs is one thing. Banning their impersonators is another.
Delhi's latest solution - have man mimic the fearsome langur monkey sound to scare the nettlesome smaller monkeys away.
(SOUNDBITE OF LANGUR MONKEY CALL)
MCCARTHY: That's 26-year-old Mahendra Nath, one of 40 men the city has hired to replicate the call of the langurs. Many of them, like Nath, are members of the Madari caste that has, for generations, tamed monkeys for the entertainment of humans. Fellow mimic, Pramod Kumar, laments their caste has evolved from training langurs to copying their call.
PRAMOD KUMAR: (Hindi spoken).
MCCARTHY: Having the company of a langur was effective, Pramod says. You could do the job better together. It was like a partner. But now it's just men aimlessly running around chasing monkeys, he says. Pramod adds that langurs kept the monkeys away for three to four days. Watching Mahendra Nath dart between trees screeching, he's at pains to scatter the monkeys for more that five minutes - especially the cubs.
MAHENDRA NATH: (Through translator) We have to cultivate the fear in them because they just are not scared. They haven't seen a langur. That's true, so we have to chase them, like, literally just hound them.
MCCARTHY: Both men pray at the Temple of the Monkey God on Saturdays, even as they shoo monkeys away during the week.
NATH: (Hindi spoken).
MCCARTHY: Faith and work are different, Mahendra Nath says. His faith tells him to worship a monkey, while his work, which pays him $120 a month, says it's just another animal. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.