Marauding monkeys bring fear to historic Indian tourist haven

SHIMLA, INDIA (AFP) – Thousands of monkeys are menacing the historic Indian city of Shimla, where sterilisations and illegal poisonings have failed to blunt their frequent attacks on tourists and farms.

During India’s nationwide coronavirus lockdown, most of the macaques left the city for the countryside to look for food.

As restrictions have eased, they have returned to bully inhabitants and snatch grocery bags, and up to 50 troops of hungry monkeys now prowl the former colonial British summer escape in the Himalayan hills.

The city of 160,000 people has long been a major draw for tourists seeking to avoid India’s searing summer heat, but the food waste they leave behind has become a magnet for the hungry simians.

Nand Lal showed AFP the wounds from one altercation with the animals this month.

“I was passing a group of monkeys when the dominant male suddenly attacked me and three others piled in,” said the 46-year-old, who required multiple anti-rabies injections after the assault. “Luckily I could grab a stick and fight them off. I had bruises all over my face and head. I was bleeding from a bite on my back.”

Officials from the Forest Department of Shimla carry a cage with two monkeys inside caught from a residential area. PHOTO: AFP

Days after the assault, Lal said, he could still hear the “chattering” of his attackers and the two dozen other monkeys that watched.

“People are very scared and they don’t know what to do,” according to retired High Court judge Kuldeep Chand Sood, who pointed to a bite in his leg inflicted as he sat reading on the terrace of his home.

“I was just going through my book when suddenly a big monkey attacked and bit me,” he told AFP at his home in the macaque-infested Sanjauli district.

Many Sanjauli homes now have metal cages over their terraces and windows to keep out the invaders, who have even been known to steal from refrigerators.

Rajesh Sharma, a government wildlife officer in Shimla, said garbage bins overflowing with food attract the animals.

Improving rubbish collection has meant “the monkeys are finding it harder”. “But their habits are the same. They now try to snatch any packet they see in anyone’s hand,” she explained.

“If they don’t find it, they try and bite someone.”

Even tourists at the Jakhoo temple, which holds one of India’s largest statues of the monkey god Hanuman, have had glasses and other shiny items stolen.

When not targetting humans, the estimated 130,000-plus monkeys in the state are stealing or destroying millions of dollars of fruit and crops each year from farms.

While Hindus consider monkeys sacred, the government has now declared the animals can be killed if they threaten property.

Official extermination campaigns are yet to be launched, but farmers have illegally poisoned hundreds of the animals.

In Shimla and other towns in the state, the authorities have sought to sterilise the monkeys in a bid to bring numbers down.

About 157,000 of the animals have been sterilised across Himachal Pradesh in recent years, in what one expert said was the “only way” to bring the problem under control.

“If we kill monkeys like some who poison monkeys, that can pose a threat to humans and other wild animals as well,” said Pooja Kanwar, a specialist at the Shimla monkey sterilisation centre.

But monkey catchers said the animals are increasingly wise to their tactic of leaving bananas and bread in cages to trap them.

“When a monkey is caught, it alerts the others,” said Sharma.