Monkey See, Monkey Do

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Monkeys cross the road in front of the Presidential Palace and government buildings in New Delhi, India.

Most big cities in the world face the same kinds of problems: traffic, pollution, crime. Then there is New Delhi, which has a challenge rarely encountered elsewhere — monkeys. Hungry Rhesus macaques roam the streets and even the subway, leap through treetops outside grand government buildings and scale fences of companies and private homes in search of open windows and tempting food. Even Delhi's police headquarters has been raided by a monkey gang.

And to deal with such a rare urban problem, Delhi has come up with an unusual response: it's launched a monkey arms race. Companies and city officials have started employing langurs — large, black-faced apes — to protect buildings and scare off the smaller rhesus monkeys. "Any langur will do the business," says Zahid Khan, 20, who has been handling langurs since he was eight and most days chains one or two outside the Press Trust of India building, which houses TIME's Delhi bureau. "The monkeys are petrified of them."

Until a couple of years ago monkeys used to climb the PTI building and try to raid its offices. One of my predecessors glued shut the windows in our office to keep the marauding animals out. The arrival of the langur took things to another level. With their sharp teeth and long, muscular tail that can swot an errant ape from a couple of feet away, langurs are scary to humans — not just a smaller rhesus monkey. Khan says business is good, despite the recent proliferation of competitors. The company he works for employs twelve langurs, including two that he was using to guard our building last week: Babby, an 8-year-old female, her 4-month-old baby playing at her feet, and Ramu, a particularly fierce looking 10-year-old male. "If they hit you with their tail it will break the skin," said Khan, matter-of-factly. I didn't get close enough to test his claim.

To get a better idea of how big the monkey problem is I spoke with Iqbal Malik, one of India's leading primatologists. Malik has studied monkeys for more than two decades and estimates there are now 5,000 monkeys in Delhi. Seven years ago she came up with a plan to create a reserve for the city's monkeys and begin a program of sterilization for selected male monkeys. But she says the city fumbled those plans and instead started trapping monkeys and caging them to create the impression they were doing something. (You can read her story at Malik says using langurs is "stupid." The smaller monkeys may be scared of langurs but they will simply move elsewhere in the city. There is also some evidence that over time the monkeys and langurs may start coexisting peacefully. Chaining langurs also contravenes India's wildlife protection act. "I'm laughing because it's beyond care now," says Malik. "They are dealing with a problem by creating new ones."

Monkeys and humans have long coexisted in India, where Hindus consider the primates sacred. In the ancient Sanskrit epic the Ramayana, the monkey god Hanuman symbolizes wisdom, devotion, righteousness and strength. Most days, but especially every Tuesday, devout Hindus feed Delhi's monkeys a feast of bananas and peanuts.

But as the monkey population has grown in recent years — in addition to the urban feasts seeming to attract more, Malik also blames scientific laboratories, which use monkeys for experiments and then abandon them — the natural balance has been thrown off kilter. Hungry monkeys attack people and snatch food when they can. In 2004, monkeys were blamed when Ministry of Defence officials found top secret documents scattered around an office. Monkeys have broken into parliament and kept people from entering their own houses.

In response, the city started rounding up monkeys and caging them in a large, dedicated prison on the outskirts of Delhi. Authorities would like to send them to forests in neighboring states, but many of the states refuse to take the animals, complaining that they have their own monkey issues. Last week India's Supreme Court stepped in, ordering that 300 entrapped monkeys be transferred to a forest in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

Wildlife lovers and environmentalists are outraged by the decision. They point out that Delhi's monkeys have become urbanized and may not survive in the wild. Activists also complain that in the process of rounding up monkeys, many are injured and babies get separated from mothers. "We have to tackle this another way," says Gautam Grover, the head of animal rights group Animal Saviour. "We took their land, we took their trees, we took their forests and now we just want to send them to another forest. We're playing God with this."