Indian forests are home to some of our own closest genetic relatives from a fascinating group called primates. Some well-known examples of primate species are the rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta), bonnet macaque (Macaca radiata), and Hanuman langur (Semnopithecus entellus). The rhesus macaque and bonnet macaque are highly adaptable primate species with a presence across a diversity of habitats such as forests, farmlands, temples, and towns. Named after a famous Hindu deity, Hanuman langur has strong religious and cultural associations. Lesser-known primate species such as gibbons and lorises display a range of peculiar behavior. Hoolock gibbons (Hoolock spp.) are arboreal and move through specialized locomotion form using only hands (brachiation). Lorises are nocturnal primate species with distinct morphological features and an insectivorous diet (Photo 1_Slender Loris).
A healthy, well-functioning forest ecosystem is crucial for the survival of primate species. However, primates, like other wildlife, are also affected by changes in forest ecosystems. The loss of forests and the scarcity of wild food sources may drive them towards human settlements. When farmlands are situated near forest habitats, monkeys often venture into these areas, feeding on crops and causing damage (Photo 2_Rhesus macaque). This results in financial losses for farmers due to reduced crop yields. In areas with significant crop damage, farmers must spend eight to ten hours each day guarding their fields from monkeys. This makes farming a labor-intensive and time-consuming activity. In extreme cases, some farmers may resort to harmful measures like bursting crackers or shooting to deter the animals. Such interactions result in what is known as ‘human-primate conflict,’ wherein actions taken by either humans or primates negatively affect the other party. Notable primate species involved in human-primate conflicts include rhesus macaque, bonnet macaque, and Hanuman langur.
The human-primate conflict in cities and towns occurs due to the increased proximity between humans and primates. The presence of food waste in garbage dumps attracts primates to urban areas (Photo 3_Rhesus macaque and photo 4_Hanuman Langur), where they engage in kitchen and house raids and become a nuisance for residents. The well-intentioned act of providing food to primates can also lead to conflicts, as it creates the expectation that humans are a food source (Photo 5_Bonnet macaque and Photo 6_Bonnet macaque). This is particularly evident at temples and tourist locations where feeding monkeys is common. Unmet expectations may result in aggressive behavior from primates. Human provisioning also affects the health, reproduction, behavior, and ecological functions of primates. A notable example is the lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus), a species native to the Western Ghat forests, which has recently started accepting food from humans along the roadsides. This kind of interaction with humans increases their risk of accidents and can fundamentally alter their ecology and behavior. Human provisioning disrupts primates’ crucial ecological role as seed dispersers within forests. When human food is easily available, primates tend to feed and disperse fewer natural fruits.
Conflict with humans is one of the major challenges for human-primate coexistence in India. The long-term survival of primate species depends on our ability to limit our interference in primates’ habitats and food systems. Negative interactions with primates should be dealt with by considering the needs of both primates and humans. This will ensure that we continue to enjoy their presence in our surroundings.
About the author:
Shaurabh Anand is part of the School of Development at the Azim Premji University.