Twenty-nine-year-old Rohit Sharma recalls growing up with monkeys in Ayodhya, the famous pilgrim centre in Uttar Pradesh. The last few weeks though, in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, he has witnessed a behavioural change in the animals. “Since my childhood, monkeys have been an integral part of our daily life – both from a religious point of view and in our social living. They eat from our hands, touch us in playful moods and, at times, sit on people’s shoulders. It’s no more the case in the last few weeks,” Sharma, a local advocate, said.
Last week, his mother Krishnawati Devi was bitten by a monkey outside her house near Naya Ghat in Ayodhya. It was a hot and quiet forenoon and Krishnawati had stepped out of her house to buy some essential non-food items when the monkey unexpectedly but her. Immediately rushed to a local hospital by her family, she returned home tired and stunned after her treatment.
“Monkeys in Ayodhya are used to the hustle-bustle of humans, crowded religious places, high decibel rituals, and free meals at mathas (Hindu monasteries) and temples,” Sharma tod Mongabay-India over a telephonic conversation. His mother joined the phone conversation to explain how, in decades, she has never seen such aggression among these primates.
“The coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent lockdown have changed the character of the place, and monkeys are certainly not finding it normal. I have never seen them so angry,” said the 45-year-old homemaker Krishnawati.
“For years, I have seen how at noon, monkeys queue up to have prasad (holy offerings) when dozens of mathas and temples organize bhandaras (a religious public feast). They have always been cheerful, but now we see them sad, dull and observe a change in their behaviour. They are getting a bit aggressive,” said Mahant Rajivlochan Sharan, a temple priest at Swargdwar. Sharan said one of his neighbours was also attacked by a monkey recently.
The lockdown may have affected the behaviour of some groups of monkeys in two ways, said Arijit Pal, a primatologist. “It could have altered their ‘daily activity budget,’ which means the amount of time dedicated by monkeys to perform activities like feeding, movement, grooming, being inactive, playing, vocalising, etc. every day. For instance, due to scarcity of food the time dedicated by monkeys to search for it, and the area they cover to look for it will change. If earlier they moved 500 meters to get food, now they might be moving 1.5 km for it. This shift in routine can, in turn, alter their daily activity budget,” Pal said.
Secondly, the lockdown will increase the intergroup and intragroup competition among monkeys. “Hierarchy really matters in monkey groups, but usually inside a monkey group, fights do not happen that frequently. However, the increasing food crunch will lead to more competition and conflicts within and among monkey groups,” Pal explained, further adding that due to pervading silence, monkeys must be hearing their rivals better, which has the potential to impact their behaviour.
Besides, Pal, a post-doctoral researcher at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), also pointed out that monkeys in some urban pockets have become dependent on human beings for food. They are no longer used to natural ways of acquiring food and instead they look at humans as their food enablers. And human absence has a direct bearing on them.
“It is a reflection of what we have done to them over all these years,” he added.
S.N. Biswas, who practices Ayurveda in the district, concurred with the changing behaviour. Biswas said post the lockdown, he is getting between eight to 10 people attacked by monkeys coming to him for treatment almost daily. Earlier, he claimed, it was not a regular affair.
Temple priest Sharan said that there is widespread fear that the monkeys may be infected by the novel coronavirus. However, there is no scientific proof of coronavirus spreading among monkeys.
Human-animal conflict is a global concern – constant contact between animals and humans results in injury to humans and their livestock, crop damage, and retaliatory killing of wild animals. The inverse situation has been developing in Ayodhya; lack of human interference during the lockdown and the pervading silence is bringing about a change in monkey behaviour.
“Even though monkeys are wild animals, some groups of monkeys who stay in close vicinity of humans like temple monkeys are known to develop emotional connections and dependency of food on the human community, somewhat like community animals. When they don’t find these familiar faces or friends around, it bothers them. It was expected that they would have fun during the lockdown with fewer humans around, but it’s not happening. The ecology of these community monkeys has perhaps made a special space for humans. Due to the lockdown, the absence of humans in their daily life has left them longing for friendly human company,” said Kamna Pandey, an animal welfare activist in Uttar Pradesh.
Over a period of time, some monkey groups start recognising people, and their absence could affect them, said Vijay Pal Singh, a professional monkey catcher. “The monkeys in Ayodhya might be finding the current lockdown and prevailing silence abnormal. The change in their regular habitat composition, lack of provisioned food, and disruption of their daily routine must be the reasons behind a change in their behaviour,” Singh explained.
India has over 29,453 active COVID-19 cases as of May 4. A lockdown in the country began on March 25 after which it was extended to May 3 and then further by two more weeks.
Shweta Thakur Nanda is a journalist based in Delhi NCR.