Out of Place and Out of Space – Translocation and the Urban Monkey

Aditi Dhillon

This year, in June 2021, the Karnataka High Court passed a judgement according to which monkeys entering residential spaces were to be translocated and moved to their natural habitat by the state. This judgement, however, was not one of its kind. It was, in fact, along the lines of a judgement passed by the Delhi High Court in 2007 to shift the monkeys from the residential colonies of Delhi to the nearby Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary.

Rehabilitation and relocation though is not the only way in which non-human beings have been ‘dealt’ with, especially in the urban environment. Some other measures have included sterilisation or declaring a particular species as a ‘vermin’, giving authorities the right to cull the concerned animal. In Himachal Pradesh, for instance, in 2006, around the same time when Delhi had opted for translocation, sterilisation was the alternative that the Himachal government sought to deal with their monkey population. However, almost a decade later, in 2017, the state of Himachal seemed to reach a point that they had to declare the macaque as a vermin. Having said that, such measures have not been unique to India. In New York as well, from being seen in a pleasant light at one point, pigeons, over a span of a couple of decades came to be seen as vermin species that needed to be exterminated (Jerolmack, 2008).

With respect to translocation specifically, several non-human beings, especially monkeys, in various cities of our country have been subjected to such involuntary movement and dislocation. One of the earliest instance of translocation goes back to the city of Mathura, where, in 1997, a translocation operation of a group of hundreds of rhesus macaques was undertaken and was considered as one of the “world’s largest-ever translocations of monkeys” (Imam et al., 2002). Especially being a holy pilgrimage site, the macaques in Mathura were revered for a long time as they were considered sacred; an incarnation of lord Hanuman. However, over a period of time, especially during the last two decades of the 20th century, the relationship between humans and macaques in Mathura began to get strained plausibly due to overlapping living spaces and places of existence in the city (Ibid). This then leads to the question of when does a species become intolerable in the city and results in the need to remove it; and, when is it tolerated?

“The legitimacy of their (wild animals) presence diminishes with increasing proximity to neighbourhoods and to people’s homes”

(Hunold, 2019)

Cities today are transforming faster than ever before and have abundant food availability either due to urban greening in the form of gardens and urban farming or because of the presence of waste, making human-animal encounters a more frequent occurrence than in the past (Hunold, 2019; Barua and Sinha, 2020). The presence of these non-human beings in urban neighbourhoods is rather unsettling for urban dwellers, as, for them, nature and society cannot exist as one, enmeshed entity. The boundary between nature and society is so staunchly upheld in people’s minds’ that the blurring of this line or the presence of animals in city space and their proximity to human establishments is viewed as an infringement upon space that is considered to belong to humans alone. The presence of these animals is therefore not seen as legitimate in the city and as Christian Hunold (2019) has said, “The legitimacy of their (wild animals) presence diminishes with increasing proximity to neighbourhoods and to people’s homes”. These beings are hence seen as ‘out of place’ in the city and as belonging to spaces outside the city, perhaps in natural parks or reserves (Hunold, 2019).

Macaques and their lifeworlds in particular have been deeply intertwined with human lives in the urban environment. Or, as Barua and Sinha (2020) have said, “Macaques are excellent candidates for understanding how nonhuman lifeworlds are urbanised.” These beings, therefore, do not merely occupy spaces in the city but inhabit them, and the human control over animal lives and the cityscape tends to ignore that animals are co-creators of what Jennifer Wolch has called “…places and landscapes” (Ibid). One therefore tends to think whether animal control in the form of translocation (which according to Barua and Sinha (2020) has more or less been the go-to response for the state to deal with the “monkey menace”) is workable given that animals have managed to establish their “beastly places” in the city, thereby blurring the nature-society divide (Ibid).

“Places contain human and also nonhuman stories, meanings and significance. A place is not simply materially carved out of space. … Places are also remembered, experienced, felt, discussed and imagined.”

(Aisher & Damodaran, 2016, p. 299) in (Hunold & Bidart, 2019)

According to an article published by India Today in 2019, several localities in south Delhi had been complaining of monkey attacks and bites as simians who had been shifted from the city to the Asola Bhatti wildlife sanctuary over a period spanning almost a decade were beginning to flee and escape from the reserve back into the urban heartland. Despite the wildlife department having spent almost rupees 10 core till now to purchase various fruits and grams to sustain the monkeys in the sanctuary, the fleeing of the monkey’s makes one wonder if the ‘urbanised’ macaques can actually be shifted back to the hinterland or to the margins of the city. With roughly 23,000 monkey’s being shifted to the sanctuary till now, the forest department itself it seems (as published in an article by The Week in 2020) believes that the monkeys who gravitated towards human habitation at one point are no longer ‘wild’ and have been domesticated. This was ratified and further affirmed by a statement made by a forest department official that was published in the same article, “Their third-fourth generations were born in residential areas. They cannot live in jungles. The Asola sanctuary has exceeded its carrying capacity and the simians are returning to nearby human habitations.”

Image: The life of macaques in Asola Bhatti (Credits: Times of India)

Therefore, urban space is not solely created and carved by humans but is in fact a result of the encounters between humans, non-humans and inanimate entities (Hunold & Bidart, 2019). The negotiation of space sharing and co-existence is what one would call ‘placemaking’, where, one acknowledges that “Places contain human and also nonhuman stories, meanings and significance. A place is not simply materially carved out of space. … Places are also remembered, experienced, felt, discussed and imagined.” (Aisher & Damodaran, 2016, p. 299) in (Hunold & Bidart, 2019). The urban space is therefore intertwined with ecology, making the two inseparable from one another, and so, by default, making the city a space that is not restricted solely to human imagination, design, planning and control (Franklin, 2016). One, therefore, thinks whether a mechanism like translocation can achieve its purpose and uphold the human-animal divide, separating human and beastly spaces or whether human and animal geographies can overlap and collide in city space, a space that exists outside designated and demarcated ‘natural’ areas (Hunold, 2019).

References

  • Hunold, C. (2019). Green infrastructure and urban wildlife: Toward a politics of sight. Humanimalia, 11(1), 89-108.
  • Imam, E., Yahya, H. S. A., & Malik, I. (2002). A successful mass translocation of commensal rhesus monkeys Macaca mulatta in Vrindaban, India. Oryx, 36(01).
  • Sinha, A., & Barua, M. (2020). Nonhuman Lifeworlds in Urban India. The Philosopher, 108(1), 22-27.
  • Franklin, A. (2017). The more-than-human city. The Sociological Review65(2), 202-217.
  • Hunold, C., & Lloro, T. (2019). There goes the neighborhood: Urban coyotes and the politics of wildlife. Journal of Urban Affairs, 1-18.
  • Jerolmack, C. (2008). How pigeons became rats: The cultural-spatial logic of problem animals. Social problems55(1), 72-94.

About the Author
About the Author

Aditi is a recent post-graduate from the School of Human Ecology at Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD) and, presently, serves as Research Assistant at the Centre for Urban Ecology and Sustainability, AUD. Human-animal relations and looking at the co-creation of space by both humans as well as non-human beings and entities has been her area of interest.

2 thoughts on “Out of Place and Out of Space – Translocation and the Urban Monkey

  1. Kartik says:

    By pointing out how macaques have transgressed their imagined ‘natural’ places by rendering attempts of translocation ineffective, you have argued to obliterate nature-culture divide for a more-than-human city. But I just wanted to know your stance on the ground realities, where macaque-human interactions can be largely be conflicting in nature and coexistence can be difficult. What do you think can be an effective strategy to mitigate this friction in a co-habited
    urban landscape? And whether macaques and humans can co-exist without hostility?

    • aditidhillon says:

      Hi Kartik, thank you for your comment!
      Having read some of your blogs, I realise that you probably have a keen interest in animal geography as well and therefore, I can understand where you are coming from. The questions you have asked have crossed my mind as well during the course of my limited field work and data collection. However, with what I’ve read and seen, I feel conflict and coexistence are not mutually exclusive conditions of living, and, reality is far more complicated. This dynamic, rather, exists within humans too. Yes, the nature of conflict may differ across species but our relations and equations are not always one of coexistence either, I feel. For instance, certain sections of the human population as well are shown to be in the way of urbanization of the city, making coexistence with them appear difficult, as they are painted in a way where a conflict of interests is portrayed as natural and unavoidable. Additionally, in a lot of what I have seen, human relations with macaques swing between coexistence and conflict. The nature of the interactions are not really static and immovable. The same human might be able to peacefully coexist with the simian on some days and may be in a state of conflict on some other days. So I think, for me, conflict, hostility and coexistence tend to go hand-in-hand.

      So then, what I seemed to have realised is that relationships on ground are mediated by power relations and certain beings are ripped off of their sentience, thereby making coexistence unacceptable in most conditions. Had they been seen as sentient beings or as naturally belonging to the city, there would’ve been no need to take any kind of action or measures the moment they crossed an imaginary human threshold of tolerance.

      Therefore, I do not know (as of now), if any effective strategy to mitigate friction between the two species in the city exists, or would be workable, but I feel since the macaques have already transgressed their ‘designated’ spaces, thereby blurring the nature-culture divide, and have been present alongside humans for decades now, I wonder, if we as humans can also adapt in ways to ensure an inclusion of some sort, and help in aiding the interactions to be more of co-existence than conflict ridden in nature. Having said that, I’m still learning and seeing newer ground realities, and realities changing, so maybe after some more research I would be in a better space to really be able to answer your questions. Would love to hear what you think. Thank you again!

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