Monkey Business in India's Capital

If you were a monkey and lived in New Delhi your mating call would sound like an off-key bugle and your home would be, well, everywhere: in the park, on the street, next to parliament -- pretty much any place you pleased.

There are anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 monkeys in the capital, the government says. It's not a new problem, but the simian saturation recently turned deadly. Last month Deputy Mayor S.S. Bajwa, 52, said he was reading his morning papers when monkeys attacked him and he fell off his balcony, according to his family. He later died from his head wounds.

And a group of monkeys recently went on a rampage in the Shastri Park area of east New Delhi, trying to snatch infants before adults beat them back with sticks. Twenty-five people were injured.

"Two monkeys attacked me," 6-year-old Faizan said as he showed monkey bites on his leg that hadn't yet healed. "I had to go to the hospital."

After Bajwa's death the city found itself in the spotlight for not having solved a problem that's been around for years.

In 2002 the Delhi High Court demanded the city eliminate the marauding monkeys. By late 2006, the court was still on the city's case, reprimanding officials for not doing enough.

"If you can't control the monkeys, what can you do?" the court wrote acerbically.

But the problem is getting worse.

Looking for Food

Just a few years ago hunters said there were only 5,000 monkeys in New Delhi. But as the city expands (500,000 people move here every year), the monkeys' natural habitat shrinks.

"They attack because of food. Their targets are mainly schoolchildren, housewives," monkey hunter Rajat Bhargava told the BBC. "If you remove a few monkeys, more monkeys will breed."

And the monkeys are not afraid -- of anything.

Hindus worship the monkey god Hanuman, who represents courage, power and faith. And once to twice a week, many people consider it sacred to feed the monkeys. But the animals are not very good at keeping appointment books, so on the other five days they scrounge for food. Everywhere.

They've raided police and train stations. Last year one sneaked into the international airport. They've scaled the fences of company headquarters and gnawed through electrical wires. And they've jumped through open windows to steal food. They were once even blamed for scattering top secret documents inside the Ministry of Defense.

Enter the Monkey Hunters

Recently, the city hired professional monkey hunters from southern India who send the monkeys to a cage at the edge of the city and then off into neighboring states.

"Since the monkey catchers from other states have been seen to be more efficient, we will most likely assign the teams from Assam a particular zone to catch monkeys in that area," the official who oversees the monkey hunting operation, Director of Veterinary Services Dr. R.B.S. Tyagi, told the Times of India. "The [city government] is also planning to form a monkey squad that will rush to a spot on receiving complaints of monkey menace."

V. Sankar Masthri, whose business card reads "Monkey, Dog Hunter," said he's caught about 40 monkeys since he arrived a few weeks ago. They're worth $11 each.

"I started hunting when I was 10 years old," he said as he proudly looks over the day's catch. "My father was a hunter. I enjoy my work."

Masthri denies claims by animal rights activists that the hunters abuse the animals. "They are like a god," he said.

But the monkeys he and his team have caged are obviously terrified by their captors. The babies hold tightly onto the bellies of their parents. The dominant male monkey tries to put himself between the entire group and the sticks the hunters use to poke them. And a few of the monkeys appear to be badly injured.

Many of the devout accuse the hunters of being too rough -- and of blasphemy.

"It's a disgrace," one priest in New Delhi said. "Nowhere in the world is the monkey worshipped as he is here."

In all, the city said the hunters for hire have caught nearly 1,500 monkeys since they arrived just a few months ago. The government is spending about $2.5 million to try and eliminate the monkey mayhem.

There's even a monkey arms race. The city has two larger, much more aggressive langur monkeys on its payroll to scare away the smaller rhesus macaque monkeys.

But for now, with no solution in sight, there's still an awful lot of monkey business in the capital.