A female gray monkey gives birth to her baby.

The G20 summit’s plan to scare monkeys by mimicking their ‘natural enemies’ may work – but not for the reasons it’s supposed to.

Organizers of this year’s G20 summit in New Delhi, India, are facing a unique challenge: keeping monkeys from disrupting the event. The local rhesus macaques are brave and curious, but can be aggressive.

The municipal council’s strategy is to hire people to impersonate monkeyslangur and scare the macaques. The langur is traditionally believed to scare away the macaques as they are said to be “natural enemies”. It might work, but not for the reasons it should.

And the use of professional monkeys measures a much larger issue: as our cities grow we will have more challenges to connect with nature.

In Delhi’s parliament building, close to where the summit is being held, macaques are known to eat lunch and damage property. They always bite. In the city of Shimla in the Himalayan foothills three to four people were bitten by macaques every day in 2014-2018.

It’s good news for G20 tourists, then, that New Delhi’s municipal council has plans to keep the macaques at bay. India banned the use of langurs for this purpose in 2012 due to concerns about their welfare in captivity, where they are often kept.

Instead, at the G20 summit, 40 people were employed as simulating monkeys. Their work will include placing life-size langur cut-outs around key areas of the city and imitating langur calls to scare local macaques.

Why does the monkey-mimic scare the macaque?

Two animals can be called natural enemies if they compete for the same food, space or resources. But research shows that this is unlikely to be the case for langurs and macaques.

Rhesus macaques are widely distributed from Afghanistan to China. They eat a varied diet that includes many fruits, as well as bark, seeds, leaves and animal foods such as fish, shellfish, eggs, honeycomb and insects.

The tongues are physically larger than rhesus macaques, so they can be successful when facing each other, but they are spread out less. Langurs are mainly leaf eaters but also eat fruits, flowers and insects. However, their reliance on leaves meant that in the wild they rarely competed with macaques for food.

Macaques and their close relatives thrive in urban environments and quickly adapt to dealing with people. For example, baboons in Cape Town deliver groceries to people while long-tailed macaques in Bali have learned to trade tourists’ stolen phones for food.

Langurs also seem to adapt less easily to urban environments than macaques, but can still thrive surprisingly well in cities. One group in Dakhineswar, for example, now consistently chooses bread over any plant.

Cities have so much food available that urban macaques and langurs probably don’t have to fight for resources. Their natural diversity in the wild also means they probably don’t have a long history of competition.

This is supported by evidence of peaceful, friendly interactions between langurs and macaques in the wild. Young people sometimes play together. Adults are less friendly, but they don’t seem to mind each other’s presence. This is a far cry from what we would expect to learn about langurs attacking macaques.

The heart of the problem

Banning the capture of langurs is, in other words, a step forward for animal welfare. It is good for conservation as the numbers of the seven species of langur native to India are decreasing. But this way of New Delhi can be bad for macaque welfare.

If langurs are not naturally afraid of macaques, why do the authorities think that the monkey-mimics’ calls and cuts will deter them? The most likely answer is that those calls and langur cuts are also scary.

New Delhi’s monkeys act with sticks. Their langur calls are described as “ear-piercing” rattles. Langur noises are already high, and the simulation can make them louder to increase their effect.

Taking the work seriously means working to cultivate fear so that the effect is not lost. Being chased by a shouting, stick-wielding figure is probably more terrifying than seeing a langer. The cut-outs may be quiet and silent, but they are associated with these scary people, who can see the macaques putting the cut-outs. These are probably as scary as the monkey-size reminders themselves.

A female gray monkey gives birth to her baby.
Langurs must scare the macaques.
Albert Beukhof/Shutterstock

Human-wildlife conflict is an almost inevitable consequence of population growth and urban sprawl. There are always negative consequences for everyone.

Even if the macaque community native to New Delhi was forced into urban life by human expansion, it’s not like we can imagine humans having anywhere else to go. Urban sprawl, poverty and inequality are linked in complex ways, but there are now so many people that we can’t just stop building cities.

Monkeys harassing guests at a political rally may seem like a small problem but it is linked to the biggest challenges of the 21st century: climate change, inequality, sustainability and globalization.

There are no easy solutions to human-wildlife conflict. You could argue that the New Delhi case is good because the people involved need a way to manage the conflict that considers the impact on all the species involved.

It is not, however, a perfect method. It is a step in the right direction rather than a solution. Each idea that focuses on improving the quality of life for humans and animals brings us closer to living together in peace.

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