Home away from home for Hali-ela monkeys

A pioneering monkey project helps sort out a human-monkey conflict. Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports

The planning was meticulous. The operation carried out with precision, because the simian protagonists were clever and could also outwit their human cousins.

The plea for a solution for the woes of not only the farmers but also other villagers came from the community itself. The men, women and children of Moretota, about five km from Hali-ela, who had been beleaguered needed answers and quick ones at that. Humans were under attack – rilaw or Toque monkeys were rampaging through the village at will. A troop as large as 50-60 monkeys would descend on the village, destroy the vegetable crops, devastate the little paddy the families cultivated, even strip the larger trees such as jak and butter fruit, brazenly enter the homes and leave a trail of destruction.

Moretota was literally under siege. The houses were in shambles but more importantly the villagers had left off farming the land. The income of the families dropped drastically while the adults moped around their homes unable to engage in their livelihood.

Desperate for a respite, an appeal went out to Divisional Secretary Vijitha Nandakumara and discussions at that level reached the ears of Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, for it fell under his constituency which was the Badulla district.

That was when the expertise of the Clinical Sciences Department, Veterinary Faculty, University of Peradeniya, was sought and readily given.

“In a situation like this, the tragic consequences would have been that the villagers would have wanted to exterminate the monkeys,” explains Senior Lecturer Dr. Ashoka Dangolla, adding that his department along with the Department of Wildlife Conservation stepped in to stop the monkeys being killed or injured by furious people.

It was in May that ‘Monkey Project’, the first of its kind in Sri Lanka, to trap a large number of monkeys, sterilize some of them and then translocate all captives to another location where they would no longer be a destructive force, saw the light of day.

The project began with Dr. Dangolla and his team mobilizing the support of the people, who had gathered at the Moretota temple under the guidance of the monk.

Usually in the cities monkeys become a problem due to improper waste disposal or dumping of garbage all over the place, of course, caused by human behaviour. But in Hali-ela, it was due to easier access to “delicacies” in the home gardens of the poor farmers, says Dr. Dangolla.

The villagers themselves volunteered to build the traps, lure the monkeys, firstly the inquisitive ones regularly into them by providing food, until they were confident and would come in their numbers, then close the traps and call the vets. Two big traps and several smaller traps were built by the menfolk while the womenfolk drew up rosters to lure and feed the creatures.

“Then we went along with Dr. Ashoka to sterilize both female and male monkeys,” says Assistant Lecturer Dr. Manjula Jayasinghe, who stressed that the babies or very young ones and pregnant and lactating mothers were excluded from this procedure.

The other team members were Lecturer Dr. Jeevanta Wijesinghe, Assistant Lecturer Dr. Madira Kularatne along with four final-year students of the Vet. Faculty. Of the 52 captured monkeys, only 38 were sterilized, said Dr. Jayasinghe, adding that they were then kept under observation post-op, with antibiotics being administered to prevent infections.

It was then time for them to be translocated. With the help of Additional Director M.C.G. Sooriyabandara and Chief Veterinary Surgeon Dr. Taraka Prasad of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the team had identified a lush island in the Randenigala reservoir for this purpose.

There are other animals including monkeys there and also food in plenty, said Dr. Jayasinghe. After a nearly 50 km journey by vehicle and a short boat ride across the waters, it was a new home for the Hali-ela monkeys in Randenigala, away from the wrath and dangers they could face by becoming a menace to humans.

Will they fit in?

How will the monkeys, with strong “family links” adapt to the new environment in Randenigala? Will the “pita gam karayo” have to face other warring troops? Will they miss their kith and kin left behind in Hali-ela?

No one knows, says Dr. Dangolla, adding that research on these aspects have not been carried out in Sri Lanka. But what choice is left, he asks. As jungles are cleared to give way to development and humans encroach on the habitat of animals, the monkeys too are losing their feeding grounds. They rampage through villages and farmland looking for food, and becoming a major problem for humans.

Dealing with the issue of sterilization, he says some people argue that one could simply translocate them without performing surgery on them. The surgery was done for two reasons. “Firstly, since we have not done a survey on the carrying capacity of the island to which they were released, to control their rapid growth. Secondly, controlling the numbers would help us to translocate some more troublesome monkeys to the same location without saturating the natural habitat under the first project itself.”

That is why it is better to try to reduce their numbers and then translocate them to a safer place. Otherwise they may become the victims of human anger, adds Dr. Dangolla.

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