The usual suspects, drawn to the streets after habitat loss.
Jill Greenberg
The usual suspects, drawn to the streets after habitat loss.
The usual suspects, drawn to the streets after habitat loss. (Jill Greenberg)
James Vlahos


They've got a slight animal-control problem in Delhi, India: Thousands of wild rhesus monkeys, addled by the sprawl that's taking over their habitat, are dropping out of trees to steal food, chug booze, and murder prominent citizens. Did we mention that many of the victims believe these creatures are gods?

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The cousin of the dead man told me not to go. He expressly forbade it. But I'd come all the way to India, and I wasn't going to leave without seeing the site of the accident or, as most people regarded it, the scene of the crime. The Savita Vihar neighborhood of New Delhi, separated from the slums of Old Delhi by the Yamuna River, is typical of the modern, upscale residential colonies multiplying around the city. Two decades ago, eastern Delhi was mainly farmland and forest. But that had given way to gas stations, Nokia shops, and housing for millions of residents, many of them members of a burgeoning middle class periodically celebrated on the covers of Newsweek and Time.

My driver turned down a tree-lined lane. He drove slowly, me hunched paparazzo-like next to him with camera and notebook, until we parked opposite No. 59, a gated, three-story building of white stucco.

P.S. Bajwa, the dead man's cousin and the owner of a construction company, had met me an hour earlier inside an office tower his crew was building. Shouting over the shriek of a circular saw, he'd taken out a pencil and sketched what he thinks happened to his relative on the morning of October 20, 2007.

Now I pulled out the drawing and looked up at the house. I pictured Surinder Singh Bajwa emerging from double doors onto a second-story balcony to pick up his morning paper. He looks up, spots a gang of intruders coming his way, and, panic-stricken, grabs a stick to fight them off. He lunges forward and takes a mighty swing, but the intruders dart to safety. Bajwa is carried forward by the momentum of the attempted blow; he hits the balcony railing and tumbles over the side, plunging 13 feet and landing on his back. That's how he's found, face up in a pool of blood. A day later he is dead.

Twenty yards from the balcony stood a large billboard marked with slogans for the Indian People's Party. The face of Surinder Bajwa dominated one corner. He wore a Sikh's red turban, clipped beard, and upturned mustache and had a commanding gaze. Bajwa had been the deputy mayor of Delhi. That's one reason his death became internationally known. The other is that the intruders blamed for his death were monkeys. It didn't matter that they hadn't actually murdered Bajwa; to the public and media, they were to blame. MAYOR KILLED BY MONKEYS, one headline screamed.

P.S. Bajwa wanted me to stay away from the house because he feared I would disturb Surinder's widow. But he supported my investigating the issues behind his cousin's death. “The monkey menace is increasing every day,” he said. “It must be stopped.”

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Catch me if you can: Macaca mulatta on the streets of Delhi. (Jill Greenberg)

More than 6,500 rhesus monkeys, Macaca mulatta, have roamed the megalopolis of Delhi in recent years. The gray-brown, pink-faced macaques which stand at around one and a half feet, usually weigh 15 pounds or so, and can live for 25 years reportedly have invaded homes and offices, swiping cell phones and sodas, biting children and slapping women. There are stories of them breaking into police stations, donning caps and gun holsters, and raiding hospitals, where they attack doctors and snatch IVs from patients' arms to slurp the sugary liquid. Talk to locals and you get the sense of a city besieged not by a mere species of wildlife but by a race of mischievous pixies. Everyone knows the story of the monkey who allegedly mooched booze from a central-Delhi liquor store—Aristocratvodka and McDowell's whiskey were his favorites. Or the tale about the monkey who lovingly babysat a human child.

Cute. But as Bajwa's death showed, the pixies can turn malevolent. In April 2000, monkeys pushed a flowerpot off a rooftop, hitting an engineer on the head and killing him. In November 2007, a lone monkey ravaged the Shastri Park neighborhood and injured 25 people; a woman told reporters that the animal had reached through a hole in her roof and snatched her baby.

The cause of the monkey menace would seem straightforward: habitat loss. Delhi, with a population of 16 million, adds half a million new residents every year, many of them lured from rural villages by jobs, indoor plumbing, and McAloo Tikki Burgers. Developers clear forests to make room for the newcomers, and monkeys have to resettle in the humanized habitat. In 1989, only 10 percent of Delhi's monkeys lived in fully urban environments as opposed to forested areas inside the city—but by last year the percentage had climbed to 78 percent. In the U.S., we know what happens when people encroach on wild areas: They get chomped by mountain lions and bears. Encroachment is also a major factor in Delhi. But, India being India, a kaleidoscopic culture straddling the ancient and modern, habitat loss is just the beginning.

For starters, monkeys aren't just animals in India. To many Hindus, the creatures are incarnations of the powerful monkey god Hanuman, a deity whose legions of fans include President Barack Obama, who sometimes carries around a Hanuman trinket. In India, devotees regularly feed monkeys in tribute to Hanuman. This teaches the monkeys to associate people with food and to swipe it when it isn't freely given. Imagine what would happen in, say, Alaska, if residents walked around handing out salmon to grizzlies. Now imagine people building temples to the grizzly god and spinning fantastic fables about His Ursineness.

This is the situation with monkeys in Delhi, where various factors—sensational journalism, superstitious people, and crazy rumors—confuse the facts about what the animals are actually doing versus what people say they are doing. Case in point: In the summer of 2001, Delhi was supposedly terrorized by an entity known as the Monkeyman. Half simian and half human, with glowing eyes and metal claws, he attacked by night and caused terrified citizens to have heart attacks or leap off roofs. A government report later concluded that Monkeyman was a product of mass psychosis. But in a country where people worship hundreds of animal deities and demons, his existence had seemed entirely plausible.

Newspapers chip in, too, fanning the flames with headlines like MONKEYMAN'S REIGN OF TERROR IN CAPITAL GROWING DAILY! and NATION TERRORIZED BY SACRED MONKEYS. Following Bajwa's death, the news reports both frightened the public and embarrassed politicians, who could see just how Third Worldy it looked to have monkeys bumping off leading officials. So there was a call for action. Such demands had been voiced before as far back as 2000, a citizens' lawsuit was filed to force the government to do something but it took the Bajwa affair to start an all-out, government-sponsored capture effort. The incident was viewed as a mandate for a swift, if not fully considered, response, and 16 hurriedly scrambled capture teams hit the streets.

I arrived in January 2008, just as the roundup had reached full force, and hired a translator named Chaitanya Kabu. I had questions that needed answers. Was there really a monkey menace, and what were all its causes? Obviously, the monkeys were playing a role in the chaos, but to what extent were people part of the problem, too?

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Nandlal Bhagat (center) and the monkey-grab gang. (Jill Greenberg)

The banana was your basic Cavendish, a spotted yellow crescent that looked like it had been plucked from a schoolkid's lunch box. Nandlal Bhagat picked it up, walked to the edge of the rooftop, and raised it overhead, a fruit minaret in the sooty dawn sky. The neighborhood of Chandni Chowk, a jumble of drab, crumbling apartment buildings in the heart of Old Delhi, was just waking up. A boy on a nearby roof stood brushing his teeth; a man doused his head with cupfuls of water from a tub. Bhagat, the most experienced monkey catcher in all of Delhi, began to shout: “Oh! Oh! Lah, lah, lah, lah. Oh! Oh!”

The oh!s were high-pitched and loud, the lah's quick and low. I had expected something more arcane— some real monkey-whisperer juju, or a stealthy biologist with sedative blow-darts—but the setup was simple. Bhagat had a banana. Near him, on the ground, sat a cage. If a monkey was lured inside—wham!—one of Bhagat's four assistants, hidden nearby, would release a rope to shut the trapdoor. “It is the monkey's greed that traps him,” Bhagat observed.

All around Delhi, catchers were pursuing similar strategies. The goal was to remove all the monkeys from the city, or as many as possible, a vastly more ambitious target, than had ever been set before. In 2006, only 225 monkeys were captured, while in 2007, teams caught 4,479. Two-thirds of those came after Bajwa's death. In the past, the monkeys had been released in the forests of neighboring states, but in 2004, regional governments stopped accepting Delhi's troublemakers. The new plan was to relocate them to the Asola Wildlife Sanctuary, a 7,000-acre forest reserve on the southern fringe of Delhi. I was told I would never be allowed to go there, but I was determined to see it, to find out if it was a natural paradise or a simian Guantanamo.

Bhagat had been chasing monkeys for 35 years; during most of that time he was the only full-time catcher for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), which provides government services to most of the city. He's about five-foot-three, slight, with hunched shoulders and dark-irised eyes that look like black marbles. His weathered features are strong and cruel, and his movements are furtive, as if he, and not the monkeys, is in danger of getting caught.

[quote]The monkey catcher held a banana in the air and shouted, 'Oh! Oh! Lah, lah.' Nearby was a cage. If the monkey entered the cage—wham! I had expected something more arcane.[/quote]

Spotting a trio of monkeys in a distant tree, Bhagat began calling louder. The monkeys leapt to an adjacent building and then another. When they reached the apartment across the way, they scampered past a woman sitting outside, sewing. She barely noticed. The monkeys didn't come any closer to us. Bhagat threw a handful of peanuts in the cage, lit a cigarette, and sat down to wait.

The business of catching is that of a bounty hunter: 450 rupees ($9) per monkey, shared by the team. The men have mixed feelings about their work. “I pray to these monkeys, but it has become a business now, so I can't do anything but sell them off,” Raju Pandey, one of Bhagat's assistants, told me. He had a dent in his head you could set an orange in, the result of an accident during a monkey grab a while back: After a rope had snapped, a cage full of howling monkeys plummeted several stories and crashed into his skull. He wanted me to touch the dent, and I obliged.

Because of Delhi's rush to put catchers on the streets, the men are neither government-trained nor closely supervised. They emphasize speed over sensitivity. Sonya Ghosh, founder of an activist group called Citizens for the Welfare and Protection of Animals, showed me a video clip one day that she'd covertly made, showing Bhagat using an iron rod to jab and subdue monkeys. Nearly a dozen animals are injured each month. Impoverished catchers predictably try to snag the most monkeys with the least effort. Bhagat explained that a favored technique was to lure a juvenile into the cage first; loyal family members rush forward to rescue the youngster and are themselves caught. Ghosh has filed complaints against the city regarding another questionable strategy, that of trapping monkeys in Delhi's few remaining forested areas. These animals pose the least risk to people but, because they haven't acquired the wariness that comes from living in the core of the city, are easiest to snatch.

Fully urbanized monkeys are more elusive. Bhagat explained that he had worked in this part of town before, catching dozens of members of a large troop. The ones left behind were suspicious.

“They know me, so they'll take a bit of time,” he said. But the trio never went into the cage, nor did any others that day.

“Very smart monkeys in Chandni Chowk,” Pandey said.

I was supposed to go out with Bhagat the next day but instead spent it shivering in bed and vomiting. Suffice it to say that my list of traveler's rules has a new addition: Don't drink the monkey catchers' punch. A day later, feeling stronger, I showed up at 6 a.m. to meet Bhagat, as we had arranged, but he waved me off. My translator called him that night and then called back with discouraging news. “The catchers want you to pay them 10,000 rupees [$200] each before you go with them again,” he said. “I think they are all very drunk.”

I took a few days off to explore the city. Just how prevalent were the monkeys? I left my hotel in Ram Nagar, a central neighborhood thronged by people, motorcycle rickshaws, and cows, and almost immediately heard screeching. I looked up and saw two monkeys chasing each other back and forth on an electrical wire that ran across the street. “The two monkeys, they fight for one wife,” said a taxi driver standing nearby. One monkey, perhaps the loser, slid down a drainpipe to the street and darted between a few people's legs. He hid for a moment in a darkened doorway, then dashed out to snatch an orange from the cart of an inattentive vendor.

I hired a rickshaw and rode south into the wide, tree-lined boulevards of New Delhi. The driver parked in front of a large sign that read STOP FEEDING MONKEYS. People were feeding the monkeys. One man tossed peanuts. Another distributed bananas. We were standing in front of a fence, and behind it, in the greenery, were dozens of monkeys. It felt like being at the zoo, only the animals were free. They came through openings in the fence and scampered right past my feet.

A day later, I began to grasp why monkeys are seen as an image problem by the government. I had just finished a tour of Rashtrapati Bhavan, India's domed presidential palace. Three columns of soldiers rode up the central drive on horseback, red-turbaned men sitting tall in the saddle, with swords at their sides. The scene was orderly and dignified.

Then the monkeys came. Mothers with infants clinging to their bellies loped across the drive. Males traversed manicured lawns. Adolescents slid down the iron bars of the ornate front gate like commandos rappelling from a helicopter. On the other side of the fence, a tour bus had just let out, and a dozen Germans in snug shorts rushed up to take pictures. Delhiites are used to monkey hijinks, but Indian politicians know that outsiders are stunned to see organ-grinder sidekicks in the heart of the national capital. Imagine if hordes of chimps invaded the White House lawn.

The current removal campaign comes, not coincidentally, as the eyes of the world are on the modernization of India. One afternoon I went to an auto expo and witnessed the unveiling of the world's cheapest car, the $2,000, India-made Tata Nano, which journalists greeted as if it were an iPhone that could cure cancer. In 2010, athletes and media from 71 nations and territories will converge on Delhi for the Commonwealth Games, and the government is reportedly spending $17.5 billion to get ready. “We have to make Delhi into a very developed international-style city,” Mayor Arti Mehra told me. Promoters unveiled the Games' chakra-inspired logo on January 6, with the pronouncement that it “symbolizes India's rise as a global power and its journey from tradition to modernity.” Unfortunately for monkeys, they look a lot more traditional than modern.

If primping India for the 21st century is a motivation for the crackdown, ancient religious beliefs are a leading impediment. All over Delhi I saw signs of Hanumania—crowds thronging temples to the monkey god; a 108-foot statue of him with a gaudy shrine inside. Hanuman, one of the most revered deities in the Hindu pantheon, represents cleverness and strength. The Sanskrit epic Ramayana tells how Hanuman defeated Ravana, the evil king of what is now Sri Lanka, and rescued Sita, the wife of Lord Ram. He also looms large in pop culture: In the 2007 animated film Return of Hanuman, an Internet-surfing, “Hinglish”-speaking monkey god soars into space, guards the Statue of Liberty, and captures Osama bin Laden.

The tricky part comes when reverence takes the form of feeding monkeys, an illegal but common practice. “Once a monkey is fed, he will forever think that it is easier to find food from human beings than to look for it on his own,” says Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of Wildlife S.O.S., an animal-welfare outfit. “This same person who is feeding at the temple later comes home and then gripes about how his child was bitten by monkeys.”

The deceased deputy mayor was attacked by monkeys who probably were fed at a temple a few doors from his house. I visited it. Inside the darkened worship room, a candle burned before a framed picture of Hanuman. A young male temple employee told me that as many as 100 monkeys used to hang around, waiting for free meals. Like many Delhiites, he didn't seem to make the connection between feeding and aggression. As I was leaving, he ran after me, waving his arms. “A few monkeys still come here,” he said. “I feed them!”

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Rhesus monkey detainees in India, foiled by banana-based trickery. (Jill Greenberg)

After a few days passed, Bhagat settled for a more modest payment. At dawn we went to buy fruit and vegetables to bait his trap. For a diminutive chain-smoker, he walked remarkably fast. I had to trot to keep up. On our way back, I suddenly glimpsed tawny fur, heard a ripping sound, and saw produce tumble from his shopping bag onto the sidewalk. Before I realized what was happening, the monkey had made it to the top of a nearby wall, where he sat munching a purloined tomato. Bhagat looked up at him and, for the first and only time in my presence, smiled.

The capture site was in Chandni Chowk, a short distance from where we'd been before, in a colony of one-story residences. People had reportedly been bitten. I climbed a ladder onto a roof that seemed safely away from the cage. “You better get a stick to fight off the monkeys if they come,” said Raju Pandey. He watched me for a few minutes, looking worried, then clambered up and sat beside me. “I am bodyguard,” he said.

Bhagat fired up his oh!s and lah's. This time the monkeys weren't shy. Dozens materialized on the corrugated-metal rooftops. We were surrounded, but the advancing horde wasn't interested in us. One monkey reached the threshold of the cage and hesitated, looking around. This doesn't feel right, he seemed to be thinking, but I'll just duck in quickly and grab a banana.

From behind me came a sharp human cry, and the cage door slammed shut.

Shouting and prodding with sticks, Bhagat and his team chased the monkey from the large capture cage into a smaller holding cage, about two feet by four feet. The convict panicked inside the cramped space, doing Marcel Marceau's famous “The Cage” routine—the difference being that he was in fact trapped inside a cage. He twirled and shook the wires so hard that the cage rocked off the ground. In the next hour, four more animals were caught and chased in, too.

[quote]Politicians know it looks bad to have organ-grinder sidekicks running wild in the heart of India’s national capital. Imagine if hordes of chimps invaded the White House lawn.[/quote]

Later, Bhagat, Pandey, and the other men celebrated in a walled outdoor area that was both the temporary holding zone for monkeys and Bhagat's home. They sat under a tarp that served as his roof and on a plywood platform that was his bed. They passed a hash pipe around, toking and laughing. I went to look at the prisoners. Squatting next to one of the enclosures, I peered at a male and female huddled cheek to cheek in the back corner. After a few minutes, the couple shifted slightly to reveal a monkey pressed between them, a wide-eyed baby barely the size of a Nerf football. The expressions on the faces staring back at me were unmistakable: shock, desperation, terror.

I had come to India expecting INVASION OF THE KILLER MONKEYS! But I hadn't seen anything of the sort. The people I interviewed at that morning's capture site and elsewhere described relatively minor incidents like nips to the ankles and hands. Monkeys were clearly a nuisance in Delhi, but were they really a menace? It was starting to seem like a stretch.

Before my second session with Bhagat, I had investigated the rampage in Shastri Park, a Muslim neighborhood in eastern Delhi. I met Mohammed Ahsan, whose son, Abdul Majid, was among the victims. He raised the three-year-old boy's pant leg to reveal a small scar on his left ankle. He began to rant, saying that 200 kids had been attacked.

“Whenever the monkey catch the childrens, he tried to intercourse with them,” Ahsan said. “And he masturbate here in front of me. Yeah, really! I can't explain it. Ah-ha-ha! I don't know what kind of monkey is this!” I was pretty sure Ahsan was exaggerating, but I was also convinced some attacks had taken place.

The question is, Why? One provocative theory is that the war against the menace is a primary cause of the menace. Rhesus monkeys are highly sociable, and reckless trapping separates siblings, strips infants from mothers, and creates splinter groups of improperly socialized young males. “The moment you go and break up a group by doing this kind of trapping, the animals who are left behind are going to turn vicious,” says Geeta Seshamani, of Friendicoes, a shelter that rehabilitates injured monkeys. Shastri Park would seem to be a prime example. The exact number of victims was disputed, but everybody agreed: The attacker was alone.

At Bhagat's camp, the men finished smoking and got back to work. They ferried the cages into a dump truck for transport to Asola. A crowd of people formed on the street, some of them obviously upset. “It is only our impression that the monkeys are a threat, and it's just not right,” said a man named Rajesh, his voice rising. “When they were free, before the order to capture them, they were living in peace.”

Bhagat wouldn't let me ride in the monkey-mobile. “There is no way you can go to Asola,” he said. I called the sanctuary warden, a friendly man who said that I couldn't visit today but maybe tomorrow or next week? He said the same thing every time I called. I tried the warden's boss, J.K. Dadoo, the city's secretary of environment and forests. I pleaded and cajoled, verified my credentials, promised my firstborn. He, too, kept stalling. Finally, on my last day in Delhi, I decided to just go for it and sneak in.

The sanctuary was located on the city's southernmost edge, next to a shantytown. When I arrived, a few monkeys scampered atop a tall perimeter fence of green fiberglass, dodging rocks fired by grinning village boys with slingshots. The sanctuary gates were open wide to reveal a group of people playing cricket inside. One young man turned out to be the ranking ranger on duty. He was hostile, especially when he saw my camera gear. He confiscated it and locked it in a shed. I tried to bribe him. His eyes bulged, he stepped back, and he spoke rapidly in Hindi. “He is a very religious man,” my translator explained. “He thinks that you are a devil that God has sent to test him.” I put the rupees away, and the ranger gradually calmed down. After I swore I wouldn't print his name, he agreed to lead an illicit tour.

We drove through the gates into a scrubby forest. Scanning for animals, I felt like Sam Neill in Jurassic Park. The dirt road made several turns, climbed over a few rises, and then petered out on the shores of a small lake.

There were monkeys everywhere.

Hundreds of them. Animals that until recently had lived in the heart of a polluted megalopolis. They dashed around the car and chased one another through tall grass. They hung in the trees, silhouetted against the sky, and perched nobly atop boulders, posing for Discovery Channel close-ups. The place was lovely. The animals seemed happy. The activist Ghosh, who sat on the government committee overseeing relocation, had told me, “You have to write good things about Asola, because it is the best solution for the monkeys. It is the only solution.” It may be. India is racing past a modernization threshold, the one separating the time when people live alongside wild animals from a time when they won't. That process can't and probably shouldn't be stopped. But it should be noted.

The ranger and I scrambled down slick rocks to the shore of the lake, which is actually a flooded quarry. On the far shore, atop cliffs glowing gold with the setting sun, I could just make out the forms of more monkeys. The Elysian splendor was marred only slightly by the presence of a ravine to our right that was littered with rotting produce. The trees in Asola didn't grow fruit that monkeys could eat, so feeding was done by dumping truckloads of oranges, carrots, and bananas into the gully.

“You should see it when they come to eat,” the ranger said. “It is such a beautiful sight.”

From Outside Magazine, Feb 2009 Lead Photo: Jill Greenberg