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Bonnet Macaques and the People Who Love Them

Contributed by Praneetha Monipi, Founder, Adhvaya: Beyond Barriers

A long day of collecting data in the simmering summer heat amidst bonnet macaques, agile as Olympic sprinters, I sat down to find respite beneath a towering Peepal tree. A Ficus religiosa that bonnet macaques in my town call home, and communities around them consider sacred. The day was slowly winding down, and I watched the intricate tapestry of human-macaque interactions untwist, revealing a clear picture of connection.  

Anybody acquainted with macaques through their videos, a remote interaction, or having lived next to them – know that they are cheeky, adorable, entertaining little rascals. At some point in our lives, we have all drawn parallels between their antics and our siblings’, but our connection to our non-human relatives extends far beyond our amusement with their mischief. So does our understanding of the macaques. They watch, learn, make you think, and you build relationships with them. The kind that cannot be confined in textbook or scientific terms, because they don’t come from the mind.

As macaque conservationists or researchers, understanding the threats to their populations and welfare is crucial. Yet, what is often overlooked, is the relationship that these macaques share with people around them. Not from an ecological or scientific perspective, but a profoundly, human one. Living alongside macaques will exhibit that to you. And if you haven’t lived next to them, talking to communities who have, will provide you with stories that stay with you. Stories of everyday life, of learning to live together, accepting each other, and eventually, even feeling protective of each other. Stories that will linger in their essence, long after you’ve heard them. Let me take you through one such journey in a quaint, south Indian temple-town.

Most temple towns have different primates around them. Leaping langurs, boisterous rhesus macaques, or the cheeky bonnet macaques. Where I’m from, nestled within the city, is a small hill with a temple at its peak. It’s home to endemic bonnet macaques and over 150 human families, both of whom have lived together for decades. They have grown up with each other, and are intricately connected, their learned behaviours weaving a delicate balance of co-existence. Like with every co-habiting species, they have their fair share of problems; the difference being,  the communities here take care of the macaques, much like they do their families.

They live with the macaques every day, are intimately aware of their behaviour and interactions, understanding the troop’s moods, predicting their interactions, and responding accordingly. So do the macaques. They trust each other and is evident in their  behaviour towards familiar community members and unfamiliar tourists who sometimes, try getting too close to them. They might get defensive of a tourist approaching and exhibit facial warnings to maintain distance, but when a community shopkeeper chases them with a long stick to prevent snatching bags from visitors, they’ll jump on to higher ground, stick around and watch. And after a few minutes, go about their usual mischief-making.

And here’s why it makes sense that the macaques trust them. When a macaque fell victim to an electrocution and dropped to the ground, the community members were the first to approach the little one, and with no fear that the very close-knit troop might mistake their advance as a threat, picked him up and called for help. While in no way I condone ignoring personal safety, it really provides an insight into how much they care. There is no separation of species. When I inquired of their willingness to provide testimony on the electrocution cases to push for overall insulation, they agreed without hesitation. Never having faced a camera or interviews, they sat down and spoke about their experience and hope. “Poor monkeys don’t know any better. They’re playful. We have to make sure they don’t get electrocuted anymore” was the sentiment. The communities always have water access for the macaques, but also ensure to not forget anything outside that the cheeky little guys could pick up and misplace. The macaques too, watch the people, navigating their play around shops and walkers, but do not enter or ransack the shops itself. Even though provisioned by tourists, they have so far avoided making their way into any community members’ store. They simply wait outside. The people have also advocated for confiscating macaques from captivity, took charge of supervising the landscape changes when I was in the middle of rehabilitating an infant macaque, and to this day remain concerned about the impacts of tourist provisioning and teasing behaviour towards the macaques.

Bonnet macaques wait outside a shop for the tourists to complete their purchase

The connection between macaques and communities runs deep.  A relationship built over many, many years, slowly and intentionally, learning about each other. Maybe conservation is tricky in urban, tourist dominant regions. But the existence of these relationships between people and wildlife emphasizes the need to be inclusive and respectful of the communities around wildlife. With one simple conversation with such communities who live, breathe, and navigate macaque interactions, it is evident that they simply hope to not face economic loss; simultaneously, macaques need their habitats intact and resources available. The beauty lies in the balance. In slowing down, listening, observing, being present. In acknowledging the depth of interconnectedness, especially in the reality of commensal species like macaques. Ever so often, we tend to impose purist conservation ideals but embracing intertwined connections will take us farther in our conservation goals. Maybe, it’s time we looked around and changed our approach, being one among them, rather than needing a distinct separation, between them, between us.

As the sun finally began dipping below the horizon, it cast a golden hue on our little landscape and a wisp of wind blew across, rustling the leaves around me, and the papers in my book. A sub-adult macaque climbed up the Peepal and hunched over, getting ready to get comfortable for the night, and probably completely unaware of how his kind had inspired deep thoughts in me that day. He did have to regain his energy for another eventful day of adventures with his troop and inspiring more stories among the humans. As I watched him, I truly believed, this is the side of macaques and people we need to foster, embrace, and sustain. Not just human-animal interaction, but a connection. One that is patient, kind, and inclusive. Then, we can truly place faith in the kind of coexistent world we’ve been fighting for.

The sub-adult bonnet settling in for the night, against the golden glow of the sunset.

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