Guilty of several charges – biting children, ransacking offices, riding elevators, nicking cell phones and causing the death of a prominent citizen – 15,403 troublemakers of the city have been over the past five years sent to a “correctional facility” on the southernmost edge of Delhi. Apart from converting the inmates into law-abiding citizens, the aim of the facility is to ensure they never leave.
When the facility, however, resembles a natural paradise such as the sprawling 14,000 acres of the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary and the troublemakers are pink-faced urbanised monkeys of the rhesus variety, the aim to reform the inmates is replaced by the plotline of the movie Planet of the Apes .
“We do respect their space but they [monkeys] not so much ours,” laughs Colonel Pradeep Sandhir, Commanding Officer of the Ecological Task Force (ETF) battalion that maintains the sanctuary. Outside his office, monkeys are everywhere – on trees and roofs, scratching the mud, munching on leaves or daring you to make eye contact. “Once they are brought here, we respect their independence since they are our guests.”
The guests, however, have no qualms about breaking and entering offices and dormitories, defecating on beds, tearing clothes and snatching food from the hands of the staff, thus forcing the host, the ETF unit, to go in for monkey proofing of all their buildings.
This is despite the painstaking efforts taken by the ETF unit to ensure that their “guests” stay comfortably – raised platforms that act as “feeding points” have been constructed across the length and breadth of the sanctuary so as to keep it at bay from other animals and truckloads of vegetables and fruits are regularly delivered (arranged by the Delhi Government) and brought to these points.
Better still, the men in the unit sometimes go hungry so as to prolong the lives of their guests. “The monkeys have memorised our meal times and line up to snatch food from our plates,” says a broad-shouldered jawan. Some say, the simians are even religious, showing up at the temple on Tuesdays.
Further, there is no limit on the number of monkeys that can be dropped off at the sanctuary at any given point. “The Municipal Corporation of Delhi comes and drops off monkeys as and when they catch them. There is no set figure,” says Colonel Sandhir, deducing that the initial 15,000 would have multiplied four-fold by this stage. All efforts have been made to make these first generation residents of the sanctuary dependent on these surroundings for food. This is so they don’t venture out like their parents and grandparents into the growing urban sprawl and become miscreants. “The forest is still under development and we are planting more fruit-bearing and leaf-bearing plants so the monkeys will find food within these premises,” he says. Till then the supply of food from outside will continue. “But monkeys are a hindrance when it comes to growing saplings. They pluck off the buds and play with the saplings…”
While simians may seem like they rule the roost around these parts, the sanctuary is actually home to several other animals – nilgais, monitor lizards, all kinds of snakes, birds, porcupines and the striped hyena whose numbers have consistently increased with the spread of forest cover. “We were brought in here to restore the forest which was lost to extensive mining in these parts. At that time, the forest acted as a barrier to the advancing desert sand from Rajasthan,” said Colonel Sandhir.
Who would have thought then that a sand barrier would turn into a monkey breeding playground?