Chicken-killing monkeys in Assam trigger rethink on leopards

Beset by ‘unmanageable monkeys’, some parts of rural eastern Assam are turning to the spotted cats.

February 17, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST - GUWAHATI

Some parts of rural eastern Assam are becoming more lenient towards the leopard. One of the reasons is “unmanageable” troops of monkeys that even kill chicken for food.

About six years ago, people of Negheriting in Golaghat district had blocked an arterial National Highway to force the authorities into taking steps to check the population of rhesus macaques that raid their grain stores and kitchens. Negheriting is about 80 km east of Kaziranga National Park.

“We went into the issue and found the monkeys were desperate enough to target hen coops and rip the chickens apart to eat the grain the fowl store in the sac-like crop before digesting,” said Mubina Akhtar of NGO Kaziranga Wildlife Society.

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A deeper study revealed the macaque “population explosion” was correlated to the dwindling population of leopards as well as the transformation in the landscape. This was because of small tea gardens and commercial crops replacing the sugarcane fields and traditional kathoni — small jungle-like backyard patches of fruit trees— where leopards thrived. “Both macaques and leopards are highly adaptive and live close to humans. The kathoni s in particular sustained monkeys in the past, not requiring them to raid homes, while leopards preyed on the monkeys,” Ms. Akhtar said.

Wildlife officials said about 15 years ago, there were about 12,000 leopards in Assam, they said. The figure is likely to be less than 5,000 now. Qamar Qureshi of the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India said it would be difficult to ascertain if monkeys killing chicken was a new phenomenon. He was in a team that had last year surveyed leopards, whose findings would be released in March.

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“There is a correlation between monkeys and leopards although the changing landscape and availability of garbage and wasted food have been major factors in the increase in monkey population,” Qamar Qureshi of the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India told The Hindu .

“Macaques such as the rhesus, Assamese and bonnet are omnivorous, not strictly vegetarian like some other monkeys. But they might not kill chickens for their flesh,” Mr. Qureshi added.

But some villagers, hitherto antagonistic toward leopards, have been learning the hard way to understand them through the monkeys, Ms. Akhtar said.

“Six-seven leopards used to be killed in Noragaon in Golaghat. People now let the leopards be or have them captured and released in the wild,” Ms. Akhtar said.

A degree of awareness about compensation schemes has also led to a mindset-change, officials said. Some villagers, with monkeys in mind, now do not mind leopards preying on livestock.

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