Coronavirus | Spare monkeys the virus, say biologists

Feeding primates could lead to mutated SARS-CoV-2 infecting hapless animals.

April 19, 2020 10:42 pm | Updated April 20, 2020 02:36 pm IST - UDHAGAMANDALAM

Hungry troop:  A forester feeding monkeys, facing a food shortage during the lockdown, near Madurai.

Hungry troop: A forester feeding monkeys, facing a food shortage during the lockdown, near Madurai.

Feeding monkeys during the COVID-19 pandemic could have profoundly negative effects in the long-term, such as helping the SARS-CoV-2 virus mutate and infect primates, biologists have said in a note, advising caution.

Honnavalli M. Kumara, principal scientist at the Salim Ali Center for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), said it was well documented that viruses and endoparasites could transmit between humans and primates.

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“The worst-case scenario is that SARS-CoV-2 mutates and infects other primate species. This could lead to many scenarios, such as the virus affecting the health of the affected animal populations or the animals serving as reservoirs or hosts and spreading the disease to other species or human populations,” another senior wildlife biologist from Tamil Nadu said.

“It is a matter of common sense to limit interaction between humans and wildlife, especially primates,” he added. Feeding primates should be discouraged regardless of the pandemic, in order to prevent not just the spread of diseases but also to minimise problematic human-primate interaction.

Ashni Dhawale, a researcher at the National Institute of Advanced Studies at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, who is studying ecology and behaviour of the endangered lion-tailed macaque, said primates and humans share a complex relationship.

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A ‘provocation’

Monkey troops accustomed to being fed by people could view denial of food as a “provocation,” leading to hostile interactions. “Monkeys start associating humans with food, and when food is denied, can attack them,” she said.

“In States like Tamil Nadu, primate populations having negative interactions with humans are relocated to forests, causing other problems like spread of diseases and parasites to forest-dwelling monkey populations. When we relocate a population of monkeys, there is no screening done to identify the diseases or the parasites they carry,” said Dr. Kumara.

Citing a 2019 study on the “Prevalence of gastrointestinal parasites in Lion-tailed macaques in the Central Western Ghats,” which he co-authored, Dr. Kumara pointed to conclusions drawn in the paper about rates of endoparasitic infections caused to lion-tailed macaques that were linked to human activity in forests and also due to relocation of bonnet macaques from conflict areas.

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If viruses like the SARS-CoV-2 do mutate and infect primates, they could decimate not just primate species but also other wildlife which prey on them, a senior biologist attached to the Tamil Nadu Forest Department said. “The point is, we have very little understanding of the virus, and it is better to limit our interactions with wildlife till there is more research done on its effects on non-human primates and other animal species,” he said.

Dr. B. Ram Manohar, who had studied interactions between the Rhesus macaques and the common langur in Jaipur between 1986 and 1988 along with Reena Mathur at the University of Rajasthan, said that it had been established that artificial feeding of monkeys with “human foods” such as rice and cereals does a tremendous amount of damage to their digestive system. “In the Pink City, where there was a huge concentrated population of Rhesus macaques and langurs being fed by people, we noticed that the monkeys would have severe digestive issues very often,” said Mr. Manohar.

“It is important that people realise that they are not actually helping monkeys by feeding them. Not only are we changing their natural behavior, but also reinforcing unhealthy behavioral patterns which lead to a state of dependency of the animals on human beings,” said Manohar.

Nilgiris-based conservationist, N. Mohanraj, said that regardless of the threat of COVID-19 affecting wildlife, feeding monkeys should be discouraged as a matter of policy.

“There is enough evidence showing primates getting diabetes because they have been fed with carbohydrate-rich foods. So there is no question that it affects their overall health,” said Mr. Mohanraj.  

“Monkeys in a non-urban setting do not require any feeding from humans to survive. They are smart enough to adapt and search for food on their own. There are laws in place which clearly outlaw the feeding of wildlife. It is the enforcement of such laws which is lacking,” said Mr. Mohanraj.

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