How man, monkey influence each other

Rhesus macaques on the roofs of small shops at Buxa.   | Photo Credit: Asmita Sengupta

If you have ever felt obliged — through pity or fear — to feed a monkey, then clearly, these clever primates have got to you. Biologists find that north India’s rhesus macaques may adopt certain types of behaviour that prompt people to feed them.

Species that live in an area interact with each other, and primates, which include humans and monkeys, are no exception. But can a simple and common Indian interaction, of people feeding monkeys, change the monkeys’ behaviour and ecology? And what of the people who feed them?

Scientists from Bengaluru’s Asoka Trust for Ecology and Evolution (ATREE) and the National Institute of Advanced Studies observed a 64-member rhesus macaque troop in West Bengal’s Buxa Tiger Reserve in 2013-14 for a total of 720 hours, recording whether the animals were eating naturally available food. They found that the macaques incorporated insects and 69 plant food items from 54 species in their natural diet.


However, tourists who frequented the area during specific months also fed the macaques: people frequenting a tea shop fed them bread and cookies, while passers-by threw out food from their vehicles. During these times, six types of human food dominated the otherwise all-natural, diverse and primarily leaf- and fruit-based diet of the macaques.

Macaque behaviour

Feeding changed not just the macaques’ diet, but the way they used their habitats too. The time that the macaques spent on tarmac roads (to obtain food from people) increased from just over 1% in the non-tourism season to 34% in the tourism season.

When the team asked 50 tourists near the tea shop why they were feeding the macaques despite cautionary signboards asking people not to do so, almost 30% quoted religious reasons. However, 62% claimed that they fed the macaques in response to the monkeys’ behaviour (feeling they were begging for food, or fearing their aggressive behaviour).

“These included behaviours like bipedal begging, where macaques would stand on their hind legs and hold out their hands, and open-mouth threats to make people feed them,” says lead author Asmita Sengupta of ATREE.

Though all tourists said they would feed monkeys, most of the 36 local residents interviewed said they would not, primarily because they knew it could encourage the macaques to raid their homes. Seeking locals' help to convince tourists about the problems of feeding monkeys is crucial in preventing this practice, adds Sengupta.

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2021 8:10:08 PM |

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