As the crowing of a rooster signals the break of dawn in Taplejung in eastern Nepal, two men grab their slingshots and head out to work. They know they have a long day ahead of them, guarding the orange trees from the hungry monkeys that roam the forests.
These staffers at the orange research centre in Taplejung aren’t alone in their struggle. Across Nepal’s central hill country, thousands of farmers face the same problem: troops of rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta), accustomed to human food, enter their fields, leaving behind a trail of destruction and exasperated farmers.
“Sometimes we feel that we are farming not to feed ourselves, we are doing it for the monkeys,” says Ram Prasad Timsina from Pokhara. “They are not afraid to attack us if they find us alone.”
Fed up with the monkeys, everyone from farmers to government officials at the municipal through to national levels have long been looking for quick-fix solutions to the issue. Then recent reports emerged from another South Asian country, Sri Lanka, that’s also dealing with crop-raiding macaques. That country’s agriculture minister announced the proposed export of 1,00,000 toque macaques (Macaca sinica) to China in a bid “to control their population”.
While the government in Colombo said the monkeys would be sent to zoos in China, animal rights activists and environmentalists raised concerns they would be used for medical research or killed for food. The proposal met with a huge outcry from the public and the media, and was eventually halted by the government pending further investigation. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka also denied the Chinese government was involved in any way in the proposal by a private Chinese company.
Yet none of these latter points seemed to merit much coverage in Nepal, where media reporting on the issue has focused on the millions of dollars that Nepal could earn exporting its own monkeys.
Dhanraj Gurung, a member of parliament from the Nepali Congress party, is among those calling for the country to start exporting monkeys to both earn foreign revenue and address the pest problem. “Monkey terror has spread in the villages,” he said in a speech at the House of Representatives. “Looking at the current economic situation, I think it is right to decide to export monkeys.”
He anticipated the proposal would face criticism from foreign-funded environmental groups. “While saying this, I am afraid that the dollarists will shout about the ecosystem somewhere,” he said. He cited the Sri Lanka proposal, but didn’t mention that the decision there had been suspended.
Experts say exporting monkeys isn’t a simple or straightforward solution, as it involves legal, ethical and ecological considerations that need to be weighed carefully.
Nepal is a signatory to CITES – Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – the international treaty that regulates trade in endangered species of wildlife. Rhesus monkeys are listed in CITES Appendix II, which means their international trade is heavily restricted. Nepal’s National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act reflects this, prohibiting the export of wild animals and plants without government permission.
In 2004, the Nepal Biodiversity Research Society, a private body, received a government license to set up a centre to supply rhesus monkeys for research. It procured 200 of the animals from the government for 5 million rupees in 2005 (about $69,400 as per then exchange rate) and sought to export 25 offspring.
But animal rights activists and conservationists petitioned the Supreme Court to stop the export, saying it violated Nepal’s laws and CITES regulations. They also questioned the ethics and legality of using monkeys for laboratory experiments. The government finally bowed down to the protests and decided to revoke the company’s license and release the monkeys into the wild.
In principle, exporting monkeys could be beneficial for both Nepal and the receiving countries, if done properly and humanely, said primatologist Mukesh Kumar Chalise. He said there’s high demand for monkeys for biomedical research in countries such as China, Japan, South Korea and the United States, where they’re used to study treatments for diseases such as AIDS, hepatitis, malaria and tuberculosis.
But Chalise also said he believes that sending the monkeys off to other countries can’t be the only solution to the crop-raiding problem.
“We need a holistic solution to the problem,” he said. “The first step would be to conduct nationwide studies and generate data. After that is done, we need to come up with locally customised plans such as cultivation of crops that monkeys don’t like, identification of problematic monkeys, and even growing fruit trees in the jungle for them to eat and survive.”
Instead of exporting “problematic” monkeys, he said, the government should build holding centres throughout Nepal, with labs to carry out important research locally.
Sabina Koirala, a conservationist, said that instead of seeking out quick fixes to the chronic problem, Nepal should focus on addressing the root causes of human-wildlife conflict, such as habitat loss, land-use change, population growth and climate change.
She also called on policymakers to improve the country’s forest management practices, which she said have contributed to the problem of monkey overpopulation. She said many of the trees planted under the government’s community forestry program are non-native species that don’t provide the fruits or seeds that monkeys and other wildlife prefer, which then drives the animals into farms in search of food.
Koirala also called on farmers to plant more native trees that can support biodiversity and ecosystem services, as well as provide alternative sources of income for local communities through ecotourism or agroforestry.
Fellow conservationist Kumar Paudel said the whole idea of exporting monkeys for money seems like an attempt to divert the public’s attention away from important and basic issues.
“It is concerning that even politicians and high-level officials are involved in these types of discussions, without considering its implications,” he said. “If we want to earn money by exporting, why not export tomatoes and vegetables?”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.