Focus/Spotlight

Are monkeys damaging crops or just trying to feed themselves?

By Mahika Panditha

Just a week ago, former President Maithripala Sirisena commented that the monkey population in Sri Lanka has drastically increased since the time he was the Minister of Agriculture. Back then in 2005, the monkey population had been one million while it has increased to over two million today.

Sirisena raised these concerns saying that monkeys are destroying several coconut crops all over the country but are not being harmed despite the fact that they are causing disruption to about a quarter of the agricultural produce in the country.

Where do they go?

On this matter, what is important to keep in mind is that monkeys are not harming the crops out of malicious intent but rather to feed themselves. Coconut Cultivation Board (CCB) Chairman Jayantha Wickramasinghe, speaking to The Sunday Morning, stated: “We have acquired their space and now they are attacking us. At a meeting with growers in Galle, an old gentleman came up and recalled a story which explains this perfectly. He said his parents used to take him to the forest where they would find items to eat, such as fruits and what not. They would go to the forest to collect firewood – not cut the tree down, but to collect the wood along with some fruits and berries and so on. They would then leave the forest.

“Today, there is no forest. It is just pine and eucalyptus amongst other plants that do not have anything to do with Sri Lanka. Similarly, the animals that used to live in the forest are now invading the villages because there is no water and food in their forests. That is the reality. We have encroached on their space and taken their space, so where do they go?”

One of wildlife’s biggest challenges is the increasing human-animal conflict which results in several problems, especially with the violation of habitats and ecosystems. As Wickramasinghe said, the cultivations and crops are only being harmed because the habitats in which monkeys reside do not contain sufficient food or water for them to consume. This activity is known as “crop raiding”. Primates are one of the most successful species at crop raiding and this is due to their unique characteristics that make them as such. They are highly intelligent animals, and this helps them with overcoming the barriers put in place to stop entering the farmlands. They are also able to pick up new behaviours very quickly and can adapt to new circumstances when the situation calls for it. Moreover, primates adapt much more easily to new environments as opposed to other crop-raiding animals.

However, their noticeable aggressive behaviour is also apparent when they are interfered with in the path of protection for their families and this includes finding food. Since primates are often seen in large groups, they have a very co-operative system which allows them to maximise their benefits. With this in mind, there are laws that do protect animals from harm done by humans as well as wildlife groups that will heavily advocate against animal harm.

It is important to note that crop raiding is not an activity that all primates engage in, but rather an activity done by smaller groups that are species-specific.

As the human population grows, there is a growing need for land, for the purposes of housing, agriculture, as well as industry. This is in direct conflict with wildlife. It is vital to identify the behaviours of the human community that pose threats to the wellbeing of wildlife. This can vary from social, economic, and cultural aspects that directly affect animal habitats.

In a farmer’s journey to protect their crops, they tend to make use of a myriad of strategies, some of which are harmful to animals and generally ineffective. These can vary from implementing capture-kill cages or spraying pepper on crops. Whilst these are a short-term fixes, it is not going to help the matter at hand for people, which is the destruction or loss of crops.

In Sri Lanka, the crop-raiding fiasco does not affect every part of the country. Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Puttalam Farms (Pvt.) Ltd. Director Ehsan Zaheed commented: “In Puttalam, specifically the Puttalam-Mannar Road, we do not have a major issue with the monkey population and the impact on coconut production. We have issues with other wild animals like wild boar. Monkeys can be disruptive and have an impact on other crops. The issue is more apparent in Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, and Matale, which has impacted crop production in coconut and other crops. There should be a humane solution to this conflict.”

Work to preserve all life

Since crop raiding is not a new phenomenon, it means that farmers have had enough time to come up with more resourceful as well as effective strategies. It is just a matter of implementing it in a manner that is neither harmful to wildlife nor humans.

Of course, the strategies are formed out of the resources made from the disposable items that the farmers have around them. This differs according to each country, mainly according to the level of technology and income. With this being said, there is not a lot of data on the effectiveness of some methods and it truly depends on the location and crop-raiding culprits at hand. Prevention is more effective in any sense, as opposed to killing, chasing away, etc.

In the future, by evaluating the use of land around the country and also seeing how land use affects the habitats around them, it might be easier to rebuild habitats and also build cultivations in locations that are less likely to be harmful towards the wildlife.

In the situation that any wildlife is harmed, there will be an even worse outcome.

Minister of Plantation Dr. Ramesh Pathirana, speaking to The Sunday Morning, shared that the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) is currently working towards establishing new coconut crops in other locations, ensuring that there is a stable amount for local consumers as well as wildlife around them.

Why are we trying to take more?

Sirisena had also said that Sri Lanka is the only place wherein animals are given more protection than the food that is grown specifically for humans to eat. In this regard, The Sunday Morning spoke to environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardana.

“Food is not protected by law. The agricultural farmland is protected by law. I think we are lagging far behind in regard to this. We do not have to take more land for crop cultivation. Statistics reveal that there is only 17% of the real forest remaining for cultivation and the other 83% is other land with only a little bit of it resembling true forestlands, with the rubber plants and so on. My question is why are we trying to reduce this further? A country like Sri Lanka needs at least 25% of the forestland to sustain the ecosystems. We have reduced it further than the limit of 25%. There is no more forest left to give.”

There is only so much land that can be used up before ecosystems continue to diminish. Crop raiding is occurring only because of the simple fact that animals cannot find what they need.

Several attempts were made to get through to the Ministry of Agriculture for comment, but to no avail.

Meanwhile, speaking to The Sunday Morning, Coconut Growers Association of Sri Lanka President Jayantha B. Samarakoon shared that the current coconut production is about 3,000 million coconuts per year.

“The (threat of) crop raiding is from both monkeys and giant squirrels. We assume that damages by them are equal and it is about 1-2 % of total annual production. This in numbers is about 30-60 million coconuts per year. The estimated value is about Rs. 1,800-3,600 million.”

Samarakoon said that although monkeys cause a fair amount of damage to the coconut industry, they are not the main cause, adding: “They may be the fifth level of damage.”