Cute primates (monkeys) in old Dhaka decreasing fast

She was lurking behind the iron grill of an old house and with keen eyes looking at a banana at a child's hand. As the little girl became unmindful for a single moment she snatched the banana like an eagle. As the little girl realised that the banana was stolen, she started crying. In the meantime, the 'culprit' jumped to the verandah of a nearby house and finished her 'lunch' with the booty.

Such an incident is quite common on the Basanta Kumar Das Lane of Farashganj in old Dhaka where scores of monkeys ramble at large. Residents of many other parts of old Dhaka are quite used to living with monkeys. One may think why they are seen only in old Dhaka. “Monkeys are mainly seen in and around old spacious houses. It may be the reason because here in old Dhaka they can play and sleep and stroll to their heart's content,” said Urmi Saha, a student of Jagannath University, who has been seeing the moneys since her childhood.

“Sometimes it is annoying because they take away food and clothes in a swoop. But sometimes when I sit in the verandah in the late afternoon it is nice to see them play innocently,” she said. Even though many residents expressed annoyance, most of them said they give bread, biscuits and bananas to the monkeys.

“If we don't give them food or if they can't steal from us then from where will they find it?” said Urmi. “I cannot even think of driving them away. Where will they go? I cannot think them living the life of a homeless.” Many residents give away food to the monkeys just to see them eating innocently. “When I give them bread or biscuit sometimes they eat it with small bites sitting in front of me. It fills me with a strong feeling of compassion for the cute little monkeys. If we don't care for them then who will?” said Afroza Sheuli, a student of JNU.

But not all of them are cute little bundles of monkeys. There are chieftains, round and chubby, sitting like hermits doing yoga in a silent cave in the Himalayas. Their bearing gives an impression of their importance in the monkeys' social hierarchy. Monkeys are very strict in following rules and maintain etiquette very seriously, said old Dhaka residents.

“If you give them food then they will return your clothes,” said Sheuli. However, sometimes they practise some wacky manners to scare away 'outsiders'. “If they find you to be nervous then they will surely attack you. But if you walk before them boldly they will ignore you,” she said.

Showing respect to the dead is one significant feature of the monkey society. “When one of them dies all the monkeys come from all corners of the area and stand guard beside the dead monkey for days. Sometimes they sit beside the body for a month,” Sheuli said. It is almost impossible for a mother to leave the baby if it dies. If a baby dies the mother does not leave the body and roam with the body until it is lost.

During summer the monkeys like to be near the floor and in winter they like to stay upstairs. Md Firoz, a grocery shop owner in the area, said it is almost a daily routine to lose two or three bananas. “Sometimes I get angry but what if I lose a few bananas each day for the poor creatures?” “It is a pleasure for me to see the little monkeys play hanging from ropes,” said Md Tawhidur Rahman, a staff at Farashganj Jam-e-Masjid.

In spite of the residents' empathy for one of the last remnants of the urban wildlife their number has decreased in the last few years. “Previously there were lots of monkeys in the area. But the number went down in the last few years when people started to demolish spacious old buildings and build congested apartments instead,” said Urmi. “May be because they lost the spacious courtyards of old houses in which they used to stroll and play,” she said.

Prof Anwarul Islam, a professor of zoology at Dhaka University and chief executive, Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh, said habitat loss and habitat alteration are the main reasons for the decreasing number of monkeys. “With increasing urbanisation the conflict between human and monkey has increased and tolerance decreased. As a result, their habitat has shrunk if not destroyed,” said the professor. “They are seen in old Dhaka because the residents are tolerant,” he said.

“When a group gets bigger it splits into several small groups but in their case it is not happening because they have no other place to go, resulting in infertility due to inbreeding,” said Prof Islam. Maintaining territory is one reason for their attraction to old Dhaka. “Animals, especially primates, maintain territory very strictly. They hardly go outside the territory. Old Dhaka is their territory so it is unlikely for them to move from the place unless the conflict increases,” he said (D. Ghias, Daily Star, March 17, 2008).

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