Whose island is it?: The complexities of human-primate interactions in Great Nicobar

Under an overhanging banana tree, with its ripening fruits encased in gunny bags, I sat speaking with an elderly ex-serviceman from Punjab. Surrounded by coconut trees, with dense rainforest forming the distant backdrop to his tsunami shelter on the island of Great Nicobar, he looked out of place in his proud turban. On the contrary, this 11-acre tropical haven has been his home for the past thirty- nine years. While he wears his roots wrapped around his head, he is no longer a ‘settler’, as most people from mainland India tag him and others who first came to the island in the 1970s. He is a local, an islander, who has nurtured his farms and children with the limited resources available to him. The internal conflict pertaining to his identity never leaves, and it resurfaces every time he finds himself surrounded by other ‘locals’ from different communities. Are they one, or many? In a way, each person on the island holds dear two cultures – the one they brought with them when they first came to Great Nicobar, and one that they’ve created together by virtue of islandic isolation.

Introspective turmoil is, however, only one among many challenges these locals have had to face. The longest-residing of these families on Great Nicobar had first set foot on a deserted, undeveloped island during Indira Gandhi’s Prime Ministership in 1969. Apart from a few settlements of the indigenous Nicobarese and Shompen communities, the island and its wildlife were unaccustomed to strong human presence. Over a period of thirty years, these settlers cleared and developed the southeastern stretch of the island. They cultivated rice, grew vegetables and created coconut plantations and orchards. Soon, people from diverse communities migrated to the island with their families in search of employment, sowing the seeds of the heterogeneous community present in Great Nicobar today.

The original occupants of Great Nicobar 
Long before human settlers came to the island, it had been home to a healthy population of the endemic Nicobar long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis umbrosa). They lived a predator-free existence, save for rare encounters with saltwater crocodiles. They mostly ate Pandanus fruit, supplemented by seasonal fruits from the forest, and insects and crustaceans.

As early as 1903, C. Boden Kloss, an English zoologist who traveled the length and breath of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, spoke of the timid monkeys of Katchal and Great Nicobar. He found that they could, at times, be observed from close due to their innately curious disposition. On most occasions though, Kloss found that attempts to follow troops were a near-futile experience, owing both to the challenging terrain in which they lived and their skittish nature. Kloss noted that these monkeys raided coconut and Pandanus plantations belonging to the native Nicobarese people, often to the point of hampering the growth of more fruit owing to the harm they caused to the trees.

Unfortunately, no one else spoke of these grey, frizzy-haired primates until a whole century later, when a survey was done across the three islands (Katchal, Little Nicobar and Great Nicobar) to understand how they were distributed. Dr. G. Umapathy of the University of Mysore and his team systematically travelled these islands to count the number of troops and monkeys within them, and learn about their basic biology. Today, we’re slowly starting to learn more about these creatures by observing their movement, diet, and behaviour, but the large lacuna in research between the early twentieth and twenty-first centuries has left us with more questions than answers. The islands that are home to these macaques are more accessible now than they’ve ever been before, providing us with an opportunity to study them better. This accessibility, however, has a flip-side and has thrown the islands open to further anthropogenic development and modification of the macaques’ natural habitat.

An attempt to fill the knowledge gap
When I first visited the island of Great Nicobar, I was intrigued by how close the Nicobar long-tailed macaques and people lived. While there may have been a time when these macaques roamed freely through the heavily-forested island, they were now sharing their home with nearly 9,000 human beings – not including those of indigenous communities – with no room for territorial expansion beyond the island’s shoreline. Every person I met steered the conversation towards the macaques’ shenanigans – of how every day was a constant battle of wits with the monkeys. I learned how the monkeys had found their way into the people’s orchards, farms, and homes, raiding their fields and gardens for food regularly.

The overlapping homes and home ranges of these two highly-intelligent primate species had clearly resulted in a wide range of interactions, and I decided to study how these had come to be.

I hoped to piece together the history of interactions between people and the macaques, understand what the nature of interactions between them are at present and unearth factors that had led to a seeming increase in conflict over time. Gathering this information required combining the social sciences and behavioural ecology. Put together, the people and macaques of Great Nicobar helped me understand the sequence of events leading from the settlers’ arrival on the island up until present-day, where they go through life with monkeys in their backyards.

Interactions between human and non-human primates are inherently complex, owing to people’s tendency to anthropomorphise and empathise with their evolutionarily-similar neighbours. The island of Great Nicobar provided an isolated system within which I could study the nuances of these interactions. Here, they are varied in their nature and intensity between macaques and people from different settler communities. Further, being on an island of unusually-high cultural diversity added another layer to the intricacies of conflict.

Given that the earliest academic records of the Nicobar long-tailed macaques were as recent as 2003, I relied on the locals to learn more about the longer history of this interaction.

“All this land once belonged to the monkeys alone”
The coastal vegetation and surrounding evergreen rainforests were first cleared to make room for human habitation from 1970 onward. Each family received 11-14 acres of land for agriculture from the Central Government, which resulted in the clearing of coastal Pandanus clumps to accommodate coconut and areca nut plantations. The southeastern coastline of the island was soon transformed into a developed strip of land, with one family residing every few acres. This pushed the otherwise-coastal macaques further inland or left them sandwiched between villages.

The long-tailed macaques, being new to such development and the dominant presence of human beings, initially maintained a safe distance from them. They feared people but gradually learned to venture into their fields and gardens in their absence. As the years progressed, the development of the island,human population and the macaques’ experiences with people increased. A combination of these factors led to the level of interaction between people and the macaques moving from negligible to noticeable.

The extent of these interactions varied greatly across the island. Some houses and farms, being closer to the forest edge, were more prone to raiding by the macaques. Macaques began entering coconut plantations more regularly, foraging on fruit trees from orchards and raiding paddy fields when left unattended. To combat this increasingly-problematic raiding, people bred dogs and trained them to chase the monkeys away. An arms race began, with people trying newer and more creative ways of keeping macaques away from their produce, and the macaques learning to dodge their efforts. Both species involved were adapting to the dynamic life resultant from living in the other’s presence, and people began to pay attention to the consequences of having set up home in what was once unchallenged monkey territory.

A fragile system, further ravaged by the tsunami of 2004
The tsunami of 2004 caused major upheavals in every avenue, affecting the lives of both humans and macaques on Great Nicobar through landscape modifications and mortalities. The island’s boundaries were altered, submerging crucial stretches of land along the coast. Most settler families that owned agricultural land in these areas lost their only source of livelihood. The long-tailed macaques, whose diet requires a large proportion of Pandanus fruit, were left with very few individual trees along the coast, with different regions and their troops being affected in varying degrees.

Human survivors of the tsunami were rescued and accommodated in the most-developed and least- affected area of the island, Campbell Bay, for nearly five years. It took another decade of sustained relief effort to redevelop the island and relocate the affected families. During this time, the macaques of Campbell Bay found themselves in constant contact with humans, becoming progressively habituated and decreasingly afraid of them. The lack of sufficient natural resources may have led to them supplementing their staple of Pandanus with human-provisioned foods as well. Similarly, in other regions of the island, the macaques learned to make use of abandoned coconut trees and kitchen gardens, and these foods became more common in their diet over time.

The tsunami modified agricultural practices, social structures within human communities, the distribution of human settlements across the island and what the macaques ate. New settlements were built further inland and on higher ground, cutting further into the macaques’ habitat. These factors came together to create an environment ripe for conflict between monkeys and humans, exacerbated by the overlap in their combined need for space and resources.

People’s perspectives towards conflict and on-ground realities
My interviews with the islanders and behavioural observations showed that between 1970 and 2018, the macaques moved from barely interacting with people, to a situation where a quarter of their diet came from human-provisioned resources. Naturally, this led to people facing financial and personal losses. I spoke to these people to learn more about their personal histories, their position on how serious the on- ground situation seemed to them, and to understand the perspectives of the macaques. Did the islanders consider their daily interactions with the black, furry, teeth-baring primates to be ‘conflict’? Each person’s familial backgrounds, geographic positioning, gender and socioeconomic standings affected how they perceived their interactions with macaques.

These perceptions navigated through a wide spectrum of positive to negative. The macaques’ adaptability to human environments and latent politics between different human communities combine in curious ways to make the situation on-ground more layered than visible on the surface. Adding another fascinating layer, people’s anthropomorphism towards these human-like creatures and stories of the monkey god, Hanuman, greatly influenced the manner in which they dealt with conflict scenarios. In a country like India, where mythology has seeped into each home imperceptibly, it’s hard to disentangle the effect it has had on people, of any religion, and their outlook towards the garden-raiding Vaanars they see.

Even in regions that faced extremely low levels of macaque visitation, as I found through a citizen- science initiative across the island, people still felt a keen frustration towards the monkeys. All these factors came together to either increase or set at ease people’s sense of loss at the hands of the monkeys. Finding these intricacies within an island so culturally and economically diverse made me believe that solutions to combat the rising conflict need to be well-informed and accommodating of its complexities.

Intricately, innately grey
Delving deeper into the complexities of why these interactions exist and the various permutations in which they are dealt with could fill pages of asympathetic book. The chapters therein would cover the island’s history, the macaques’ biology, the game- changing tsunami of 2004, the steady development of the island, the different cultures of each community and the indigenous people, and detailed descriptions of what one may observe taking place today. A book, an article or an academic paper, however, would be suspended in time, a snapshot of a constantly- adapting land. Any author would struggle to pick a side while narrating the history of this islandic system, so far removed from our mainland. These interactions are entwined in ecological history and the nuances of anthropology, making the onset of conflict between two species like these more intriguing with each layer unearthed.

That elderly, Punjabi man I mentioned at the start, sat under his banana trees, fruits shielded from the monkeys, and spoke with sparkling fascination about their intelligence. Moving quickly beyond his description of the economic losses that the monkeys had caused him by destroying over 70% of his annual coconut harvest, he lost himself in a narrative of how the monkeys have learned to avoid every obstacle he placed before them. Despite his daily tussle with them and the frustrations of being ‘stuck’ on that inescapable bit of land floating in the Andaman Sea, he still found room in his wise, old heart to marvel at their antics.

Of course, it isn’t every family that can afford to smile at their losses. People have deep-set reasons to justify their love for and apprehension of the macaques, sometimes both simultaneously. I have learned not to label their interactions with these curious creatures as ‘conflict’ anymore, unless characterised as such by the people themselves. I am a mere spectator, who has attempted to describe this system to the best of her ability using a combination of tools. When each person views the monkeys through a different lens, chiselled down by personal experience, who am I to pin an overarching negative connotation to their lives?

These interactions are dynamic and vulnerable to change. Our first step should be to understand the reasons for that change. Currently, human and macaques on the island of Great Nicobar are in transition-moving from co-existence to semi-harmonious co-occurrence. If we are lucky, with the right tools and the inclination to describe all aspects of the ‘conflict’ at hand, we could work towards curbing its escalation and safeguarding the wellbeing of all animals involved-human or otherwise.

This article is from issue


2019 Mar