Photos courtesy of Mahendra Dhammika

The narrow, winding road at Kadugannawa is littered with small roadside shops selling corn, grapefruit and the local favourite polos and roti, coconut flatbread with a side of baby jackfruit curry. We stopped for the roti at a small shop with a big view. The one thing that kept us from absorbing this forest panorama in its purest form was a green mesh covering the mountainside part of the shop. But it didn’t take long to understand why it was put there.

A green mesh has been put up to create a barrier between the people who stop by the shop for a meal and the macaques who are always on the lookout for a quick snack 

 Kanthi brings out freshly made roti

Our roti and curries were brought to the table by the second generation shop owner and her niece who was helping out at the shop that morning. My partner took a roti from the platter and dipped it in the curry. Another roti was idling by the mesh but didn’t go unnoticed by some hungry locals. Before I could say the ri of  rilava – the local name for a macaque, a brown primate endemic to Sri Lanka – a big male climbed down and while his smaller sized troop mates watched stuck his arm through the mesh and grabbed the roti. He tore off a chunk, and wanted more. When my partner pulled the roti back, hesitant to encourage wild primates to snack on not so nutritious human food, he clenched his fists, cussed in “monkey” and went away.

The roti that endured a little tug of war between man and macaque sits in the bin

The shop owner, Kanthi, scrambled to the rescue, apologised and offered a new roti after throwing the half-eaten one into the bin. She was quick to point out that, “These macaques are not from here. Our ones are innocent, they mind their own business and do not steal, unlike these wild outsiders”.

I quickly connect this story to another one from the region. It is strangely similar to the recollections of Dr. Radhika Govindrajan, an Indian-American anthropologist studying human-animal relationships in the Himalayas. In her paper Monkey Business: Macaque Translocation and the Politics of Belonging in India’s Central Himalayas, Dr. Govindrajan explores the difference in how villagers view the timid native primates and the more boisterous city macaques who were relocated into rural areas.

Kanthi telling her stories

With a few minutes to spare before more people trickle into her shop, Kanthi shares that she inherited the shop from her father who came to Kadugannawa from the village across the hill. They have been here for decades but the mesh is only a few months old and her son, who now helps run the shop, didn’t buy into the idea at first, as it ruins the view. But the macaque problem is now past the tipping point, and they were left with little choice.

Macaque in Udawatte kaley

The macaques were captured from Udawatte kaley, a forest reserve in Kandy. When the macaques get overpopulated, the officials capture, tranquillise and release them to other forest patches nearby. This creates a fierce competition for food for the macaques who are already habiting the area. And while the local macaques live on fruit foraging, their relocated cousins from the city have become used to human food while living in much closer proximity to human settlements. A part of me is sceptical – this sounds too similar to Dr. Govindrajan’s recollection of the city monkey who snatched a bag of chips, opened it and then closed her eyes in pleasure while snacking on its contents.

Sugary, milky Sri Lankan coffee that keeps drivers of long distance travels wide-eyed and awake

We chat over a sweet, warm coffee her niece made for us. I realise that Kanthi, like many people caught in the unenviable spot between wildlife and livelihood, still feels empathy towards these creatures that share her space. She recalls a time where the local macaques co-existed peacefully with the people in the area. She says that now the leftovers from the day are collected and left at the foot of the hill for the macaques to eat, hoping that it will eventually deter them from coming too close to her customers. She then reaches into the bin, pulls out the discarded roti and stuffs it into the mesh. “It’s alright, let them have it. We all feel hunger.”

Roti in the gaps on the mesh

Two days later I met Sachin, a long time resident from Kadugannawa. He confirms Kanthi’s story. Two other residents from Kandy also say this has been happening for years. Udawatte kaley is at a walking distance to the Dalada Maligawa, visited by both locals and tourists, in their thousands. Over the years, the macaques have got used to eating the visitors’ fruit and snacks and leftover temple offerings; the maligawa has become their primary habitat. The abundance of food and the lack of natural predators have caused the macaque population to increase to a point that they have now become a nuisance to the people. Authorities have resorted to translocation as a solution although at this point, years of this practice has proven its inefficacy.

At the entrance to the Udawatte kaley reserve, two macaques watch as a band of school children get off a bus to visit. They are anticipating some food

Sachin, like Kanthi, also maintains that the local macaques cause no trouble but the outsiders from the hill capital are out of control despite the two groups being of the same species and endemic to Sri Lanka. The forest patches the city monkeys are translocated to have adjacent human settlements – paddy fields, fruit and vegetable cultivations and small wayside shops serving food. Having acquired a taste for human food throughout their lives, they are much more likely to use their agility and quick wit to steal from shops, kitchens and the unsuspecting visitor caught daydreaming with food in their hand; a complete contrast to their more timid, forest dwelling, foraging cousins. He winces a little when he recollects how a farmer, in a desperate attempt to protect his cultivation, enticed a troop of over 200 macaques by leaving out milk rice laced with poison, killing them all.

Like many people in the area, he is convinced that relocation is a terrible solution. Sri Lanka’s translocation of animals have mostly ended up as failures. Elephants, leopards and even crocodiles have managed to channel their innate sense of direction and find their way back home despite being relocated hundreds of miles away. In other less than happy endings, many die on the return journey and others end up with more aggression toward people or the other animals they are forced to cohabit with due to post translocation trauma.

As rewarding as positive human-animal interactions can be, human-animal conflicts can be the inconvenience of a stolen roti at best but life threatening at worst. Conversations on cohabiting need to be had with nuance and empathy, rooted in an understanding of animal agency and intelligence while ensuring that human lives and livelihoods remain unharmed.

On our way back, we stop by at Kanthi’s tea shop, and her niece brews us another coffee. Their hospitality and warmth is what Sri Lankans are known for around the world. I cannot help but wonder though, if beneath that generosity and reception, lies a very strong sense of insider-outsider, us and them.