The article is co-written by Hamera Aisha, Manager Wildlife Consevration at WWF-Pakistan and Javed Ahmad Mahar, Conservator, Sindh Wildlife Department

“Monkeys used in performances are poached (illegally captured) from their natural habitats, snatched from their mothers at a very early age and raised under extremely stressful conditions.”

A bandarwala or monkey charmer is not an unfamiliar character for most of us, he is usually seen carrying an adult monkey (rhesus macaque) around crowded places, streets and markets.

The monkey is usually dressed in fancy attire and performs athletic and acrobatic acts following the moves of the monkey charmer’s stick. There is always a crowd which gather around these shows, often showering the performer with a few rupees for the unbridled entertainment and amusement being provided. Children at such shows are seen beaming with excitement as the monkeys do a variety of tricks. These monkey charmers are often seen at traffic signals, on busy thoroughfares where they wait for a car to stop at the signal so that they may beg the drivers for money. The premise of their plea is to feed the starving animal, which many of us do not mind considering as it also helps the poor monkey charmer to support himself and the monkey.

This apparently harmless act, witnessed throughout the subcontinent since long has a darker side too, which most of us are not familiar with. Monkeys used in such performances are poached (illegally captured) from their natural habitats, snatched from their mothers at a very early age and raised under extremely stressful conditions. Rhesus macaque, like many other wildlife species, is also protected under most wildlife protection laws of the country, which means that they cannot be captured from the wild, kept as pets or trained for entertainment purposes. Yet this illicit business continues due to their persistent demand as pets and in street performances. Pakistan is not very rich in primate diversity in comparison to other parts of the world.

The bandar or rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) is one of the most wide-ranging primates on Earth. There has been limited research conducted in Pakistan in comparison to the scale of poaching of macaques, their use in street performances and other threats to their survival.

Monkeys like other wild animals are not meant to live in cages due to their natural behaviour and needs, which are not limited to just food and shelter. Like humans, primates have their own complex social systems and interactions as well as specific natural habitat requirements needed to grow normally. It is also pertinent for us to understand (from the perspective of safety) that it is nearly impossible to tame wild animals no matter how long you keep them. With the surge of social media and its ubiquitous nature, there is widespread public access to information, which offers opportunities to make content viral and get the attention of followers and users. One such tactic is posting videos and pictures with native or exotic wildlife pets, often purchased from illegal traders, which further promotes and exacerbates the illicit practices.

In metropolitan cities like Karachi where permanent and temporary illegal wildlife trade markets persist, seeing monkeys on display for sale is not an uncommon sight, for example, nine monkeys at the Lalukhet market in Karachi have been recorded to be sold during the last two years. They are supposedly captured and sold in these markets to become pets in homes and private zoos

"There is a great deal of research, which confirms that monkeys cannot make good pets."

There is a great deal of research, which confirms that monkeys cannot make good pets. While young monkeys may look endearing and harmless, adult monkeys, after reaching an age of sexual maturity, may act aggressively and are even dangerous.

Once this aggression becomes a threat, owners usually prefer to find an alternate home for them and they, unfortunately, end up being sold in the market again. In many cases, the adults are abandoned by their ‘illegal’ owners resulting in some zoos in Pakistan being overcrowded by such macaques. While we must acknowledge the role of wildlife protection departments for their dedicated efforts to halt illegal monkey trade and other wildlife crimes, there are still an array of issues which let poaching, illegal trade and acts like street performances persist in our society. The most important of these are inadequate law enforcement measures, improper monitoring and management systems, and extreme poverty which provides a fertile environment for such acts to flourish at the source.

Our role as citizens is critical in supporting solutions, as without changing our behaviour to discourage displays and purchase of wildlife as pets, illegal and illicit trade of monkeys and many other wildlife species can never be halted. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, believed to have arisen from wildlife. Primates including monkeys are close relatives to humans, which also means that their vulnerability to contracting this zoonotic disease is also high. We must all play our part by bringing change from within by taking the first step. With introspection and a great deal of contemplation, we need to change our behaviour so that the demand for not only monkey street performances but the desire to keep wild animals as pets goes down and eventually stops. This will ultimately lead to a reduction in illegal trade and poaching of wildlife.