To Bonnets, with much fascination
A long time ago I said “Because they fascinate me.”
The question was why I chose to study bonnet macaques. It didn’t look like they appreciated my answer. Perhaps they wanted a scientific statement. It was the final viva voce examination of my two-year master’s degree course in Psychology. To study animal behaviour in this course I had left my home city, an ‘outstanding’ Psychology PG department, my home university and a ‘very inspiring’ English literature faculty with whom I had just started my M.A. study. I felt connected with wildlife, conservation and nature. For my second year dissertation I had chosen to ‘study’ bonnet macaques’ behaviour, not experimenting on white mice in the laboratory. Bonnets simply fascinated me.
Reading an article in New York Times last Sunday (15/3/2015) about how wild Jane Goodall still is in her heart reminded me how fascinated I still am with bonnet macaques. Whenever I am in a zoo or in India I do look out for monkeys now – for myself and also for my younger son who loves primates.
After my master’s degree I started a PhD researching bonnet macaques’ communication system. I spent more than two years in the field watching, observing, recording, documenting, journaling and following how bonnets talked. The life of bonnets filled hundreds of pages. One day well-known biologist George Schaller visited the university. I had the opportunity to talk to him briefly. One of my questions and his answer (unrecorded) stayed with me forever. I asked him what a researcher should choose between scientific research and wildlife conservation when faced with a situation where the researched animals were threatened by humans. Schaller replied saying the researcher could choose either the research study which might not leave room for conservation or focus on conservation alone which would not necessarily become scientific research. Ah, the dilemma!
By that time the local farming community had trapped my primary group of 42 bonnet macaques. My own personal safety was at risk. I did my best to resolve the human-animal conflict. I had collected very good data progressing well as a researcher; not so as a conservationist.
Those beautiful bonnets being trapped, tormented, dislocated and disintegrated as a family disillusioned me. Although I continued my research locating and studying three other groups in the later months it was not the same feeling. I had bonded well with the family of Hiriya, young Cleo, Abhi and all the others. Spending hours with them in the woods was my life.
But then, bonnet macaques were in plentiful at that time. They were just ordinary monkeys seen everywhere in South India. They were not exotic like the lion-tailed macaques to attract research funding or like the mountain gorillas needing conservation. Bonnets did not excite the western scientific research world. I would tell people if trapping of bonnets continued at the same scale a day would come when children would have no monkeys in the neighbourhood. No more imagination; no more fascination in their stories. In the later years I went away from animal behaviour research. I continued with my lifelong conservation efforts. Nature always healed me.
During our visits to India now my younger son insists on seeing monkeys that are hard to find. Once when somebody asked why, he said “Oh, they are so fascinating!”
Cheers, Vinathe Sharma