Most of the world's big cities face a basic set of problems: traffic, pollution, crime. Then there is Delhi, which has an urban challenge that's nearly unique: too many monkeys. Hungry rhesus macaques roam the streets and even the subway, leap through treetops outside grand government buildings and scale fences around offices and private homes, searching for open windows and accessible food. Even Delhi's police headquarters has been raided by a monkey gang.
To most of the Indian capital's 15 million residents, monkeys are as much a part of the cityscape as Mughal tombs and speeding auto rickshaws. Monkeys and humans have long coexisted in India, where Hindus consider the primates sacred. In the ancient Sanskrit epic The Ramayana, the monkey god Hanuman symbolizes wisdom, devotion, righteousness and strength. On most days, devout Hindus feed Delhi's monkeys a feast of bananas and peanuts.
But as a booming economy opens the country to foreign investment, floods India's cities with new workers and leaves fewer sanctuaries for the local primates, government officials are looking for ways to rein in the monkey business. A few years ago, officials in Delhi started rounding up monkeys and caging them in a large, dedicated prison on the outskirts of the city. Authorities would like to send them to forests in neighboring states, but many are refusing to accept the animals. India's Supreme Court stepped in last month, ordering that 300 entrapped monkeys be transferred to a forest in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.
Some urban dwellers are taking matters into their own hands. In parts of Delhi, companies are now employing imposing langur monkeys to protect buildings and scare off the smaller rhesus monkeys. "Any langur will do the business," says Zahid Khan, 20, a langur handler who regularly chains one or two outside the Press Trust of India building, which houses TIME's Delhi bureau. "The monkeys are petrified of them."
That may be true, though the introduction of a 40-lb. beast outside your window doesn't exactly bring a sense of tranquillity. With their sharp teeth and long, muscular tail that can swat an errant primate from a couple of feet away, langurs are scary not just to smaller monkeys but also to humans. Khan says business is good, despite the recent proliferation of competitors. The company he works for employs 12 langurs, including the two he was using to guard our building a few weeks ago: Babby, an 8-year-old female with a young baby playing at her feet; and Ramu, a fierce-looking 10-year-old male. "If they hit you with their tail, it will break the skin," says Khan.
But even langur pushers know they're offering only a quick fix. Iqbal Malik, one of India's leading primatologists, estimates there are now 5,000 monkeys in Delhi. Seven years ago, she came up with a plan to create a reserve for the city's monkeys and begin a program of sterilization for selected males. But she says the city fumbled those plans and instead started caging monkeys to create the impression it was doing something.