By P.K. Balachandran/The Diplomat
Colombo, April 22: Sri Lankan Minister of Agriculture Mahinda Amaraweera recently announced that the government is considering a Chinese private company’s proposal to import 100,000 “toque macaque” monkeys from Sri Lanka for 1,000 zoos in China.
But environmentalists point out that the toque macaque monkey is on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as an endangered species. Sri Lanka is its natural habitat.
Campaigners for the preservation of Sri Lanka’s culture say that the monkey has an exalted place in the mythology of Sri Lankan Hindus. The monkey god Hanuman is a key character in the Hindu epic Ramayana. As regards Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority, the general feeling is that the large-scale export of monkeys would clash with the Buddhist concept of compassion toward all living creatures. Sri Lankan Buddhists also venerate Hindu deities, including Hanuman. A temple has been built for him in Rumassala, a Buddhist stronghold in southern Sri Lanka.
Most Sri Lankans trash Amaraweera’s claim that the 100,000 monkeys are meant for Chinese zoos. A widespread suspicion is that the monkeys will be used in scientific experiments and as food.
It is well-known that monkeys, especially toque macaques, are extensively traded internationally, both legally and illegally. The main reason for the import of toque macaques by advanced nations is research on drugs and vaccines. Toque macaques’ genetic and other similarities with humans make them ideal test subjects.
According to Sri Lankan environmentalist Dr. Murali Vallipuranathan between 2000 and 2020, the United States alone imported 482,000 monkeys for experimental purposes
But there is a fear in Sri Lanka that conditions in Chinese labs could be especially harsh because China has little regard for animal rights. Even if the monkeys are meant for zoos, there is a strong pattern of animal cruelty at China’s zoos and wildlife parks.
Former Sri Lankan Minister for Wildlife Navin Dissanayake described the Sri Lankan government’s indifference to this aspect as an “abomination.”
According to Amaraweera, Sri Lanka has a population of 3 million toque macaque monkeys, way too many. They have been causing enormous damage to crops, he pointed out.
He told the website Mongabay that nearly 100 million coconuts are destroyed by monkeys and giant squirrels each year, causing a loss of $19.3 million. He quoted a report of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute in Colombo to say that the total loss, taking all crops into account, would be $87.5 million.
The minister further said that efforts to curb the menace have failed, although, as per a new regulation, several kinds of wild creatures, including monkeys, that damage crops, could be legally killed by farmers.
However, environmentalists warn of the deleterious consequences of indiscriminate and unscientific culling. While monkeys may be predators, they do play a useful role in preserving the ecological balance, argued Vallipuranathan.
“Toque macaques are involved in seed dispersing. A rapid decline of these monkeys may affect the spread of the plants feeding these monkeys. A rapid decline of macaques can lead to an increase in lizards and small birds because these monkeys are known to feed on them. On the other hand, leopards, fishing cats, pythons and mugger crocodiles are known to prey on these monkeys. A rapid decline of monkeys can lead these predators to look for alternative prey, including domestic animals,” he warned in an article in Colombo Telegraph.
Vallipuranathan also contested Amaraweera’s contention that the toque macaque monkey population in Sri Lanka is 3 million. “It cannot be above 200,000, and if from this, 100,000 are exported, the population would be halved!” he said.
Clash With Chinese Mythology Too
Interestingly, the monkey has an exalted place in Chinese mythology also, pointed out Prof. B. R. Deepak of the Chinese Studies Center at Jawaharlal University in New Delhi.
Chinese scholars say that the Chinese began venerating the mythical monkey Sun Wukong (known as the Monkey King) because, according to legend, he provided security to Xuan Zang during his perilous travels in India to collect Buddhist Sutras in the 7th century. Sun Wukong is a central character in the novel “Journey to the West” about Xuan Zang’s travels, written by Wu Cheng’en during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).
Chinese writer Liu Anwu (1930-2018) dedicated two chapters titled “Rescuing the kidnapped wife: Rama’s story in the Journey to the West”, and “A Comparison of the Curse Mantra and other Mantras: Hindu Mythology and Journey to the West” to prove his point that Sun Wukong is a “hybrid” Hindu-Chinese Hanuman.
Liu established that various descriptions of Sun Wukong in “Journey to the West” are very consistent with, or similar to, the Rama story in the Buddhist sutras and the great epic Ramayana itself. In Chinese mythology, Sun Wukong, like Hanuman, is known for his boldness, loyalty, quick wit, and above all, enormous strength. In Hindu mythology, Hanuman is immortal; so is Sun Wukong. Both can overcome adversaries or adverse circumstances through innovative methods.
According to Liu Anwu, during the Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasties, Guangzhou, Quanzhou, Mingzhou, Yangzhou were the world’s busiest international business hubs that were frequented by merchants, sailors, and monks from India and other parts of Asia.
As a result, a mix of Buddhism and Hinduism was disseminated in Southeast Asia and China. The existence of Buddhist and Indian temples in Quanzhou bear testimony to the Hindu-Buddhist influence.
“The story of Rama must have been the subject of their pastime; therefore, it was natural for the story, including that of Hanuman, to spread in the southeast coast of China,” Deepak wrote in his 2020 piece in Sunday Guardian.
Sun Wukong represents the integration of Chinese and Indian literary images in the long process of cultural exchanges between India and China. It is a Sino-Indian hybrid. Given this cultural fact, it is odd that China and Sri Lanka should contemplate large-scale culling of the monkey.
Considering all these environmental and cultural factors, Vallipuranathan has another answer to the monkey menace. According to him, the more sensible way of tackling the monkey problem is to prevent deforestation.
Deforestation has led to the shrinking of the natural habitat of monkeys, leaving them no alternative but to encroach on human habitats and eat up their resources, he says.
“Sri Lanka has been undergoing extensive deforestation with successive political regimes destroying the forests in the name of development projects. In 2021 alone, it lost 13.3 kha [kilohectares] of natural forest,” Vallipuranathan pointed out.