Monks, monkeys and agriculture: the journey to coexistence
In all ways but one, I thoroughly enjoyed my semester abroad in Sri Lanka. It was initially pretty tough being away from friends and family in Australia. My three roommates were not able to speak much English, rice and curry for every meal was inescapable and I could never find the hot water tap in the shower (turns out it doesn’t exist). However, Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with beautiful people. It quickly became my home as everyone made me feel so welcome, including our teammate Amila. Everyone except for one group.
I never got along with one group of locals. They snarled at me in the corridors of the student hostel. They came to my room uninvited and ate my rice, cashew nuts, powdered milk and ornamental cactus. One time they took my water bottle, it didn’t even have water in it. Yes, this group of locals, was a group monkeys.
Following my passion for agriculture, I soon learnt that I was not the only individual struggling to coexist with Sri Lankan monkeys. I spent most of my weekends (and many of my uni weekdays) touring the country’s diverse agricultural sector. I listened to a papaya producer lament about crops and sprinkler systems destroyed by monkeys. I watched a dairy farmer angrily chase monkeys from his underperforming herds. Most crushingly, I stood next to a smallholder farmer as he pointed up to the naked crown of his monkey-raided coconut tree.
Smallholder coconut growers appear to be worst affected by the ‘monkey menace’. Coconuts should be harvested when they are the size of a football. However, monkeys pluck them when they are the size of a Ping-Pong ball. Sometimes they eat them, sometimes they drop them on the ground below. Without monkeys, farmers can harvest up to 75 coconuts from a single tree in just one year. With growing monkey populations, it is common for them to not harvest any.
In Australia, pest control is very simple. You shoot it. If not, you poison it. However, in Sri Lanka, neither strategy is an option. Most of the the 70% Buddhist population in Sri Lanka feel uncomfortable harming animals, let alone killing them. One farmer, Mr. Upali, explained to us that he stopped using his expensive air rifle to deter monkeys when he found out that a monkey was accidentally killed with the rubber bullets. A slingshot is now the only tool that Mr. Upali has at his disposal to protect his 4.5 acres of cropland. Indeed, in Sri Lanka and other Buddhist countries, the challenge is not to eradicate ‘pests’. The challenge is to coexist with them.
For weeks, Amila, James and I struggled to develop a much-needed tool for these Buddhist smallholder coconut growers. We pursued all sorts of ideas; solar powered ultrasonic deterrents, electric fruit nets, pepper spray with motion sensors etc. Probably the most creative was an invisible virtual fence positioned by GPS and applied using electric collars. However, none of our solutions conformed to the Buddhist values or financial constraints of our stakeholders.
That was until we developed 'the wedding dress'…