Sankar Masthri is a monkey catcher. It says so on his business card.
"Monkey, Dog Hunter," it reads, together with little drawings of his targets and his cell phone number. The phone's ringing a lot these days, as India's capital tries to rid itself of an exploding primate population that's accused of all kinds of mayhem.
"Problem is, monkeys [are] getting smart," Masthri said, as we watched from a distance as one audacious monkey leaned inside a cage baited with bananas and made away with the food before Masthri could pull a wire to close the hatch and trap it.
Monkey hunters are paid 450 rupees (around $11) per monkey, a good rate by local standards. The monkeys are taken to reserves outside the city after they are caught. Masthri claimed to have caught scores in recent days, but the day we joined him was clearly slow going.
"Smart monkey," he repeated, shaking his head and again taking cover behind a bush, wire in hand.
There are an estimated 20,000 monkeys in Delhi, and the effort to get rid of them has taken on new urgency after the deputy mayor of Delhi plunged to his death in October while trying to fend off a group of primates on his balcony.
"Marauding monkeys kill deputy mayor," screamed one newspaper headline. The media was soon filled with lurid tales of monkeys terrorizing the city.
Later, a group of monkeys went on a rampage in a low-income neighborhood, injuring more than 20 people, mostly children. Residents claimed the monkeys tried to snatch the children.
"We have lost our dear deputy mayor," Aarti Mehra, the mayor of Delhi, told me shortly after ordering extra teams of monkey hunters. "This menace must stop."
Anybody who feeds the monkeys will be fined, she says, though more drastic action against the primates – culling, for instance – isn't really an option since the monkey is revered by the Hindu religion. The monkey God, Hanuman, represents strength.
Do not provoke an angry monkey
To add insult to injury, monkeys have taken a liking to the main government buildings in Delhi, where on most days large troops of them can be seen scaling fences and roofs, sitting provocatively on top of signs reading "Government of India." Several recently broke into the Defense Department, fleeing with confidential documents, which were found scattered over the streets.
They were even declared a security threat recently, amid dark murmurings of a possible Pakistan connection.
Some government ministries and foreign embassies have brought in langurs, which are lanky, aggressive monkeys that scare away those causing problems. The langurs patrol middle-class and diplomatic districts.
"We've had no problem since we deployed the langur wallah," one woman told me in the front yard of her large house, near the park where Masthri was working. "Before they would go to the roof and throw off the pots. They'd tear our clothes from the line. They'd sit on the gate and shake it. We couldn't go out. The kids couldn't play."
I can testify that the monkeys can be pretty scary. We filmed a stand- up, a clip of me talking to the camera in the park, as I strolled through a bunch of them on a path. As we finished, a pretty angry pair of monkeys confronted me, baring their teeth. I made a pretty rapid exit, with Masthri urging me to avoid even looking at them. He told me that under no circumstance should you confront an angry monkey. Luckily that was the last thing on my mind.
Animal rights activists oppose efforts
Plenty of people believe monkeys are getting a bad rap and that the real problem is one of man, not monkey.
Delhi is a rapidly growing city. Urbanization is eating into the forest areas where the monkeys used to live. With so much of their habitat destroyed by man, they're heading to the city.
Animal rights activists claim the monkey catchers are making matters worse by splitting up families.
"They get aggressive when you split up a troop," according to Sonya Ghosh, an animal rights campaigner who is working with the government on the city's simian crackdown.
First catch of the day
In the park, Masthri eventually got his first catch of the day, with the door of his cage crashing down behind a monkey that pushed its luck too far. It started thrashing around, shaking the cage.
Outside, perhaps 20 others looked on from the trees and the edge of the path. One of them sat on a water tap, nonchalantly turning it on for a drink, then off again.
"They're getting clever," Masthri repeated. "We'll have to try a new area."
Of course, there are no shortages of areas, and the $11 bounty for each monkey gives him plenty of incentive. But a morning with the monkey hunters does leave you wondering whether the monkeys are not adapting better to the city than the city is to them.