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Like in any other species of monkeys, baby Liontailed macaques are playful and curious. They lack the iconic grey mane of the adults, though.

Hanging in there

When centuries old rainforests give way to tea plantations and human settlements, a troupe of wholly arboreal monkeys set aside their natural behaviour to adapt to this changing landscape. Our team of Trailblazers brings you the story of the endangered Lion-tailed macaques at Valparai and their survival challenges.

It is 7:30 am on a Monday morning, and Kannan is cycling to work. The road he’s negotiating is in Valparai, an amalgam of forest fragments and tea plantations, the latter more overpowering on the eye. As he cycles, he scans the treetops and tea shrubs straddling the road. Valparai is a quaint, sleepy town in the heart of the Anamalai Hills (‘Elephant Hills’ in Tamil) in the southern Western Ghats. Located south of the Palghat Gap, the evergreen forests of this hill range flourish, courtesy the 2000-5000mm of rainfall they receive annually. The Western Ghats cover less than 6% of India’s landmass but harbour more than 30% of the country’s plant and vertebrate species, thus becoming a global biodiversity hotspot. The varied rainfall patterns and vegetation ensure a high degree of endemism in the Anamalais, just like in the rest of the Western Ghats.

Nature Conservation Foundation employs guards to watch over the macaques and to ensure they don’t get into conflicts with people.

Nature Conservation Foundation employs guards to watch over the macaques and to ensure they don’t get into conflicts with people.

Kannan has now cycled close to a kilometre from where he started, with tea plantations on his left and evergreen forests on his right. What was once a contiguous jungle is now a mosaic of forest fragments, secondary vegetation, and cultivated fields. He reaches a curve where the canopy finally wins and the sky isn’t visible anymore. Ancient, native trees form a shield with a dense network of branches. A Malabar giant squirrel clucks away in response to another calling from a distance, while the song of a Malabar Whistling Thrush bounces off the hilltops. That’s when Kannan hears the call. ‘Coo’. Distinct, tender, lone, very childlike. Again, ‘Coo’ ‘Cooo’ ‘Coo’. This time around, there are many calls, as if a musician filled an interlude with overlapping voices. Kannan’s pace picks up. They are here; the ones that he watches and guards every day, through rain and sun—the Lion-tailed macaques.

Nestled in the Anamalai Hills of the Western Ghats is the quaint town of Valparai. The landscape here is a mosaic of evergreen forest fragments and plantations.

Nestled in the Anamalai Hills of the Western Ghats is the quaint town of Valparai. The landscape here is a mosaic of evergreen forest fragments and plantations.

Macaque central

As he spots the first of the macaques—a lone male plucking tender orchid buds—he also notices his colleague Dharmaraj in the distance, watching two playful young females gambol up and down a short tree. More macaques appear at various heights in the canopy, engaged in many a monkey-business. A new mother sits on a branch, grooming a pink, hairless infant ensconced in her belly. A group of yearlings learn the trick of feeding while hanging upside down, under the vigilant watch of a group of females. The alpha male blusters through a group of young males; some shrieks and chases ensue. All along, they call out to one another; the rhythm of their responses much like an attendance call in school. Assurances resound through the forest canopy in the form of ‘Coos’. Their glossy black coats shine in the morning sun, and the rich, lion-like manes cast partial shadows on their faces. Every so often one of them looks up to reveal a deep ruby-red eye that glints in the light. Incidentally, they don’t earn their name from their stunning manes. It’s their rather plain, lion-like tails with a tuft of black fur at the end that give Lion-tailed macaques their epithet.

Females conceive only once in three years, giving birth to a single offspring. Given the lifespan of a Lion-tailed Macaque, that doesn’t amount to very high numbers.

Females conceive only once in three years, giving birth to a single offspring. Given the lifespan of a Lion-tailed Macaque, that doesn’t amount to very high numbers.

This action, however, isn’t in the forest—the Puthuthottam estate is abuzz with primate activity. Valparai’s tryst with tea and coffee dates back to the 1850s, when rich, evergreen forests were all that the eye could see. In a few decades, though, tea, cardamom and coffee plantations abominably removed what had taken thousands of years to grow. This troupe of 85 adults and seven infants spend a lot of time in an abandoned coffee plantation patch within the estate that now has few native and some pioneer species of trees. The Lion-tailed macaques have adapted well to many of these degraded rainforest fragments, finding solace in feeding on resin from eucalyptus when cullenia and jackfruit aren’t available. While they’re mostly omnivorous, this troupe actively forages for seeds, flowers and even fungi. Messy eaters, they play an important ecological role as active seed dispersers, pollinators and browsers. These skilful climbers spend a majority of their life in the upper canopy of tropical moist evergreen rainforests, where they huddle together to sleep at night.

There’s commotion in the canopy. The burly alpha male chases away a young contender to his title; his only crime was that he cozied up to a female. While most troupes of up to 20 members have one alpha male, this large one has accommodated two and they own the mating rights. As if to establish his dominance, the alpha rushes to the same female and picks up her tail to examine if she is in oestrus. She is, and he proceeds to mate with her; his snarls looking more like he is making war than love. Females give birth to a single offspring after a gestation period of around 6 months after which they don’t give birth for about three more years. The male repeats the routine with several of the troupe’s females to maximise his chances of reproduction.

Fruits of cullenia exarillata are a staple diet for endemic wildlife from the region including the Lion-tailed macaques.

Fruits of cullenia exarillata are a staple diet for endemic wildlife from the region including the Lion-tailed macaques.

Show-stopping monkeys

A loud grunt from the alpha brings the feeding frenzy to a halt. The troupe descends from the canopy and follows him through the planters’ colony, tea gardens and walkways to cross the road. This is unnatural for the almost wholly arboreal Lion-tailed macaques, but they have little choice in the matter. Only 1% of their original habitat remains today, thanks to widespread anthropogenic activities—logging, agricultural expansion and building homes. Over the years, non-native vegetation has replaced the indigenous, causing a loss of canopy contiguity. Every change in location for the macaques involves crossing a road, and a road can mean only one thing—traffic.

An auto-rickshaw putters around the corner, only to meet a car loaded with loud music and people head on. A group of subadult male macaques playing by the side of the road bring both vehicles to a screeching halt. iPads, phones and cameras pop out of the windows first. After some deliberation, a few pairs of feet hesitantly step out of the vehicles. The macaques, now inured to all this attention, go about their business. Harmless as it might seem, this presents a two-fold risk to their well-being. On the one hand, they could contract diseases from humans for which they have no natural immunity. On the other, the garbage they forage while on the ground could lead to other infections and alter their eating habits forever.

Dharmaraj appears out of nowhere, a board in his hand, similar to the one that Kannan’s fingers enfold. “Go Slow” it says, in bold red, with an illustration of a macaque walking. For eight hours a day, he follows the troupe as they criss-cross the town, the estate and the forest, holding up the board to manage traffic. Handsome as they are, the macaques are traffic-stoppers. Dharmaraj walks up to the car and gently ushers people photographing the primates back into their vehicles. The driver wants to know about these black monkeys. Is it alright to feed them? Why are they on the road? Dharmaraj explains patiently, and again requests everyone to get back into the vehicle and drive away. They agree and leave. This entire episode replays itself repeatedly, for as long as the macaques are by the road. At times, people don’t agree and insist on feeding them. This is no regular, nine-to-five job; the duo painstakingly monitors the macaques each day of their lives.

Handsome as they are, the macaques are traffic-showstoppers. Out-oftowners come into close contact with them as much as locals do.

Handsome as they are, the macaques are traffic-showstoppers. Out-of towners come into close contact with them as much as locals do.

Kannan and Dharmaraj work for NCF—Nature Conservation Foundation. NCF’s passionate team of conservationists and scientists have played a crucial role in enabling safe passage for threatened arboreal fauna in these roads. Estates like Puthuthottam have forest fragments that serve as animal corridors and are home to many species of wildlife. Since 2001, NCF has worked in Valparai to ecologically restore rainforest fragments in partnership with such plantation companies and the forest department. Vehicles that would have otherwise been speeding down blind curves now slow down when they see ‘wildlife crossing’ signs— one of NCF’s several measures to make wildlife-friendly roads in the region. Unlike the young ones that brought the traffic to a halt, some macaques in this large troupe cross in the old-fashioned-arboreal way, and use a canopy bridge; a contraption designed by the forest department, NCF and the estate, to connect trees where there’s a gap in the canopy. The macaques are not the only beneficiaries of these bridges. On an adjacent bridge, a Nilgiri langur darts across this highway in the sky. This however, is an engineering solution to an ecological problem—all three stakeholders are trying to solve this by planting native trees along the roadside to increase the health of the canopy.

The road ahead

Soon, the fag end of the troupe too flows into the evergreen forest fragment. Back on another canopy disconnected from the estate, the young ones frolic again, under the watchful gaze of their mothers. The alpha has already found his spot that also serves a lookout. The young contenders will maintain their distance from him. The infants take this opportunity to learn the fine art of dangling upside down from a branch. How they land on their feet after every jump is a lesson for another day. A final round of ‘Cooos’ marks the attendance for the afternoon. They’ll probably huddle up here for the night.

In the time that they spend on ground, the macaques are in close proximity with humans, exposing them to several risks.

In the time that they spend on ground, the macaques are in close proximity with humans, exposing them to several risks.

This troupe is one among several in Valparai and they are only some of the last 4,000 odd members of their species in the Western Ghats. The drama of their lives is not unique to this town. Over 20% of Lion-tailed macaques share space with plantations and human settlements all over the Ghats. The recent discovery of a previously unknown population in North Karnataka marks new hope for the species, while at the same time indicating that there are serld as the macaques are, living alongside humans is an inevitable part of their destiny—more so with each passing day. Can these primates thrive on a restored forest canopy as they historically did? Can they get the time and space to adapt to this changing landscape? Can we be more responsible as visitors and observe, yet not intrude? The onus is on us.

 

This is an joint article by : Team TrailBlazers (Adarsh Raju , Shreeram MV, Sumeet Moghe, Radha Rangarajan and  Anuroop Krishnan)

 

 

Hanging in thereADARSH RAJU

Adarsh is an IT consultant and a keen Filmmaker. He makes short films on conservation, and in this quest, he has travelled to eight countries across three continents.

 

 

 

SHREERAM MVHanging in there

Shreeram is a naturalist, and a published outdoor photographer and photography mentor. He’s a cofounder of Darter Photography and has trained several naturalists in South India.

 

 

 

Hanging in thereSUMEET MOGHE

Sumeet is a learning technologist and blogger. Apart from being an award-winning photographer, he has been writing articles online since 2001, focusing on environment, conservation and photography.

 

 

 

Hanging in thereSUMEET MOGHE

Sumeet is a learning technologist and blogger. Apart from being an award-winning photographer, he has been writing articles online since 2001, focusing on environment, conservation and photography.

 

 

 

 


Read also:  Junglimericks: In the Crazy Wilds of India 


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About the Author /

Anuroop is a marketing professional and a passionate wildlife photographer. His work has found its way to several prestigious wildlife publications.

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