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Updated: June 30, 2012 17:12 IST

Marooned macaques

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A macaque in Puduthottam. Photo: Nithila Baskaran
A macaque in Puduthottam. Photo: Nithila Baskaran

S. Theodore Baskaran sights a troop of the rare lion-tailed macaques in Puduthottam near Valparai and wonders how long they’ll survive as their habitats get ravaged.

Sometime in the 1930s, a British officer visiting Courtallam falls in Tamil Nadu spotted a troop of lion-tailed macaques (LTM) foraging on the rock face of the main falls, even as many pilgrims bathed below. This incident is cited to make the point that these highly endangered primates were not always as shy of humans as they are now. Sadly, there is no trace of them anywhere in the Courtallam ranges now. There are some troops in Kalakad sanctuary, about 60 km from Courtallam.

It seems these primates have come one full circle thanks to the strict protection they have enjoyed in the last five decades. Recently, while at Iyerpadi estate near Valparai, right inside Anaimalai Tiger Reserve, we came across a troop of Lion-tailed macaques going about their foraging chore in the vicinity of Puduthottam estate and they often came close to human beings in the main road. The Nature Conservation Society, a Mysore-based outfit which has a unit in Valparai, with the good will of some planters, has placed two men to take care of these troops, mainly to prevent road kills These two men are now a part of the landscape and are fondly referred to by the locals as the “Men who mind the Monkeys” (Kurangu pathukiravanga). Traffic has been steadily increasing on this road that cuts through Puduthottam estate and there have been casualties of macaques.

The lion-tails are endemic to the Western Ghats and their habitat is restricted to some patches in the dense evergreen forests that thrive in folds and valleys of mountains, in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. After India gained Independence, a large number of hydroelectric projects were built, pilgrimage centres grew in popularity and roads were laid dissecting the forests that had remained inviolate for millennia.

As their habitat began shrinking fast, the number of macaques living in the wild plummeted. In addition, they were killed for meat, for pelage, for use in native medicine and for pet trade. This picturesque macaque was much fancied as a cage animal and was kept as pet in houses of landlords around this area.

Diminishing numbers

This iconic primate has specially evolved for life in the South Indian evergreen rain forests. Of the 12 species of macaques, only the lion-tails are exclusive to tropical rain forests and are truly arboreal. They are omnivorous, eating insects and bird eggs in addition to fruits and berries. As much of its home ranges, the rain forests of the Western Ghats have been destroyed, the LTM is one of the world’s rarest of mammals, with only around 3,000 left.

We spent an hour observing these fascinating primates, frolicking as a troop, picking coffee berries or trying to examine our car. The last time I set my eyes on them was in Kozhikamuthi shola near Topslip, way up on the canopy of a tall tree. Here in Iyerpadi, they seemed to be quite used to the proximity of humans, like their forebearers in Courtallam. We could often hear their endearing baby-like calls as they kept in contact with each other in the troop. They are given to moving through the canopy, hardly coming down to terra firma. But when a road splits the shola, they have to come down to get to the other side and sometimes get hit by speeding vehicles. The Forest Department and The Nature Conservation Society have connected the tree canopies from either side of the road through bamboo bridges to enable macaques to cross over without coming down to the road.

A kaani tribal in Kalakad-Mundanthurai sanctuary tells us that the Tamil name of Lion-tailed macaque is Solai mandhi — the monkey of the rainforest, as different from Karu mandhi (The Black monkey, Nilgiri langur). Long before the English man arrived on the subcontinent, these animals were known to our people and they all had appropriate and meaningful local names. Most of these names have disappeared from parlance and now we resort to translating these incongruous English names into local languages.

These patches of shola forests (solai) in Tamil Nadu have very evocative names. Here are some examples: Yanaikundhi solai (Where the elephant squatted) Mathikettan solai (Of the fellow who got fooled) Kozhikamuthi solai (Where the Jungle fowl was trapped) and Karian solai (The Black fellow) A toponymic study of these names can reveal fascinating insights about human-forest interaction.

Warning signs

Human beings have effectively modified the environment to suit their requirements. But animals have to, by and large, adapt themselves to prevailing environmental conditions. It was Dr.Yukimaru Sugiyama, a Japanese primatologist who came to study this monkey in 1961, who warned that the lion-tailed macaques were on the verge of extinction. Ten years later, Steven Green from New York spent more than a year at Kalakad area; his words of caution were also received with scepticism. However, his report led to the protection of that area and the Government announced the scrapping of a hydroelectric project near Kalakad to save the habitat of these primates.

Close on the heels of Green’s report came the campaign to save the Silent Valley in Kerala, one of the habitats of the macaques. This 1973 campaign was one of the earliest of its kind in the country and big guns like Salim Ali joined it. It gave rise to the interesting “Man-Monkey” debate, which somewhat trivialised the issues involved. Eventually, the scheme was given up and the area was later declared a national park. Now it is part of the Nilgiri Biosphere.

In the 1980s, Ajith Kumar studied the LTMs in Topslip near Pollachi and extended our understanding of these macaques. This Bangalore-based primatologist cautions that we should not get misled by the easy sighting these rare monkeys. The number of all the varieties of monkeys is going down, he says, as rampant destruction of forests continues the world over. The LTMs now live in small patches of fragmented rain forests, marooned, amidst sprawling tea estates that are exposed to barrels of lethal pesticides. It is as if they live in ever-shrinking tiny islands and this insularity makes their prospect of survival dim in spite of tough regulations.

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