The Lion Tailed Macaques, endemic to the Western Ghats, find themselves on IUCN's red list of endangered animals, reports K. Jeshi

It was the icon of the conservation movement of the Silent Valley in the 1970s — the Lion Tailed Macaque (LTM). And it was partly responsible for the government shelving a proposed hydro electric project on the Kunthipuzha River in the Silent Valley. A rich bio-diversity zone was thus saved, along with the animal. Today, the LTM endemic to the Western Ghats, finds itself in the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Despite a good number of them in Kalakkad-Mundanthurai , Anaimalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, Silent Valley in Kerala and parts of Karnataka, their decline is noticeable in forest patches outside these protected areas. The reasons are poaching and habitat fragmentation. “We have less than 5,000 LTMs left in the entire Western Ghats,” says T.R. Shankar Raman, scientist at Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) that is involved in restoration and environment awareness programmes in the Anaimalai Tiger Reserve area, and the Valparai plateau.

In dense canopies

Confined to the wet evergreen rainy forests of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka, LTMs stand out with their silvery grey facial mane, and a tufted tail resembling a lion's tail. They swing seemingly in slow motion from tree tops.

“LTMs live entirely on tree tops in dense canopies and rarely come to the ground. They continuously look for food and feed on fruits. Their favourite is the culenia fruit (kurangu pala). Other favourites are jackfruit and some fig varieties. They are intelligent animals. They use tools to gather and eat their food. For example, when they catch a prickly caterpillar, LTMs cover their hands with leaves to pick them up, remove the bristles and then eat the caterpillar.”

Renowned photographer and naturalist K. Jayaram has observed the LTMs and photographed them in Valparai, where they have a large population.

Shy creatures

“Photographers from Karnataka camp in Valparai to catch the LTMs on camera. The animals are shy and retract from human beings. As it is in the case of elephants and tigers, LTMs are threatened and it is critical to conserve them. They live in troops of 10 or 20. A dominant male controls the group. I have seen them threaten the sub adults in the group, ferociously opening their mouth and showing their canines.”

In the tea estates of Valparai, the LTMs have become habituated to people. Sometimes they are even known to enter people's homes. And they move on looking for better forest cover. That is when tourists spot them, throw bananas and lure them. Shankar Raman says, “Because of this a lot of infants moving with female LTMs get killed by speeding vehicles.” In co-operation with forest department and private estates, NCF has put up ‘canopy bridges' on tree tops. In places where a natural canopy is disturbed, the canopy bridges made from parallel strips of rubberised canvas cloth connect the trees. These are put up at known locations which LTMs frequent. In addition full time watch guards and signboards warn the tourists to stop throwing food to monkeys.

LTM Count

Regular studies monitor the population of the LTMs in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. Dr.H.N. Kumara, scientist at SACON who has surveyed the Karnataka region says, “What we need is the data on the current population of the LTMs in the Western Ghats. In Karnataka, we recorded about 600 individuals living in 30 groups in the Aghanashini Reserve Forest. They are in good numbers in Kudremukh too.” He adds: “In Karnataka, hunting has affected the population. In Uttara Karnataka, increasing dependence on forest for green manure for agricultural fields is fragmenting the habitat of LTMs.”

Small population

LTMs are slow breeders, observes Dr H.S.Sushma, research associate at Foundation for Ecological Research, Puducherry. “While rhesus macaque and bonnet macaque reproduce when they are two years old, the LTM females give birth only when they are six, one of the reasons for the low population turnover,” she explains. She has tried to estimate the population of LTMs in Agathimalai, the southern most part of the Western Ghats. In Kalakkad-Mundanthurai (KMT), the numbers are 400.

P. Pramod, Nature Education Officer of SACON, who has been observing the LTMs for four years while in Silent Valley, says it is vital to conserve the bio-diversity of the evergreen and semi-evergreen forests for the animals to survive. “They are habitat specialists with unique requirements. They need a contiguous canopy, and a rich diversity of food, that includes fruits and flowers,” he says. Once the quality of forests suffers, LTMs, one of the most arboreal primates, may not survive, says Dr. Gigi. K. Joseph, professor at Muvvatupuzha. He studied the ecology and demographic aspects of LTMs in the Silent Valley.

Recalling the Silent Valley protests, Pramod says: “The LTM was highlighted as an icon. The debate was narrowed down to a point of ‘man over monkey'. Ultimately, both were protected.”