Death of macaques kept under wraps

Even researchers working on their conservation unaware that they were poisoned to death

May 28, 2017 11:45 pm | Updated May 29, 2017 07:44 am IST - CHENNAI

In a shocking case, a group of eight lion-tailed macaques (LTMs) fell victim to poisoning at the Meghamalai Wildlife Sanctuary recently.

Equally shocking is that the mass death of the LTMs, a highly endangered species and endemic to the Western Ghats, is known only to officials of the sanctuary. Even researchers working on the conservation of the primate for years are unaware of it.

“Did it actually happen? We did not even know. It is a big loss. There are only about 3,000 to 4,000 LTMs in the Western Ghats. Already, their habitat is getting increasingly fragmented and the population is isolated,” says Honavalli N. Kumara, a senior scientist with Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON).

Mr. Kumara has been studying and devising strategies for the conservation of the LTMs along the Western Ghats for over a decade. His team had studied five primate species, including the LTMs in Meghamalai and found that the mean group size of the lion-tailed macaque here was 33.25, much higher than other regions in the Western Ghats, including Silent Valley (19.6), Anaimalai (16.3) and Sirsi–Honnavara (24.7).

According to sanctuary officials, the owner of a patta land in Bommarajapuram in the core of the sanctuary had kept poisoned jackfruits and the animals had consumed them and died.

Accused arrested

“It was a case of man-animal conflict. It happened two months ago. The accused was immediately arrested and remanded. The results of the lab test have come. It was a clear case of poisoning,” said a senior official of the sanctuary.

When asked why it has not been reported till now, he did not give any reply.

Officials at the Meghamalai range office said that locals resorted to poisoning to prevent crop damage. The officials also said that the lab results confirmed it was a case of poisoning and that action would be taken. “LTMs are primates that live in the rainforest patches. They are arboreal animals. They used to live on the top of the canopies.

“They need fruiting trees and water in leaf surfaces. When they were getting them in the rain forest patches on top of the canopies, they had no problem. In this case, they could have been forced to get down from their canopies in search of food,” says a senior forest officer.

A scientist, who was part of the wildlife census in the sanctuary before, says that there are about 300 to 350 LTMs in the sanctuary, mostly in private estates where there are fruit-bearing trees. “Due to coffee plantations, the canopies are not contiguous and the LTMs are forced to come down,” he says explaining how they could have been poisoned.

According to forest officials, there were encroachers deep inside the Meghamalai sanctuary.

At present, the Centre funds only relocation projects from the tiger reserves in the States. “In such cases, the State government should come forward to fund relocation projects as conservation of a highly endangered and endemic species like LTM is vital,” the senior officer says.

Activists dismayed

Activists in the southern districts are dismayed that the mass death of LTMs, a Schedule I species under Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, was not even reported.

“In fact, the post-mortem was conducted not in the presence of proper environmental NGOs or forest veterinarians but in the presence of some letter pad NGOs,” an activist says.

SACON scientists, led by Mr. Kumara, have recommended the expansion of the Meghamalai Wildlife Sanctuary and bringing the threatened habitats of the LTMs under the protected area network to boost conservation.

The State also has a long-pending proposal to create the fifth tiger reserve in the State by linking the Meghamalai sanctuary and the Grizzled Squirrel Wildlife Sanctuary in Srivilliputhur.

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