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Melee of the macaques

The Nicobar long-tailed macaques are at ease in the rainforest and mangroves, in the blazing heat and soaking rain. Photo: Ishika Ramakrishna  

Ishika Ramakrishna didn’t realise she’d spend a lot of time watching Nicobar long-tailed macaques as they slept. Worse, they occupied all the cool shady spots, leaving her exposed to roast in the sun or get drenched in the rain. She fought to stay awake in the sultry heat of the day in Great Nicobar Island while noting what each troop member did every five minutes.

Ramakrishna discovered the macaques followed a feeding etiquette. While one ate a ripe pandanus fruit, the others waited in line for their turns. A single monkey couldn’t finish the pineapple-like fruit by itself. After it had eaten its fill and moved on, the next one took its place. But on occasion, the monkeys weren’t always so polite and could become violent.

A skirmish broke out between two big males who shrieked and scratched each other. Other adults joined the melee. Ramakrishna stood still. Three females with infants walked purposefully towards the researcher, raising their eyebrows repeatedly and grunting. Having seen them threaten other members of their troop in this manner, she heeded their warning and backed away. Concerned for their babies, they were minimising any complications that could aggravate the fight.

Most of the time, however, the monkeys didn’t react to this human who behaved like none of the others they had encountered. Before studying them, Ramakrishna spent 45 days getting them used to her. She followed them through the rainforest and mangroves, in the blazing heat and soaking rain. Only when they ignored her could she begin her study. Sometimes, she couldn’t help drawing their attention.

Quietly amused

On a rainy day, they walked in single file along a fallen log to cross a marsh. She too stepped on the trunk only to have it crumble under her weight. She plunged into the sticky mud with thousands of spines from the surrounding canebrake embedded in her clothes and skin. Although the muck held her fast, she managed to scramble onto solid ground. “All the monkeys were quietly watching me, transfixed and (I’m assuming) very amused,” recalls Ramakrishna.

The Nicobar long-tailed macaques also frequented coconut groves, pandanus gardens, and areca nut plantations where they feasted on palm nuts and fruits. At first, Ramakrishna thought the indigenous Nicobarese people would be annoyed with the monkeys having a field day. But they were more than happy to share. Even though both people and monkeys ate pandanus fruit, the communities felt their produce belonged to the monkeys as well.

Settlers from mainland India cursed the primates for being pests and threw stones to chase them away. But they also coochie coo-ed over the cute wrinkly-faced macaque babies. Since the monkeys looked like little humans, the residents expected them to behave similarly — respect private property and avoid trespassing.

“Everybody has a monkey story, whether in the cities, villages, or on the ship to the Nicobars,” says Ramakrishna.

Fruit for find

A large male took her binoculars one evening when she had been distracted. Sitting a distance away on a large tombstone in a cemetery, he bit the rubber eyecups into pieces. If the desperate researcher were to approach, he might run away or climb up a tree with it. Soon three monkeys formed a line to patiently await their turns. Ramakrishna took her place as the fourth. When the male couldn’t peel the binoculars like a coconut, he banged it against a rock, hoping to find something edible inside. The researcher took a sharp breath at every whack, hoping the binoculars would stay in one piece. After the bored monkey abandoned it, the next one tried its hand at breaking the binoculars. By this time, Ramakrishna had an idea. About 500 metres away was one of the troop’s favourite wild jack trees. She brought its fruit and bartered it for the binoculars. Except for the bite marks and chewed eyecups, the pair of binoculars was miraculously still in shape.

The researcher too had a story.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.


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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 6:33:56 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/melee-of-the-macaques/article34448068.ece

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