Nilgiri langur, endangered by myths

All the protection offered by wildlife laws can’t truly safeguard Trachypithecus johnii when its life hangs by the thin noose of fabled notions propagated by quacks and perpetuated by the gullible.

Updated - November 16, 2020 03:27 pm IST

Published - September 03, 2019 06:13 pm IST

The doleful look in the eyes of the Nilgiri langur tells you that it would much prefer not to be drunk as soup simply because you reckon it will make you less skinny. | Wiki Commons / UdayKiran28 (This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

The doleful look in the eyes of the Nilgiri langur tells you that it would much prefer not to be drunk as soup simply because you reckon it will make you less skinny. | Wiki Commons / UdayKiran28 (This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

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As a boy growing up in Munnar in the 1950s I had often heard elders claim that soup or broth made from the flesh of the Nilgiri langur was effective in curing asthma, common locally then and even now due to the cold and damp weather. They also loftily asserted that there was no better restorative for the weak and the run-down. Further, the potion was widely believed to be efficacious in treating whooping cough, then a widespread scourge among children.

There was, of course, absolutely no scientific basis for these tall claims which had been passed down, unquestioned, from generation to generation and popularised by quacks. The net result was that the Nilgiri langur (or black monkey as it’s commonly known) was indiscriminately poached, unchecked, almost to the brink of extinction. The constant pursuit of the simian made it extremely distrustful and wary of humans.

I was congenitally skinny as a kid and recall being forcibly made to drink ‘black monkey soup’ by my anxious father on two or three occasions. It tasted vile but I downed it nevertheless under threat of punishment. It made absolutely no difference whatsoever to my constitution as I continued to be as lean as a reed even as an adult! And I know of several other children who were administered this so-called ‘tonic’ by their ‘indoctrinated’ parents and never ever ‘filled out’ physically as promised.

Yet, thanks to the hype, the myth gained wide acceptance across Kerala and quacks as well as practitioners of traditional medicine made a fast buck peddling crude potions claimed to be made from the flesh, blood and organs of the Nilgiri langur. I recall one of the leading products then was marketed under the label ‘Karingkorangu Rasayanam’ (black monkey tonic) and was touted to be a panacea for a wide range of health problems including impotence!

 

 

The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 — which didn’t come a day too early — proved to be a godsend for the denizens of the wild. It clamped a blanket ban on shooting across the country, virtually giving wildlife a second lease of life. Following the promulgation of the Act, in a bid to save the Nilgiri langur the Kerala Forest Department launched a series of advertisements to disabuse the gullible public of the misconceptions relating to the use of its flesh and body parts for medicinal purposes. Deep-rooted traditions and beliefs, however, die hard and inevitably the simian continues to be poached in the mistaken belief that its flesh, organs and blood do have medicinal properties.

Unfortunately, many instances of poaching go unreported due to apathy or fear of retaliation, thereby emboldening the culprits. One egregious case that didn’t was in December 2015 when Forest Department personnel apprehended a gang of poachers who had shot dead no less than five Nilgiri langurs at Thamarasserry in Kerala and recovered around 10 kg of meat from them. The flesh, bones and skull of a single Nilgiri langur are believed to be priced at ₹10,000.

Found in the hilly regions of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the Nilgiri langur has a coat of glossy black fur topped by a furry, yellowish-brown ‘halo’. Its long, slender and swinging tail often gives it away even though its body is well camouflaged by dense foliage in the jungles.

Usually gregarious, a troop of Nilgiri langurs may number between 9 to 12, an adult male weighing between 10-15 kg and an adult female averaging around 10-12 kg. The head-plus-body length of an adult male is between 78-80 cm. while an adult female measures around 58-60 cm. with the tail adding a further 70-90 cm. It’s popularly known as ‘black monkey’ or ‘Manthi’ in Tamil and ‘Karingkorungu’ in Malayalam, its scientific name being ‘Trachypithecus johnii’.

The primate’s diet consists exclusively of foliage, fruits, flowers, buds and seeds. As such, destruction of forests in any manner (especially for hydro-electric projects) affects it very adversely. This, coupled with rampant poaching, has led to its being classified as vulnerable in the IUCN’s Red List. The present population of the Nilgiri langur in the wild is estimated to be around 15,000 only, and about 30 are believed to be in captivity in zoos across the country.

Arboreal like other simians, the Nilgiri langur is extremely shy and retiring, fleeing into the deepest recesses of its jungle habitat at the sight of humans. Its alarm call — a loud series of whoops — can be quite disconcerting to the uninitiated, erupting as it does all of a sudden and rising to a scary crescendo before dying down equally abruptly. When several Nilgiri langurs join in as they often do, the whole forest appears to echo with a chorus of booming whoops.

Where ‘sholas’ or forests are far apart, the Nilgiri langur can sometimes be seen bounding across the grassland from one ‘shola’ to the next. And it will often drop to the forest floor from its arboreal perch to avoid detection by humans — a ruse I’ve noticed on many occasions.

Not much is known about the Nilgiri langur’s breeding habits apart from the fact that the young are usually born in June and September. They can be seen clinging tightly to their mothers’ chests as the latter leap nimbly and effortlessly through the leafy canopy of their habitat.

 

It’s truly unfortunate that misconceptions and blind belief in myths concerning the medicinal properties of its flesh have persisted, leading to widespread poaching of the Nilgiri langur.

 

Though the Nilgiri langur is generally extremely wary of humans, there have been a few exceptions. A few years back a loner used to frequent the roadside ‘shola’ jungles near Munnar, undeterred by the throngs of tourists who stopped to photograph it. It seemed to be an outcast from its group and intrigued me and other nature-lovers considerably. Sadly, it disappeared all of a sudden, probably shot by a poacher who cashed in on its tameness. Indeed, numerous tourists who had been fascinated by it still stop by its old haunts to look for it and enquire about it.

Then just the other day my wife espied a large Nilgiri langur perched regally on our compound gate, surveying the lush foliage in the garden which it perhaps hoped to sample. It had probably left its group in the nearby woods to check our area out as a possible alternative source of food.

Interestingly, I’ve also noticed that though a troop of Nilgiri langurs share the woods near our home with a band of rhesus monkeys, they keep their distance from the latter, neither hobnobbing nor ‘socialising’ with them in any manner. Class and social distinctions do seem to exist in the wild, too!

Familial ties and fraternal feelings appear to be strong among Nilgiri langurs. I once came across an old one that had been knocked down by a speeding vehicle while crossing a narrow road. Several of its companions were huddled solicitously around it and eyed me with unmistakable hostility when I stopped my car. There was, however, little I could do as the mangled victim was already in its death throes.

It’s truly unfortunate that misconceptions and blind belief in myths concerning the medicinal properties of its flesh have persisted, leading to widespread poaching of the Nilgiri langur. The situation has been compounded by destruction of its habitat for timber and firewood extraction as well as for the construction of giant hydro-electric projects. Whether the hapless simian will survive this dual onslaught, only time can tell.

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