On the trail of the lion-tailed macaque in the Nelliampathy forest in Kerala's Palakkad district.
THE saying monkey see, monkey do perhaps does not apply to the lion-tailed macaque ( Macaca silenus), the threatened inhabitant of the rainforest patches of the Western Ghats in the three southern States of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This species of the Old World monkey is the king of bhava, or facial expressions. If you are lucky, you can witness the diurnal creature's varied expressions and body language when it swings down from its favourite perch in the upper canopy of the tropical evergreen forests. Some of the rare moods exhibited by M. silenus reveal an ignited mind. Sometimes engrossed in deep contemplation; sometimes displaying heightened curiosity, which is an indication of predator presence; and sometimes exuding motherly affection, whispering soft lullabies to the young ones, which are not quite audible to human ears its multiple expressions are prized catches for any wildlife photographer. For instance, its grimace is unique and is quite unlike that of its mischievous cousin, the bonnet macaque ( Macaca radiata).
Divakaran, a guard in the Nelliampathy forest in Palakkad district of Kerala and a keen wildlife observer, remarked: The lion-tailed monkeys are very intelligent. They don't giggle and scoff at you like the naughty bonnet macaque. They are not only lion-tailed [the name derives from the tuft at the end of the tail which resembles the lion's tail], they are also lion-hearted and stubborn. They have totally different expressions, some of which are vibrant.
When the macaque bares its canine teeth, it looks like a hungry carnivore raring to tear into its prey. But in reality, M. silenus is harmless. It diets mainly on fruits, leaves and seeds, and forages for insects, bird's eggs and small vertebrates (such as the young ones of the giant squirrel, lizards and bats) for its protein supplement. Its exuberant silver-coloured mane, which gives it its other name beard monkey, grows from its cheeks, leaving a small portion of its smooth black face visible. The mane adds to its sagacious appearance when it shuts its eyes.
Arboreal, seldom descending from its high pedestal, this charismatic primate has its tales of woe. Over the years the population of the lion-tailed macaque has been dwindling. Some estimates have put the total wild population at less than 4,000 in the three States. The status of M. silenus is listed on the Red List of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because the total number of mature individuals is less than 2,500 with no subpopulation having more than 250 mature individuals.
Although it has a wide range, a viable population of M. silenus is scattered across 40 habitats ranging from the unprotected Sirsi-Honnavar forests in Karnataka to the Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, apart from having a presence in its most undisturbed habitat the Silent Valley National Park in Palakkad district. In fact, the endemicity of the macaque to the moist rainforests and its endangered status were among the main concerns of the Save Silent Valley campaign in the late 1970s. But have the concerns been addressed adequately? Not quite. Habitat loss owing to forest fragmentation, timber harvest and exotic plantations, and habitat degradation and poaching, have rendered vulnerable what wildlife biologists describe as one of the wonderful expressions of life on earth.
They are not flaming beauties like the tiger, but their facial expressions have always enthralled me whenever I have had an occasion to observe them at close quarters in the rainforest. They are arboreal mammals on a totally different footing, says wildlife photographer N.A. Naseer, who has made many arduous treks in the forests to follow and capture their various moods. Predators and wildlife watchers may get frustrated watching the macaque secure in the upper canopy of the forests.
On a visit to the Nelliampathy forest recently along with Naseer to locate either a troop of macaques or at least a solitary adult, this writer had a frustrating experience. For two days we trekked the forest trails but could not sight the animal. When this writer returned to the forest resthouse, he was struck by an unusual photograph laminated and fixed on the wall. It depicted a macaque seated astride a tree branch, looking like a monk deep in meditation. Naseer, who had clicked this classic pose, said that when he took the picture the macaque however woke up from its thoughts, looked at him, and then silently retreated into a leafy branch.
Its stream of consciousness was broken, Naseer said jovially. On many occasions later during his treks, Naseer longed to see the macaque in that contemplative mood, but in vain.
The macaque has a range of gestures, expressions and calls to suit different occasions. Another spectacular photograph that captures a unique mood is also from Nelliampathy. It shows a male macaque seated on a high tree branch with its mouth open. A blue petal of Ipomoea, commonly called morning glory, hangs on its tongue. The macaque does not eat flowers; the petal probably got into its mouth by accident.
When the day breaks, the forest is suffused with sunlight streaming through gaps in the canopy. The rhythm of life begins anew for the diurnal creatures and morning ragas fill the rainforests. Females in estrous inviting males to mate, group brawls and other unusual scenes are what the forests offer to entice the enthusiastic wildlife photographer. The silence and serenity of the evergreen forests are broken when the macaque raises its coo call on sighting a predator.
Dr Ajith Kumar, scientist at the National Centre for Biological Studies, Bangalore, who has done extensive studies on the feeding ecology and population dynamics of the macaques, says, They are curious watchers. If they feel safe and do not sense the presence of a poacher, they move freely. But if they sense any signs of poaching, they leave the place silently. It is relatively easy to get them habituated to human presence gradually, provided they feel safe. The macaques are spread over different forest patches and keep in touch with one another through such calls.
Dr H.S. Sushma of Puducherry, who has studied arboreal mammals, says that in an undisturbed habitat most macaque troops encountered are shy and retreated when they see people observing them. In forest areas such as Anamalai [Tamil Nadu] where human habitations are close, they are not shy and tolerate human presence. All members of the troops are active and there are no docile or passive ones. There could be the odd ones who appear to meditate or have some other unusual expressions.
Do they enjoy rain? Yes, they do, says Ajith Kumar. They go about their normal activity when it rains. When it rains heavily, they sit it out. The social behaviour of the macaques is another interesting facet of the animal. The young ones are playful. When they fight among themselves, the adult female intervenes. Sometimes, there is a congregation of monkeys on a tree branch. Looking through a pair of binoculars, one would see 60 or so individuals in a large troop. The macaques wait eagerly for the blooming of the Cullenia tree. The occurrence of lion-tailed macaques is said to be dependent on the flowering of the Cullenia in the forest. The entire forest is a visual treat with the floral outburst of Cullenia. The yellow flowers contain nectar that attracts the macaques. Cullenia exarillata is a common tree in the medium elevation of the Western Ghats. It has spiny fruits, and the macaques feed on their seeds. The macaques also feed on the fruits of Palaquium ellipticum.
Dr K.K. Ramachandran and Dr G.K. Joseph of the Kerala Forest Research Institute in Thrissur, who have studied the feeding biology of macaques, say that in an undisturbed rainforest the macaques' diet mainly consists of evergreen species. They depend heavily on Cullenia and Palaquium but also consume the fruits of the heliophytes.
Ajith Kumar says macaques get energy from fruits and seeds, and catch insects for protein. They leap vigorously through the foliage in search of insects. Since the macaque is arboreal, not much is known about childbirth in the troop. Ramachandran says he has seen newborn babies clinging to the mother as it swings from one branch to another.Adapting themselves
In Puthuthottam in Valparai, a town near Pollachi in Tamil Nadu, macaques have adopted a different lifestyle. Forced to shed their wholly arboreal nature, they can be seen on the roads and nearby colonies of tea estate workers. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department and the Nature Conservation Foundation have employed watchers on the roads to protect them.
Over the years, the rainforest areas near Puthuthottam have been fragmented. Wood extraction and invasion of exotic species as well as the establishment of coffee and tea estates have seriously depleted the habitat, forcing the macaques to adjust to the new environment. They are sometimes known to take fruits and vegetables from the kitchens of estate workers. A housewife said, The monkeys have become a menace. We are forced to keep the windows and doors of our houses locked. They have damaged the television network cables and dismantled the tiles from the rooftop. The macaques are said to have raided even a nearby vegetable market.
According to the Nature Conservation Foundation, roadkills have declined since the employment of watchers. Since 2008, only nine macaques are reported to have been killed in road accidents. There are two groups of around 116 macaques in Puthuthottam. Divya Mudappa, who works with the Foundation, says it is wrong to say that the macaques have become a menace. They have been reduced to such a state as a result of ignorance and callousness towards wildlife, she says.
The huge public outcry in Kerala in 1976, which followed the government's announcement to construct a hydroelectric project to tap the Kunthipuzha river flowing in Silent Valley, saved the rich rainforest from submergence. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi intervened and shelved the hydel project to help protect the biodiversity zone and the macaques. Since then there have been many studies about the macaques. But watching them in action in the rainforest is definitely an incredible experience.
G. Shaheed is Chief of News Bureau of Mathrubhoomi in Kochi.