Preserving India’s Lion-Tailed Macaques

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The Lion-Tailed Macaques, much like humans, use creativity to make and use tools. Can we preserve them & their habitat?

There’s nothing old-school about Old World Monkeys. They are a family of medium-to-large sized species that live in deserts, rainforests, mountains and cities. Of their many species, the lion-tailed macaque was the first to be observed performing a very human activity – manufacturing tools.

In German, these monkeys are known as Bartaffe or “beard ape”. The macaques used tools to open bottles of maple syrup, in a controlled experiment. In an experiment, the macaques were observed for 100 hours within an outdoor cafe, where a box full of jars of tempting maple syrup were left. The macaques were given browse, and long bamboo poles, from time to time.

Not too far removed from a human using a can-opener, the macaques broke apart the browse into smaller pieces which they used as leverage to enter the cage. Others used the bamboo poles as makeshift ladders – even working together to ensure they did not fall down.

In other enclosures, macaques have been seen using human trash for creative purpose. At the Chamarajendra Zoological Garden in Mysore, a macaque used a piece of discarded plastic as a makeshift mug to drink water from – reducing the amount it had to bend to access the pool. The same monkeys were also observed using coconut shells – with some treating them as their possessions, carrying the shells with them to the water bodies.

In India, the macaques truly represent an older world. The first macaques appeared in India more than five million years ago, when most of the country was covered in rainforest. They came from Africa, via Europe, and the species spread as far as South East Asia. But when Asia lost its rainforests, the macaques were forced into ever-decreasing patches of forest.

For 40 years, the lion-tailed macaque was one of the most endangered primates on the planet. But in 2017, while global primate numbers declined, the macaque’s condition in India improved. It was taken off the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) list of the 25 most endangered primates on earth. Up to 3,500 of them remain in the forests of Kerala.

Though no longer on the top 25, they are still an endangered species. In many parts of Kerala, you will have a chance of bumping into them, as human settlements encroach into their habitats. This has greatly increased the number of human-wildlife conflicts. Some of these have been deadly – and brushed under the carpet.

In the Meghamalai Wildlife Sanctuary, eight macaques died of poisoning in May 2017. Officials suspect that a local farmer had left out poisoned jackfruits for this purpose. His rationale was that the monkeys were damaging his crops. For two months, this incident was not reported – despite the macaque being a Schedule I protected species under the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act.

The fact that researchers have been able to observe these monkeys in the wild is itself a bad sign. Earlier, the jungles were so dense that it was considered a rare sight. Some of the photos, published by the Smithsonian Magazine, offer a human insight into a disappearing species. The monkeys live in groups of 15, and despite their Old World leanings, are not exclusively leaf-eaters. They also feast on small animals and eggs.

Biologists now believe that only special breeding programs and the creations of ecological corridors can save the species from further extinction. The monkeys live in fragmented patches of forest and may need human intervention to ensure that males are circulated evenly to create healthy breeding environments.

The forests of the Western Ghats in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are home to the world’s largest number of lion-tailed macaques. Here, only the Silent Valley and Ashambu hills have proved to be viable habitats. One reason for their decline is the growth of tea, eucalyptus and coffee plantations within these forests – breaking up their ecosystem and keeping the monkeys on the move. To add to this is deforestation – more than a third of the Western Ghat’s forests have been lost in the last century.

Old World Monkeys, particularly the lion-tailed macaque, are arboreal. This means that they spend most of their time in the upper forest canopy, hopping from tree to tree with incredible dexterity. Human activities are literally robbing the macaque of the branches beneath their feet. But is there a place in the New World for these creatures of the Old World?

How India manages to preserve the Western Ghats will spell the answer for the lion-tailed macaque.

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