The Lion-tailed Macaque – the iconic symbol of the endemic diversity of the rainforests of Anamalais, is one of the endangered of primates native to the Western Ghats.
Considered by scientists as the only truly arboreal macaque on Earth, these elusive creatures usually occupy the tallest, shadowy rainforest canopies far from human sight. But sadly, not anymore!
Extensive selective logging of the once-contiguous rainforests of Anamalais, cleared to pave way for tea plantations and human encroachments, has reduced the population of these macaques to just eight sub-populations that are spread across the forest fragments of the southern Western Ghats.
At Puthuthottam, in the Valparai range of Anamalai Tiger Reserve, where the forest fragment is surrounded by tea plantations and human settlements, these individuals face a potential lack of food availability and the threat of vehicular traffic on the road which cuts right through the Puthuthottam forest.
A few years ago, these extremely shy macaques were observed foraging amidst tall trees and dense canopies in search of fruits, seeds, young leaves, flowers, and insects.
Today, there is a drastic change in their behavior and can be seen scavenging along roadsides and raiding labor colonies in the tea estates, in search of food, leading to close human interactions.
Barring the physical danger that macaques face from being fed by humans, such interactions and close proximity to human habitations may contribute to their behavioral changes, and could potentially alter their natural instincts in the long run!
Below is a brief account of an interesting incident, observed and photographed by Pravin Shanmughanadam:
“It was a hot summer day, in the month of May. In Valparai, clusters of fruits hang on jackfruit trees and the feeding frenzy has begun among its forest inhabitants. I was traveling with my friend, hoping to photograph the Lion Tailed Macaques and the giant squirrels, as they feast on the jackfruits in ecstatic delirium.
Upon sighting a troop of macaques emerging out of the forest, I pulled my car over to photograph them. Just like the bonnet macaques down in Aliyar, the LTMs here are accustomed to tourists feeding them. They don’t hesitate to climb onto cars, looking to grab something to eat.
On this occasion, a particular individual rather caught the attention of something different than the food that he was looking for – my car’s rear-view mirror!
Curious, upon seeing his own reflection, he quickly managed to dismantle the mirror and ran away from us.
We slowly approached closer and observed the macaque inspecting his new found fascination, like a curious child who was presented with a gift that he couldn’t make sense of.
The look on his face, was it curiosity, awe or confusion – I couldn’t really make out! It hurt me. Sadly, I couldn’t admire their intelligence and playfulness but only feel sorry for the poor macaque trying to figure out and make sense of the strange elements in his new world that he’s been reduced to!
Once upon a time, these macaques used to traverse through the high canopies of the dense rainforests of Anamalais, displaying skills that are sheer acrobatics! Today, they are down in the streets and among labor settlements, in search of food.
The macaque was obsessed with the mirror for a few minutes, he kept running around with it from one place to another, where he would sit and look at the mirror in a transfixed gaze!
But before he could make sense of it, the alpha male called out and it was time for them to keep moving! He responded to the call, threw the mirror down, and re-joined his troop.
Maybe he realized it doesn’t belong to his natural world. Maybe he’s getting used to his new world filled with surprises every day. Maybe they all will learn to adapt, co-exist and do well to live alongside humans peacefully.
But, will we leave enough space and resources for them to survive?
As an optimist, I believe there’s hope. Maybe one day, these macaques will return to their Knighthood and rise up to the high places they once occupied. Maybe one day they’ll reign supreme over these rainforests of Anamalais!
Till then, they’ll have to live life, caught between two worlds.