In the kingdom of the Lion-tailed Macaque

In Valparai the endangered Lion-tailed Macaque inhabits tracts of dense evergreen forest hemmed in by tea plantations. It lives, literally and alarmingly, on the edge 

We were driving down from Valparai along one of the remaining patches of tropical evergreen rainforests, soaking up their sounds and feel. We’d had a very good weekend trip, despite not getting to sight anything special besides a couple of Nilgiri Tahr on our way up. The road leading up to Valparai cuts through critical habitat of the Lion-Tailed Macaque and Great Hornbill. We had seen boards screaming “Lion-tailed Macaque are active here. Please drive carefully” and were discussing Kalyan Varma’s roadkill photo that had been etched into our minds.

Lion-tailed Macaque in Valparai

Ladder-like bridges between canopy trees had been fashioned to ensure that the arboreal primates move freely without having to get down on the road.

The extensive clearing of rainforests in Valparai had been started by the British administrators and kept up zealously by their Indian successors. Many of those areas are privately owned tea estates now. What remains of rainforests are islets, isolated but protected fiercely by the Nature Conservation Foundation.

We stopped at a bend on sighting a female Orange Minivet sallying to catch insects. As we were about to get back in the car, Swaheel spotted a primate standing on a near horizontal tree branch, at eye level, about 15 metres away from the road above the downhill slope. “LTM,” someone whispered. The animal stared at us for a second or two and walked unhurriedly into the canopy.

We thought that was all, happy for the sighting but then we heard movement. Treetops were swinging and black forms moved in and out of branches. And there materialized Lion-tailed Macaques of all sizes, and suddenly the forest came alive with whoops and squeaks. We were in the middle of a huge troop of monkeys. They moved down the road. We parked and followed them, careful not to step off the road.

Lion-tailed Macaque in Valparai

We reached another clearing and were waiting for the monkeys to emerge from the canopy when suddenly Swaheel hissed in my ear: “There, there!” I looked and saw nothing – the canopy was thick with little light penetrating it. He pointed closer and I saw a huge male Lion-tailed Macaque on all fours on a broken branch. A finger of light illuminated the primate’s white mane. Soon, there were macaques everywhere. They were of all ages and sizes — babies clinging to mothers, juveniles, large males. I spotted another individual barely 3-4 meters from the ground and we spent a satisfying photographic moment.Lion-tailed Macaque in Valparai

Vehicles passed us. We had prior warning from Beej who had told us the area was very disturbed and we should refrain from attracting a crowd under any circumstances. So, every time we heard a vehicle approach, we pretended to be taking a leak!

The monkey on the branch was reasonably well camouflaged. We left him alone. Others were trying to cross a gap between trees. What followed was an amazing display. The LTMs on this side of the gorge climbed to the tip of the outcropping branch one at a time. They would shake the branch to make it sway to provide ample thrust for launch. Then the monkey would leap, sailing through the air and latching onto branches on the other side.

They did this one by one — the first Lion-tailed Macaque missed the branch on the other side, and we could hear a crash as it got a foothold further down. Each one of the others made the jump smoothly, including the last one – a mother with a clinging baby.

At this point a minibus from Chalakudy arrived, blaring music, and stopped to partake of the scene. Its occupants pointed at the LTMs and shouted despite our pleas for silence. That was enough irritation for the monkeys, which retreated further into the forest.

We drove for another 300 meters from that point when we came to a clearing — and the very verge of the dense evergreen forest. We were in a tea plantation, and it gave us the impression that these threatened primates were living, literally, on the edge. LTMs seldom cross through these plantations, which means they are boxed into these last stretches of evergreen forest with no way out, hoping that whatever little habitat they have would not run out of space, shelter and food.

Text and photos: Sandeep Somasekharan


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