Lions of the rainforest
A continually degrading and fragmenting habitat has left the lion-tailed macaque, the most ancient of arboreal primates, fighting for survival
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It was a brief stop by the side of a rainforest patch adjoining the Puthuthottam Tea Estate in Valparai town, Tamil Nadu. Suddenly, a small black lion-tailed macaque appeared from nowhere. It was checking us out.
We had reached Valparai, adjoining the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary (IGWLS), by driving from Pollachi, a popular market town in Coimbatore district, negotiating 41 hairpin bends on the way. Now, we were surrounded by tropical rainforests and undulating tea plantations. Miles of open road snaked through tea plantations and wide patches of forests.
Soon other, bigger lion-tailed macaques trooped in and took positions on top of our vehicle, hoping for morsels of food. One sat on the bonnet, another climbed on to the roof, a third checked the rear while yet another focused on the side view mirror.
More macaques joined in, some looking as hoary as the trees around them. Now we were truly besieged by the most ancient of arboreal primates, rarely seen in busy, human-dominated landscapes.
With piercing eyes staring out of a hairy face, the lion-tailed macaque cuts an impressive figure, earning its name from a tail that ends in a tuft and a mane of silver and grey. The species is endemic to the rainforests of the Western Ghats in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
According to conservation biologists, there are no more than 4,000 of them in the wild, divided into nearly 47 population groups spread across isolated fragments of forests. Fewer than 10 of these forest fragments have more than 100 animals, the largest being in Ashambu Hills in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. A continually degrading and fragmenting habitat has left the species fighting for survival.
The easy sighting of this endangered species surprised us.
Back in 1978, when scientist Ajith Kumar, now the director of postgraduate programme in wildlife biology and conservation at the Centre for Wildlife Studies, National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru, came to the same sanctuary to study the lion-tailed macaque, it took him a good few weeks to make a sighting.
“It was tough to move in the thick forest. It took me several weeks to spot a group and follow to study their behaviour. Lion-tailed macaques are known to be extremely shy and retreat into the forest immediately as they sense humans approach.”
On our visit, we saw macaques on the roadside, scavenging for food and rummaging through plastic packets; and in tea estates raiding labour colonies.
What caused this change in behaviour in a species which is ancestral to all Asian macaques?
Tropical rainforests covered most of India when the first macaques arrived from northern Africa through Europe around 5 million years ago. According to Kumar, these rainforests were the pathway for the spread of the ancestral macaque from Africa to South East Asia, where it has evolved into more than 17 species.
Tectonic plate movements in the late Pleistocene Age pushed peninsular India further north and away from the equator, making conditions more difficult for rainforests to thrive. This also led to the monsoons that we experience today.
Changes in climate wiped out large tracts of rainforests in the eastern part of the Indian peninsula, leaving the ancestral macaque, which evolved into the lion-tailed macaque, increasingly confined to the rainforests of the Western Ghats.
This last patch of undisturbed rainforest did not escape the sharp commercial eyes of the British in the late 18th century. Slowly tightening their grip on India, they cleared swathes of the Western Ghats to create tea and coffee plantations, labour settlements and farms, and to source fuel wood.
“Vast areas of the rainforests were cleared in the Anamalais which had the largest extent of rain forest in the Western Ghats and in Cardamom Hills and Ashabu Hills. Stretches of virgin forests were given away to settlers and a series of reservoirs in the Western Ghats for power generation submerged large areas of rainforest. Further, roads and railway lines cut across the forest in many places.
“Wildlife, including the lion-tailed macaque, suffered the maximum damage,” says Kumar.
This shrinking forest cover led to a shortage of food which in turn brought about a change in behaviour among macaques—from shy animals they have become brazen raiders of kitchen gardens, homes and markets. This change has taken place over the last decade and conservationists worry that other macaque populations living on the edges of fragmented forest patches too may pick up the habit.
“Many of the rainforest fragments inhabited by the lion-tailed macaque, and the land around them, are under private ownership. This offers the lion-tailed macaque and its habitat very low protection from logging, poaching, firewood collection, girdling of trees and land use change,” says Kumar. According to some conservationists, 30% of the lion-tailed macaques are to be found around privately-owned coffee and cardamom plantations.
Biodiverse Western Ghats
“While studying the lion-tailed macaque between 2002-2004, I found one of the largest populations—about 650-700 macaques—in 32 groups in the central Western Ghats, between Sharavathi Valley and Aghanashini Valley in Karnataka,” says Honnavalli N. Kumara, scientist-conservation biology at the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History in Coimbatore. Later Kumara, along with Vijay Mohan Raj, chief conservator of forests, Belgaum, Karnataka, surveyed the area once again and reconfirmed the existence of the group. In June 2011, the 300 sq. km area was declared the Aghanashini lion-tailed macaque conservation reserve.
The Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot running along the western coast of India, cover only 6% of India’s landmass but host more than 30% of the world’s flora and fauna. About 12% of the mammal species present in the Western Ghats are endemic. The Silent Valley National Park, a protected rainforest in the Western Ghats, was formed in 1980 after it received nationwide attention owing to some of its inhabitants—14 groups of lion-tailed macaques.
Conservationists and scientists believe that the ancient multi-layered canopy forest in the Silent Valley has more to offer— including species still unknown to science. A survey on primates with a special emphasis on the lion-tailed macaque is planned in Silent Valley for 2015 and a three-week survey in Kudremukh, Karnataka, has just ended.
Adding to this fragmented habitat is another problem—the lion-tailed macaques are slow breeders. The female gives birth from only six years of age, compared with three to four years in other macaques. And it gives birth only once in two-and-a-half years.
“The only glimmer of hope for the lion-tailed is its remarkably high survival rate, with nearly 80% of the newborns reaching adulthood,” says Kumara.
However, large contiguous populations are expected to occur only in very few regions of the Western Ghats and the conservation status of the species is likely to differ across sparsely populated groups, all of whom are restricted to severely fragmented forests.
For the lion-tailed macaques to survive, small fragments of land need to be identified which can be reclaimed to reestablish a contiguous rainforest habitat. “There are enough small plantations and even smaller villages which can be made free of human activity and handed back to nature,” says Raj.
Large-scale deforestation along the tropics will have a significant impact on rainfall distribution and seasonal temperatures, which will affect agriculture both locally and far from where forest loss is occurring, according to scientists Deborah Lawrence and Karen Vandecar in a recent paper, Effects of tropical deforestation on climate and agriculture, published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Little has been done for macaque conservation in Puthuthottam, but Nature Conservation Foundation, a non-governmental organization, has taken some measures to protect the species; it employs locals to direct traffic around Valparai when macaques approach roads. And it has built ropeways connecting the forest canopy for the macaques to make a crossing without having to come down to the road where they run the risk of getting hit by passing vehicles.
Kumar says it is important to declare the lion-tailed macaque a flagship species of the rapidly declining rainforests of the Western Ghats. Failing that, the future of the species looks increasingly fragile.
This is the fifth part of a series in which Mint looks at species that are less talked about and struggling for survival. Read the first part of the series about dholes, the second part about wolves, the third part about pangolins, and the fourth part about shortwings.
Mint’s wildlife writer Ananda Banerjee received a fellowship from the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India and the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment to study these species.
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