Written by Priya Ranganathan | Illustrated by Meera Phadnis
Listen along to an audio version of this article HERE
The leaves rustle wildly, and a hornbill flaps its wings irritably, hopping to a higher branch. The rustling grows louder, and now a booming oomph-oomph echoes around the humid, moist rainforest. You can almost taste the heaviness of the air, the water waiting to pour down from the low-hanging clouds above. You kneel down on the dirt path, your knee resting against soggy leaves and fallen berries, and peer up between the swaying branches. High up in the Hollong trees, you spot something cream and frosted gold, watching you silently.
A black faced monkey with elegant cream-and-peaches fur, its long tail swaying as it dangles from the branch, stares back at you curiously. It looks so much like the grey langurs that you see in other parts of India that you wonder if it is a uniquely coloured member of that species. But no, your guide tells you, this is an entirely different animal – the rare and endangered golden langur.
Found only in a small part of western Assam, one of the most forested states of Northeast India, the golden langur is worshipped by the people of the Himalayas. This langur is rarely spotted by visitors, living high in the trees and rarely coming down to the ground. They love eating fruit, especially mangoes, guavas, and berries. The golden langur is in danger of going extinct because its habitat is constantly shrinking. As tea plantations, towns, and agricultural fields continue to grow where forests used to stand, the golden langur continues to lose its home. This monkey has nowhere else to go, trapped slowly by development on all sides. You click photographs quickly, and the langur leaps away lightly, startled by the sound of shutters clicking. It’s time for you to rejoin the group.
Let’s now take a bumpy bus ride through the winding, narrow hill roads from Assam, where you met your first primate, crossing the border into lush Mizoram near Ramnathpur, crossing the Tlawng River multiple times until signs for Dampa Tiger Reserve appear on the horizon.
Inside Dampa, you walk cautiously, keeping your eyes peeled for the tigers that prowl in the dense forest. This tiger reserve is so green, so full of life, that you hardly know where to look! But suddenly, the forest guard accompanying you holds up a hand. You halt, scanning your surroundings frantically. “Look up!” the guard hisses. You tilt your neck back. There’s a long tail swishing above you, a tiny face peering down at you! Furry cheeks, just like an untidily bearded man, and a funny little face with beady black eyes – it’s the Pharyre’s leaf langur!
This langur is found across Southeast Asia and Northeast India, fond of eating fruit, flowers, and leaves. It gets its name from its fondness for leaves, you see. Did you know that leaves and flowers have a lot of protein and give energy? When hungry, this monkey travels long distances searching for tender young leaves to snack on. Now here’s a great example of a true foodie!
It’s time to catch a flight to your next destination –the Western Ghats of peninsular India. The Western Ghats are elegant, sloping hills, holding species that hint at India’s ancient past, full of gurgling, laughing rivers and tall evergreen trees. Many tribal communities live here too, just like in Northeast India, and they worship these forests, protecting them from development.
Up next is a shy, unassuming monkey found in certain parts of the Western Ghats. Your destination for today is the Sharavathi Lion-tailed Macaque Wildlife Sanctuary, nestled in the most forested district of Karnataka between two powerful rivers – the Sharavathi and the Aghanashini. This tropical paradise is the home of the lion-tailed macaque, a large black monkey with a tufted tail, just like a lion’s tail! This macaque has a distinctive silvery mane around its face (another lion-like trait!), standing out from its otherwise-black fur. It lives in the upper parts of evergreen trees, where it feeds on fruit, leaves, insects, and sometimes small animals. The lion-tailed macaque has been losing its forest home to plantations of teak, coffee, and tea, and because it prefers to avoid humans, this monkey finds itself stranded in tiny patches of forest, looking for a way out. They live in the dense rainforests of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka, but as rainforests continue to shrink, it is important that we take action to protect the lion-tailed macaque and its home.
Thinking about the plight of the lion-tailed macaque, you catch a train from Sirsi and travel south. Our next destination – the Nilgiri Hills. Named for their beautiful bluish hue that is easily sighted from a distance, these hills are home to over 100 mammals and are rightly part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. This means it is home to more wildlife than most other parts of the world!
Here, you prepare to search for our next monkey. It’s large, built like a grey langur, but black like the lion-tailed macaque. It’s hooting, echoing call haunts the forests in the early morning, amidst the mist and low-hanging clouds. You trek up the hilly trails, taking in the expanses of colourful flowers and the birds that flit and flutter around them. A peacock struts self-assuredly across the path.
You hear the echoing call of the langur before you spot it.
“There it is!” A black shape can be seen, faint in the thick mist. A long tail, rounded at the end, and thick black fur distinguishes this from the other monkeys in the region. This is the Nilgiri langur, one of two rare monkeys to call the Nilgiri Hills home. The other, of course, is the lion-tailed macaque. The Nilgiri langur is in danger of being hunted for its fur and flesh, which is used in traditional love potions. But this monkey is very important for the health of the Nilgiri ecosystem. It feeds on fruits and helps plants grow by dropping seeds in different parts of the forest, allowing for new trees to grow. If this langur vanishes, the forest will fade away as well.
And now, finally, satiated with the forests of mainland India, you hop aboard a rickety helicopter headed to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Today, Nicobar is your destination. Here begins your search for the mangrove monkey of India – the Nicobar long-tailed macaque.
Fond of coastal forests and mangrove swamps in Great Nicobar, Little Nicobar, and Katchal islands, this macaque is found on the ground more often than its other monkey relatives on mainland India. While it prefers eating fruits and nuts, it is also known to eat crabs. These monkeys are hunted as they are considered pests by settlers, who are angry about damages caused by macaques on coconut plantations. They are also hunted for food by the indigenous Shompen people of Great Nicobar.
A fun fact about this mangrove monkey is that it can swim quite well, an excellent adaptation for a creature whose home is an island!
As you walk along the beaches of Great Nicobar, admiring the sunset and waiting for your mobile phone to pick up sufficient signal to call the helicopter, you hear the faint call of the long-tailed macaque from the depths of the dark, damp swamp forest. Darkness is falling quickly, and it is time for you, primate that you are, to return home too.
About the Author:
Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist by training who works in the wild Western Ghats. When she isn’t out wading through swamp forests, she can be found scribbling away in her notebook or practicing Bharatanatyam. Check out her website ‘On Life and Wildlife.’
About the Artist:
Meera Phadnis is in the 10th standard at Campolindo High School, San Francisco, California (USA). She is an avid artist, reader, and Kathak dancer. She also is a member of the school debate team and enjoys exploring new places and meeting new people.