You sometimes feel a sense of oddness in a forest—maybe a
sensation of something on your skin, or a pair of disembodied eyes watching.
After almost three decades as a researcher and conservation biologist,
Krishnamani Ramanathan is now at home in an environment that he first found
Once, resting after following a troupe of primates in Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary, Karnataka, he felt something on his leg. He was in shorts and chappals. He thought it was a trickle of water. When he looked down it was a scaled viper. One of the trackers got a stick and pushed it away. “The viper would have thought my leg was a log or something. I wasn’t startled. If I’d moved or got startled, it too would have been startled and bitten me.”
“There are certain things you follow. You maintain silence. You don’t step on dry leaves. If you make a sound, the animals you come to observe will get startled and run—and of course make sure you wear appropriate clothing—anything white or light-coloured is a complete no-no.”
Krishnamani’s research subjects, the endangered lion-tailed macaques (LTMs), are particularly shy of humans.
With their black hair and a silver-grey mane that flows down the sides of the head to the chin resembling a beard, face black and bare, adults weighing between 2-10 kg and measuring 42-61 cm, they’re the smaller of the macaques, and are also called wanderoo.
The long, thin tail with a knot of black fur at the tip adds 24 to 38 cm to their length. In fact, they get their name from the lion-like mane and knot of black fur at the end of the tail.
They are active in the day and sleep at night (diurnal), live in the trees (arboreal), walk on four limbs (quadrupedal), the entire foot touching the ground, not just the toes (plantigrade), have cheek pouches like other monkeys in Asia and Africa, extending down the side of the neck, the pouches nearly as capacious as their stomach for storing food, males are larger than females (sexual dimorphism) and their first digits on hands and feet are in opposite directions, which enables them to climb, groom, move, and hold. LTMs are native to the Western Ghats, living in evergreen and semi-evergreen and monsoon forests, preferably where broadleaf trees exist, at elevations of 600-1000 metres, sometimes up to 1,500.
They are social animals. The dominant male is very protective of his wards; they defend their turf. In case another group approaches or trespasses, the dominant male warns them in loud “whoops”, hearing which the other group moves away. Among all the macaques, these are the only species in which males use calls to describe their home range.
Since their habitat is dense with vegetation (that’s no longer always the case) and visual signals can only go so far, they depend on vocalisation.
According to a 1985 investigation of a captive group of lion-tailed macaques (Macaca silenus), their vocal communication has “a repertoire of 17 basic patterns,” some of which are unique.
They smack their lips to greet; they grimace, yawn, or do other things to show a range of emotions such as dominance, anger, being threatened, and so on.
They also know how to manufacture tools. According to a 1988 study, “Lion-tailed macaques in captive social groups spontaneously manufactured and used tools to extract syrup from an apparatus designed to accommodate probing behaviour. An attempt to replicate these findings with mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx) was unsuccessful.
“This report is the first to describe spontaneous manufacture of tools in any group of Old World monkeys and provides evidence of greater continuity among primates for the expression of complex cognitive abilities. These data are consistent with hypotheses that lion-tailed macaques have extensive propensities for advanced sensorimotor skills and that omnivorous, extractive foraging is associated with the manufacture and use of tools.”
he order of primates, according to the division by George Gaylord Simpson (1945), has two sub-orders: Anthropoidea; monkeys, apes, and humans, and Prosimii(pre-monkeys); lemurs (all 32 species are endemic to Madagascar), lorises (Asia), galagos (also called bushbabies, found in Africa), and tarsiers (Borneo, Sulawesi and Philippines).
According to another classification, the 300 extant species of primates belong to six major super-families. Monkeys are constituents of two super-families, namely, Old World and New World. The former denotes Africa and Asia, where baboons, macaques and colobus monkeys live; the latter denotes the Americas, South and Central Americas—not North America—where capuchins, tamarins, and marmosets live. One of the distinguishing features of New World monkeys is that they use their tail as a limb for grasping or picking something. Old World monkeys, on the other hand, can use their fingers and thumb to hold a stone or a thing.
India has 22 species of primates: two lorises, eight macaques, eleven langurs, and a single ape, the Hoolock gibbon.
Primates, Krishnamani says, are the only group of animals that evolved millennia ago and still exist. For example, the Slender Loris evolved many thousands of years ago and they still exist, while mammoths and mastodons have gone extinct. Subsequently came the apes and then human beings.
“When we study monkeys, we’re studying our ancestors, studying us,” he says. He gives the example of leaf-eating langurs with two stomachs, while LTMs have one “like us”, and “we can eat whatever they eat.” We can learn from them, he continues, how they adjust and adapt to the environment.
For LTMs the future is not promising, nor has it ever been so. Only some 3,000 individuals (estimates vary) remain in the forests of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. About 350-400 live in zoos. They featured in the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) list of 25 most endangered primates. They were taken off it in 2017, but are still endangered.
The foremost threat is deforestation. According to IUCN, “The major threat to this species today is habitat fragmentation, with many of the fragments being further decreased.
“In the past,” it says, “habitat loss was due mainly to timber harvest and the creation of exotic plantations such as tea, eucalyptus and coffee. Habitat degradation seems to the biggest threat to the conservation of lion-tailed macaques wherever they occur in Kerala. In private forests and plantations, change in land use is a problem for the species.”
The construction of hydroelectric dams, pilgrim influx, and the laying of roads that further cut up forests all add to a precarious situation.
“Hunting is a second major threat. In one location, Coorg, with a large area of remaining wet evergreen habitat, the species is threatened by non-subsistence and subsistence hunting for food. In some areas, primate meat is preferred as food. A local trade exists for pets, and in Coorg animals were often hunted in the past for “medicinal” uses,” IUCN says.
Inbreeding is a long-term problem because of low numbers and different groups living in small patches of forest separated by great distances. There is also the phenomenon of long intervals between births. To top it all, pesticide poisoning is a threat. And lion-tailed macaques seem to get hit by vehicles more often than other primates, especially in the Valparai area of Coimbatore district.
Krishnamani says that unlike bonnet macaques, lion-tailed macaques are not good acrobats. They don’t run particularly fast and that is why they get run over by speeding vehicles.
The lion-tailed macaque is essentially a tree dweller. Photos by Jishnu Satheesh Babu
In a 2001 paper, Ajit Kumar, director of the wildlife course, a joint offering from the National Centre for Biological Sciences and Wildlife Conservation Society—India Programme, states: “The populations in forest fragments carry a high risk of extinction, a major determinant of which is the quality of the fragment and surrounding vegetation rather than the fragment area. Management of these populations and their habitat is critically important.”
Apart from these threats, there is the overall threat of global warming. Although there is no India-specific study on how global warming affects primate populations, a 2009 study in Biology Letters discusses the relationship between large-scale climate change and primate population dynamics of ateline primates (a subfamily of New World monkeys that includes spider and woolly monkeys).
The authors’ hypothesis is that “the effects of El Nino and seasonal weather on primate populations are probably mediated through food availability. Our analyses indicated either an immediate or a lagged effect of resource availability on primate populations, and a strong effect of climatic variability and El Nino events on the potential primate resource levels.”
he first to emphasise that lion-tailed macaques could go extinct was Japanese primatologist Yukimaru Sugiyama. He worked in the field, collecting his observations in 1961-63. In 1968, he published his study in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, titled “The Ecology of the Lion-tailed Macaque—A Pilot Study”.
Sugiyama said, “Estimating from the impression of the author’s survey, the wild population of this species is less than 1,000 and there is the possibility that the wild population of the lion-tailed macaques will become extinct.”
In the early 1970s, Steven Green of New York Rockefeller University came to India and studied LTMs for four years, along with his research assistant, Karen Minkowski. According to A. J. T. Johnsingh’s book, Field Days: A Naturalist’s Journey through South and Southeast Asia, Green estimated that “the annual home range of a 15-member troupe is five sq. km”, and that “a large continuous block of at least 130 sq. km of rainforest, rich in Cullenia excelsa and Artocarpus hirsuta, is needed to maintain a viable breeding population of about 500 animals”.
After Green, another American primatologist John Oates conducted a study on the Nilgiri langur. His study was on the leaf chemistry of langur food plants. Green discovered that a “one-mile corridor” connecting Kalakad and Singampatti forests (Tamil Nadu-Kerala border) was crucial for LTMs but his active efforts to save the corridor didn’t fructify. His report did, however, lead to the burying of a proposed hydroelectric project near Kalakad. Those were heady days, circa 1973, when a “Save the Silent Valley” campaign flourished, and it was one of best success stories of conservation in India. People like Salim Ali participated, as well as locals, academics, and conservationists. LTMs inhabit the Silent Valley.
The importance of vegetation and its analysis has not been lost on Krishnamani. By studying their habitats, he says, “We’ll get to know what kind of trees exist, what is the distribution of trees, tailor our efforts to conserve the trees in the Western Ghats.” In addition, most of the rivers in peninsular India originate in the Western Ghats, and by conserving trees “we’ll able to arrest erosion and improve groundwater absorption.”
orn in Coimbatore, Krishnamani did his schooling and college there. After graduation, he worked some years as a medical representative, while retaining an interest in higher education. He had to take up the job after his father, who was with the Railway Mail Service, died (his mother is a homemaker), and his younger brother had to complete college.
After his stint as a medical representative, he joined the M.S. programme in ecology offered by Pondicherry University. On the advice of Rauf Ali, the great-grand-nephew of Salim Ali, Krishnamani did a summer project on bonnet macaques. He travelled widely all over Tamil Nadu on a bike, going to as many bonnet macaque locations as possible. The dry evergreen forests on the Coramandel coast receive both the southwest and the northeast monsoons, but the latter plays the decisive role in shaping the vegetation of this area. As a result, the forests are confined to northern Sri Lanka and the Coromandel coast of India.
During his study on the feeding habits of bonnet macaques, he was intrigued by a juvenile monkey eating soil from a termite mound. At Marakkanam, bonnet macaques eat termitaria earth that acts as a pharmaceutical agent to alleviate gastrointestinal upsets and control diarrhoea.
There are six nonexclusive hypotheses, Krishnamani says, that may contribute to the prevalence of geophagy (soil eating). Four relate to alleviating gastrointestinal disorders or upsets: soils absorb toxins such as phenolics and secondary metabolites; soil ingestion has an antacid action and adjusts the gut pH; soils act as an anti-diarrhoeal agent; and soils counteract the effects of endoparasites.
Two hypotheses relate to supplementing minerals and/or elements: soils supplement nutrient-poor diets; soils provide extra iron at high altitudes.
Three papers eventually came out of these observations and studies. He completed his Ph.D. in zoology. “Although I did my Ph.D. in zoology, I am most comfortable in botany,” he says.
He later wrote full-fledged proposals to study lion-tailed macaques. He was funded by the Chicago Zoological Society, Primate Conservation, Inc., International Primatological Society, Wildlife Conservation Society, and National Geographic Society.
In time, there was a promising opportunity from Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), but he was not keen to move there.
Then he started an NGO, The Rainforest Initiative—a research and development oriented organisation.
rishnamani has watched over the years how lion-tailed macaques go about their everyday business. He has not selected a particular group and tagged them with IDs, though. As they depend on fruit trees for survival, Krishnamani wanted to see if they are seed dispersers. But Western Ghats terrain is tricky, with sheer drops of 650 metres at places. Unable to get enough data for his Ph.D., and with money running out, he switched to vegetation analyses of the landscape. Funding agencies too were fine with that.
Ecologists always want to estimate the number of species in an ecosystem. “It’s a natural curiosity,” says Krishnamani.
His challenge was mathematics—so he tried to identify and collaborate with like-minded researchers who had an affinity for mathematics and statistics. On one such study-journey, he came across the work of John Harte, a professor of ecosystem sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. Harte founded the thermodynamic theory of ecology.
In 2004, he published a paper in collaboration with Harte estimating the number of tree species in the entire 60,000 sq. km of the Western Ghats.
To arrive at his results, he divided the Ghats into four zones with 48 test plots in all the zones combined, surveyed species in the test plots, and extrapolated that to the entire Ghats. The number clocked in at 857. His new estimate, as yet unpublished, puts the number of families at 90 and species at 1,018.
On his field trips he observed what lion-tailed macaques do from dawn to dusk. They behave much like humans, he says. They’re up by 5.30 or 5.45 a.m., before sunrise. Then they languorously stretch their limbs, opening their mouths, looking at things both near and distant—slowly becoming aware of their surroundings. Then they start shitting.
“It’s not necessary that everyone shits at the same time. What is important to remember is that it’s a good time to collect faecal samples.”
Then they start eating. Ten o’clock is the peak of their binge. Juveniles cavort and eat, infants cling to their mothers. Females eat while taking care of infants. The alpha male gets the choicest food and perches slightly away from the group, which consists of about 20 or 30 members. This self-appointed king constantly watches for predators and threats like tigers, or eagles, which can pluck infants and fly away. And, “they’re shit-scared of snakes, like us”.
Around noon they wind down and rest. They groom each other, socialising with the rest of the pack. The alpha male, a bit away, keeps his watch.
The group generally has seven to eight juveniles, sub-adults, and an equal proportion of males and females.
Neither big nor small, sub-adults participate in creating a ruckus and kicking up hell, mediating between querulous parties, and when the dominant male is not looking, running away with females and having sex. The alpha doesn’t favour such escapades; he assumes complete responsibility for procreation. Other males, too, cannot mate with females if he’s watching.
“If there is abundant food and sex, there is no problem, the dominant male gets both things,” Krishnamani says.
So, how do you get that status?
“Well, you have to fight.”
Around three in the afternoon, they’re eating again, not as frenetic as the morning session. As the sun sets, they walk down to the river or pond or stream and by 7 p.m., they are sleeping on branches.
“Social hierarchy among macaques is very much like a corporate office—a lot like what we have,” says Krishnamani.
The baboons of Africa have a similar set–up, as also chimpanzees and gorillas. Orangutans, on the hand, are solitary. Gibbons are monogamous.
New World monkeys live by and large in a female-dominated society; males take care of family and children. Old World monkeys have a male-dominated society.
hysically, male lion-tailed macaques are one-third bigger than females and are extremely good at sighting. A keen sense of hearing and smell follow. Spectroscopic vision and colour recognition help them to survive in forest. Birds, too, have such vision and colour recognition.
One of the advantages they have is they can taste all types of food. There is a sort of internal database that alerts them to adverse reactions. And in their 10 to 15 years of life, they spend around 95 per cent of the time up in the trees, rarely coming down. They can get water from fruits. They eat cullenia seeds and flowers. The fruits are fleshy. In case of food shortage, members at lower rungs of the hierarchy go exploring for sources.
They face a great deal of food stress in summer, a period in which all fruit-eating animals get stressed. Water is scarce and there is no flowering. Once the rains start, trees flower, and it takes time for flowers to turn into fruits. Lion-tailed macaques also feast on fruits from ficus trees.
Krishnamani published in 2018 a paper on why lion-tailed macaques are rare. There may be, he says, 6,000 individuals, most of them in Karnataka. He says forests in Karnataka are continuous, whereas in Tamil Nadu and Kerala they are not. Although cullenia trees are not found in Karnataka, the macaques survive on fruits from fig trees.
LTMs are not great breeders. Compared to other macaques, the number of progeny is limited. The first conception happens around six and a half years, the next at nine, and last maybe around eleven and a half years. Bonnet macaques give birth every two years. The good news is that mortality rates of offspring are low.
Krishnamani’s primary focus right now, however, is Thesica (https://www.thesica.org/). This project had its origins in the unending searches while doing his Ph.D. Through Thesica, an online portal and repository of Ph.D. theses, he hopes to open doors to researchers all over the world to explore and reference studies in specific subject areas. He has initiated dialogues with universities to permit access to the millions of theses that are completed every year. His vision is to make a thesis easily downloadable, thereby making referencing value-based and authentic. This would be totally unlike the combined initiative of universities, Shodhganga, a digital repository of theses and dissertations where you can download a thesis only in bits and pieces. Thesica permits you to download the complete document. He hopes that by making things open and accessible more scholars will be encouraged to explore and study their respective areas of interest.
hough everyone agrees that the lion-tailed macaque is in danger, their estimates of population vary. According to Honnavalli Kumara, primatologist at the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Coimbatore, there may be 3,500-4,000 individuals in the wild in the states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, with 1,500 individuals in each state. But Karnataka seems to take special care.
Some 20 years ago, he recalls, there was a patch of private land that was home to 120 individuals. The owner wanted to convert that area into an estate. They went to court and the court found in favour of LTMs.
“The most important thing is to retain the existing population,” he says.
The Aghanashini Lion Tailed Macaque Conservation Reserve in Karnataka is a recently opened successful conservation effort. It is the fruit of a cooperative effort among scientists, forest officials, local people and representatives, and the government.
Some 299.52 sq km between Sirsi and Honnavar was set aside in 2012 for the reserve. LTMs are called “Kattale Kaanu” in the Aghanashini river basin.
They found 36 groups totalling 670 individuals in the area.
“It’s the single largest population in India,” says K. V. Vasanth Reddy, deputy conservator of forests, Honnavar, Karnataka.
Reddy says they have undertaken a number of initiatives for the LTMs: for their food and nutrition, they planted one lakh saplings—jackfruit, jamun, mango. In the last two years they have persuaded the district administration to insulate live wires in the key areas.
“We lost 3 or 4 four LTMs in the last three to four years,” says Reddy. They’re now insulating 70 km of live wire.
They have constructed belt bridges connecting huge trees at three places so “LTMs can walk across” the national highway. They established anti-poaching squads to protect the area and other animals. Fruits of Garcinia indica (also known as kokum) and Garcinia gummi-gutta (Malabar tamarind) are collected and traded in the area.
“We have started creating awareness of sustainable harvesting and also started a processing unit for local people.” The benefit is that people avoid taking firewood from the forest. They have a programme called “vana darshana” (it covers the whole state), an eco-park like service sensitising children and the general public to nature.
Last year, Reddy says, they held 10-12 camps for both children and adults. They have trap cameras tracking LTMs and other wildlife, as also sign boards so that “people feel the sanctity of LTM areas”.
The chief conservator of forests of Karnataka, Vijay Mohan Raj, attributes success to the collective effort of the forest department.
“It’s not for just LTMs,” he says.
Karnataka has a huge portion under the Western Ghats. “Our job was to see that the entire forest from Bengaluru to Maharashtra was connected so that animals like tigers could move up and down. This was the broad goal to which we added sanctuaries and reserves. Aghanashini Reserve is in line with the big objective.”
He says scientists like Honnavalli Kumara, local people and local representatives supported them.
“Lion-tailed macaques are the flagship species of the Western Ghats,” he says, “the best advantage we had was good documentation. If you would like to have an area declared a sanctuary, you need very good documentation on the flagship species or endangered species. That is where scientists helped us, to make the case that this forest is very valuable.
“You cannot go and say that you declare this a sanctuary, nobody listens.
“You need good scientific documentation, backing with data, and also have a feasible management plan. We did our homework first on the three things. If you have these, people by and large accept and say yes, this is required.”