A wildlife conservationist writes about her first sighting of the endangered species.

Habitat loss and poaching threaten the survival of the elusive Nilgiri langurImage courtesy: Vinod Kantemnani
Features Conservation Monday, June 24, 2019 - 16:01

The fog coils lovingly over the mountain ridges, dropping low enough to shield the forest’s treasures from my straining eyes. Trees, once strong lines against the clear sky, are now ghostly shadows. It is difficult to perceive the forest spreading before me, although I am very much aware of its existence. In situations such as these, the human eyesight proves utterly useless. I am forced to utilise my other senses – olfactory, auditory and sensory – the way most other mammals do.

It is only once I begin to listen carefully that I hear the booming hoot of a langur.

Langurs are a subset of Old World monkeys found primarily on the Indian subcontinent. The term “langur” is used across multiple species of these distinctive monkeys, and is most associated with the grey langur, or Hanuman langur as it is known in India. The grey langur and I have a long history; I made my acquaintance with it in the deodar forests of the Garhwal Himalayas, where its hooting call was my daily morning alarm.

But this call was different.

It was clearly that of a langur, but not a langur that I had ever heard before. The grey langur hoots at a higher pitch than the sound now echoing around the densely-fogged forest. I racked my brains; what other langurs lived in the Nilgiris?

My friend, who was also listening to the hoots in increasing excitement, solved the mystery for me. “It’s a Nilgiri langur!” she exclaimed. “They’re endemic to just this tiny stretch of forest in the Western Ghats and the Nilgiris.”

An endemic langur, one that I had never spotted before. The idea was enthralling. As a wildlife conservationist, I read extensively about wildlife, especially the wildlife of the Western Ghats, where I work, but I had only brushed past information on the Nilgiri langur (Semnopithecus johnii). How I itched to get my hands on my book of Indian mammals now!

The langurs (there were multiple in the trees, hidden from my sight) were all hooting now, and I heard the heavy rustling of branches as they moved about the dense canopy. No one else had stopped their vehicles on this lonely stretch of road. It was the perfect chance to see this mammal – if only the fog would lift.

And then the sun came out.

As the sun cast warm rays over the forested hills, the fog began to recede. And thus it was that I suddenly spotted a black face staring back at me from a tree branch, just across the road.

“It looks like the devil’s child,” my colleague said, when he spotted the langur. Apart from the white ruff collaring its neck, the langur was entirely black. Its fur was thick, resembling that of the lion-tailed macaque, another highly endangered endemic of the Western Ghats, but the tail of the Nilgiri langur matched the tails of other members of the langur family. Thankfully – given that we had a picnic lunch in our open jeep – langurs do not use their tails or sharp minds to steal food from unsuspecting humans. Thug-like banditry of this sort is best left to our country’s pesky macaques. The Nilgiri langur sitting before me was too beautiful, too regal, to engage in such paltry behaviour.

The fog continued to clear, and more Nilgiri langurs began to appear in the trees, leaping from branch to branch with careless abandon. They had more grace than even the most talented of trapeze artists. I clicked photographs frantically, eager to capture their beauty through my lens, although nature’s gems are best appreciated with the naked eye than trapped in a camera.

Pic by Priya Ranganathan
And then another car pulled around the curve and slowed, seeing us scattered across the road with our binoculars and cameras. They looked up curiously, and one sighted a langur.

“Hey, it’s a monkey!” he shouted. “Let’s go see it.” The car doors opened, and two college-aged boys and their tired-looking mother exited the vehicle. The boys and their father headed straight for the bushes below the tree where the langurs were perched. The watchful dominant langur gave a warning hoot and suddenly the trees were alive as all the langurs dove for the safely of the dense underbrush of the forest. Langurs were everywhere, calling and leaping, and flashes of white stood out against their black silhouettes. At last they had all vanished, taking cover elsewhere, and we were left standing on the road amazed at our good fortune to have spotted this endemic species.

Nilgiri langurs are found in evergreen forests of the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, although the species is on a global decline. It is mostly folivorous, but also eats flowers, buds, stems, bark, leaves, insects and soil. Groups usually consist of nine to 10 mature individuals. The key threat faced by this langur, apart from habitat loss, is poaching. Nilgiri langurs are poached for their pelt, organs, blood and flesh, the last three used in traditional folk medicine both within and outside India. Its flesh is thought to have potent aphrodisiac properties. But a lack of scientific research has left us with very little information regarding this endangered langur’s biology or ecology.

The Nilgiri langur, like other species with small home ranges, needs our help in order to survive. With development and increasing urbanisation and forest resource depletion, the langur’s territory continues to shrink, forcing it to make do with fragmented forest patches, frequent interactions with humans, and posing risks to its survival due to vehicle use on forest roads at night. While most tiger reserves in India close their forest roads to traffic at night, the evening and morning hours when wildlife are most active are often the hours when the forest road has just opened, and the vehicular traffic is heavy. Given the popularity of Karnataka’s Bandipur Tiger Reserve and, to a lesser extent, Tamil Nadu’s Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, there are many anthropogenic pressures facing the Nilgiri langur’s remaining habitat.

It remains to be seen how this elusive mammal does in the race to survive.

Priya Ranganathan is a researcher with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru. She works on the ecology and restoration of wetland ecosystems in India. A geologist by training, she obtained her M.Sc. in Ecosystem Science and Conservation from Duke University in 2017, and enjoys writing, reading and dancing in her free time.

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