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Shy primates shun forests and take over Valparai looking for food

At 6 a.m., Valparai town in Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore district is a typical hill station with roads largely free of vehicles and people. Estate workers flock to the few tea shops that open early to warm themselves, before heading to the fields.

But there is a bustle of activity near Sree Muruga temple in the heart of the town. Monkeys with silver-white mane in contrast with shiny coats of black fur and tufted tail dot on the roof of buildings, railings and platforms of shops. They are busy looking for anything edible, ranging from food waste to rotten fruits or vegetables. Some look for bits and pieces of biscuits and chips in discarded packets. A man shoos one monkey as it enters the verandah of his building.

While the buzz of the town starts with arrival of morning buses and tourist vehicles around 7 a.m., the monkeys cross the road, clinging onto television cables and move to the other side of the road to reach the temple’s backside, before eventually heading to their natural habitat at Puthuthottam, around four km from the town.

This is a glimpse of how lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus) aka LTM, an arboreal primate endemic to select rainforests of the Western Ghats, are forced to rummage through urban waste and grab food from houses, while they are supposed to be shy and largely frugivorous primate that prefer upper canopies of rainforests.

“Six-seven years ago, one wouldn’t see these black monkeys near Valparai town. Now they are regular visitors and rummage through waste dumped in parts of the town. They also raid foods in workers’ quarters and houses like the common monkey,” says Valparai resident S.P. Murugaiyya.

The Valparai plateau, known for vast swathes of tea and coffee estates interspersed with forest patches that fall under the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, is one of the 40-odd populations of LTM in the Western Ghats, spread across Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka. Each population comprises multiple groups or troops.

Endangered species

LTM was reassessed and classified as an ‘endangered’ species in the IUCN Red List in 2020, with about 2,500 mature individuals distributed in the Western Ghats hill ranges between the Kalakkad Hills in the south and Sirsi-Honnavara in the north. The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 gives LTM the highest conservation priority by listing it under the Schedule-I. Biologists say their current numbers in the wild could range between 3,000 and 3,500. The Valparai plateau is believed to have around 500 LTMs, making it one of the important populations.

According to Honnavalli N. Kumara, Principal Scientist at the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, who has been studying LTMs for over two decades, the population at Puthuthottam is at top of the entire populations of the very shy primate in terms of the behavioural change.

“In 1996, there was only one group of 32 individuals at Puthuthottam. The population increased and two groups were formed in 1998. Now there are five groups comprising a little over 200 individuals, of which one group is entering Valparai town while another group has got accustomed to human habitations at Rottikadai. A separate group has now started appearing at Iyerpadi on Pollachi–Valparai road,” Dr. Kumara says.

Lack of food

Wildlife biologist Ashni Kumar Dhawale, who studied the LTM groups at Puthuthottam for several years, says lack of natural food such as fruits throughout the year in their habitats has also pushed the primates to look for alternative and easily available food. Most of the fruits in their diet are seasonal.

The Agumbe ghat section in Shivamogga district in Karnataka, Vellimalai in Theni district in Tamil Nadu and Nelliyampathy in Kerala are among the places where LTMs are observed to have lost fear for humans and exhibiting similar behavioural trends, reasons for which include habitat degradation, roads passing through their habitats, increased vehicular movement, food offered by tourists and improper waste management.

“When easily available food in clumped distribution is available, they tend to prefer them. This attracts them to human settlements and then to town,” says Dr. Dhawale.

P.S. Easa, former Director of the Kerala Forest Research Institute and Chairman of the Care Earth Trust, feels roads passing through LTM habitats, which cut off canopy connectivity, force them to come down to the roads to pass to the other side. During the process, people provide them food and slowly they get accustomed to human foods.

“At Nelliyampathy, road widening has cut off canopy connectivity for LTMs, an endangered species considered to be almost cent per cent arboreal. They come to the road and wait for people, expecting food. But they have not moved to the town as in Valparai,” says Dr. Easa, who wanted authorities to address the worrying trend.

Canopy corridors

At Agumbe ghats, the Karnataka Forest Department has tasked frontline staff to prevent people from feeding LTMs and drive out LTMs that come to the road. In Valparai, Tamil Nadu Forest Department staff and persons appointed by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) are taking similar steps and aiding them cross the road safely. Additionally, the NCF has established canopy corridors across roads that pass through LTM habitats and is planning to add more.

“This trend is worrying and requires immediate management plans as groups in other populations might also start losing fear and come to roads and human settlements. There can be an increase in road kills and people’s attitude towards LTMs might also change when they start stealing food and causing nuisance,” adds Dr. Kumara.

As per Forest Department’s estimation, more than 15 LTMs died of vehicle hits and electrocution in the past 20 years.

According to Dr. Dhawale, road kills claimed three LTMs in the Valparai plateau in the past one month alone, when they were crossing roads.

“As per studies, the mortality rate of LTM at Puthuthottam is more than 5%,” says Dr. Dhawale, who also wanted local bodies to give more focus on waste management, so that endangered animals like LTMs do not scavenge waste.

Tamil Nadu in its State budget this year announced it will establish Tamil Nadu Endangered Species Conservation Fund with a corpus of ₹50 crore. LTM is one of the species to be covered under the fund.

According to Supriya Sahu, Additional Chief Secretary, Environment, Climate Change and Forest, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department will take up a study on LTM. “We will also try and see if we can do the population estimation and then decide the conservation strategy”.

The ATR administration, under the leadership of Field Director S. Ramasubramanian, has also sent a proposal to the Forest Department to conduct a study of LTMs, by roping in experts.

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