The Wild

Pride of the Western Ghats: The Elusive Lion-tailed Macaque

The life and times of one of India’s most endangered primates

By RG Staff

Dawn breaks over the Anaimalai Hills of Tamil Nadu, piercing the canopy with spokes of golden light. The rainforest is veiled in mist. The air is cool, alive with the sound of bird call. Dew hangs from moss-covered branches, dripping slowly to the canopy floor. The ground is soft, littered with leaves and fragrant with the scent of humus. There are trees everywhere, some squat and sturdy, others tall and slender, reaching for the sky. This is a world far from ours, where the air is clean, streams run clear, and there isn’t a human in sight, on most days. It is also the home of the elusive lion-tailed macaque, endemic to the Western Ghats of India, where it has lived for thousands of years.

Lion-tailed macaques are one of several primates that live in these jungles. They are unique in anatomy and temperament. Easily distinguished by their shaggy, silver manes, these macaques are what conservationists call a “specialist species”, meaning they can thrive in only select habitats with familiar flora and food sources. Unlike “generalist species”, like the rhesus macaque, their ability to adapt is relatively low.

Largely arboreal, they spend their days napping, grooming, swinging from branch to branch, and foraging for fruit. In a large enough habitat, a lion-tailed macaque might spend weeks, even months in the treetops without setting foot on the ground. Nowadays however, much of their habitat is fragmented into small pockets due to roadways and plantations, forcing this tree-dwelling monkey to walk amongst us.

In the dense canopy in the Western Ghats, lion-tailed macaques use vocal sounds to communicate with each other. Scientists have noticed around 17 situation-specific sound patterns that the primates employ for various purposes. Photo: Keerthana Balaji

Lion-tailed macaques are Old World monkeys, related to the first macaques that arrived from Africa about five million years ago. Like their cousins, the langur and gibbon, they use their tails for balance, but cannot grasp branches with them. 
Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Lion-tailed macaques are Old World monkeys, related to the first macaques that arrived from Africa about five million years ago. Like their cousins, the langur and gibbon, they use their tails for balance, but cannot grasp branches with them. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Despite their impressive incisors, lion-tailed macaques are largely fruit-eating primates. They are particularly fond of jackfruit and wild durian. They use their teeth to tear away the spiky skinto get to the sweet fleshy bulbs inside. When the pickings are slim and there is no fruit to be found, they will also eat leaves, flowers, and invertebrates. In foraging and eating fruit, macaques play the crucial role of an agent of seed dispersal in the habitat. As their diet changes to include more greens and insects, the diversity of the forest at large is impacted. Photo: Keerthana Balaji

Lion-tailed macaques are skilled climbers and can cover a large distance in a single leap. This lion-tailed macaque was caught mid-air in Nelliyampathy, Kerala, which has one of the largest populations of lion-tailed macaques in the country. Photo: Amal George

(Left) Female macaques are smaller than their male counterparts and generally produce only one offspring every couple of years. (Right) The young are nurtured by their mothers until they reach puberty. At this point, young females join the troop, while the young males leave the family unit, and join all-male groups until they can get a harem of their own. Photos: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Lion-tailed macaques are social creatures that roam in troops of about 10-25, with a single dominant male. In isolated areas, however, researchers have noticed larger groups of 30-60 members that may have multiple males and females. Some posit that they may be seeking safety in numbers. In some parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, large troops can be seen near highways, scavenging for food to supplement their fast-disappearing traditional diets. 
Photo: VR Sudaramanikkam

Lion-tailed macaques are social creatures that roam in troops of about 10-25, with a single dominant male. In isolated areas, however, researchers have noticed larger groups of 30-60 members that may have multiple males and females. Some posit that they may be seeking safety in numbers. In some parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, large troops can be seen near highways, scavenging for food to supplement their fast-disappearing traditional diets. Photo: VR Sudaramanikkam

With the gradual loss of the tree canopy to live in and feed upon, these shy primates are forced to venture into areas inhabited by humans. But all is not lost. Thanks to conservation efforts, some of their forest habitat has been safeguarded, reducing human-animal conflict and increasing the population of the lion-tailed macaque to just under 4,000. Their strength is inextricably linked to the safety of the forest, and the diversity of the magnificent Western Ghats of India. Photo: Pravin Shanmughanandam

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