Traversing across south of Brahmaputra valley in Assam couple of decades ago, you could have easily caught sight of a short-tailed, shaggy haired, bald-faced Indian primate – shaking branches, showing teeth and screaming at you! However, today, Stump-tailed macaques (STM), once, one of the most widespread primates of these forests, are at the brink of extinction. Same goes for Pig-tailed macaques, Hoolock gibbons and other primates of this region. On the occasion of World Monkey Day (December 14), we look at the primates of northeast India, a region with staggering simian diversity, but abysmal conservation efforts.
According to primatologists, today, as many as 60% of primate species throughout world are endangered and India is no exception.
“Primates are one of the most neglected groups, especially in northeast India. While the region is extremely rich in species diversity, in absence of any pan-northeast surveys, there is no estimation of population size of primates available. When it comes to other parts of the country, for example the Western Ghats, such surveys are still being done to some extent,” says Narayan Sharma, assistant professor, department of environmental biology, Cotton University, Guwahati.
A Stump-tailed macaque at Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary in Assam © Narayan Sharma.
While the region brandishes nine species of primates - Bengal Slow loris, Hoolock Gibbon, Assamese macaque, Rhesus macaque, STM, Pig-tailed macaque, White Cheeked Macaque, Capped langur and Golden langur - more than any other part of the country, it lacks even baseline data on population size of these magnificent creatures.
“An assessment of STM population in northeast region was done over 15 years ago but not much has happened since then. In most parts, we do not even have baseline data,” says HK Kumara, principal scientist, Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History.
According to primatologists, inaccessible landscape, sad state of socio-political affairs and dietary regime of some northeastern communities have contributed towards this apathy.
“Unlike other biodiversity hotspots of India, there are areas in northeast region that you cannot visit. It is difficult to go to places like Manipur, Tripura, Assam and conduct long-term surveys due to unstable socio-political situation. Difficult terrain adds to the problem. Despite these issues, while there have been many attempts to document primate population in northeast off late, meager data collection owing to low detection rate has made the region least favourite for academicians,” says Narayan.
Experts opine that flagship species approach including only charismatic big mammals like tigers and rhinos is yet another roadblock in primate conservation. “In Assam, for example, all conservation related fund goes in rhino conservation. This approach has adverse impact on other species including primates, especially in areas where flagship species are not present. In places like Mizoram or Nagaland, no conservation work takes place because there are no tigers. We need different kind of approach in these areas,” adds Narayan.
A female Hoolock Gibbon at Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary in Assam © Narayan Sharma.
Raising awareness about importance of primates among communities, whose lives are extremely entwined with that of the forest, its wildlife and thus primates, is equally important.
“Communities in these areas are not only dependent on the forest for livelihood, but it is part of their culture and tradition too. Many species of the primates are looked upon as food by many communities, thus making it imperative to be careful in our approach. If we think entirely in terms of protecting wildlife without paying attention to how to wean-off these communities gradually, we will never be able to conserve primates in this region,” says Anindya Sinha, a professional monkey watcher and professor with National Institute of Advanced Studies.
Ignored and cold-shouldered
According to primatologists, while most of the primate conservation work in northeast region, which is few and far between already, are being concentrated around Hoolock gibbons, the primate species perceived to be the most endangered, it is the macaques that are facing the brunt.
“Although gibbon population has surely gone down, they are not as affected by the forces that impact STMs and other macaques. Gibbons are not hunted for food and they can survive on small fragmented patches too. They might be in danger in long run, but currently it is STM that is suffering the most due to hunting pressure and habitat destruction,” says Narayan.
Experts opine that STM are large species that live in bigger groups and need continuous forest to move around, which is not available due to fragmentation.
“In northeast India, gibbons are the most important primates. While they might be the only ape we have, attention should be given to all primates equally. It is the macaques, like Assamese macaques, Pig-tailed macaque and STMs that are slowly but surely disappearing from the forests of northeast India,” says Anindya.
Ticket to human-primate conflict
With staggering rate of urbanization, not only their habitat is being lost or fragmented, but many of the primates’ populations find themselves in anthropogenic habitat, more now than ever before. In such circumstances, researchers feel that people have to be made aware about what to do when these monkeys raid their farms, gardens or refrigerators.
“Awareness must be raised amongst people about primate wealth and how to manage it. People should be educated and told to stop feeding monkeys and manage garbage properly. In several places, there are multiple troops of Lion-tailed macaques (an endemic species of the Western Ghats) that completely depend upon people for food and have stopped foraging in natural forest. While macaques and many other primates are very adaptable to humans, when they become dependent on human resources, it becomes detrimental for them in long run. We need bottom up approaches to deal with this situation,” says Narayan.
Human-macaque conflict cases have become a socio-political issue in Himachal and the Forest Department is trying to manage the issue by conducting ABC (Animal Birth control) program in Himalayan region. “Every year, the region is experiencing a loss of around Rs200 crore in horticulture crop. As a solution to this issue, sterilization program is on and almost 1,40,000 animals have been sterilized. The program will soon be implemented in J&K and in Uttarakhand. The department is also raising awareness among people on managing garbage and educating tourists to avoid feeding the monkeys,” said Kumara.
About the writer: Garima Prasher
Garima works with WCS-India as the Media and Outreach Head. Before she has worked as a journalist with The Times of India, Bengaluru, The New Indian Express, Bengaluru, Citizen Matters, and with the editorial team of The Heyvan Times. She has also been associated with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), as an environmental researcher. Garima has completed MSc. in Environmental Monitoring and Management from University of Nottingham in 2015. She is currently pursuing Post-Graduate Diploma in Animal Law from National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) University of Law in Hyderabad. She loves animals and is passionate about wildlife and wildlife conservation.