15 January 2010

close encounters with the endangered

I spent the last couple of days away from the city in Valparai which is situated in the Western Ghats of Southern India and is famous for its tea plantations and wildlife. About 3500 feet above sea level it is as pollution-free as it gets with strong enforcement of anti-litter/plastic rules and surrounded by rolling walls of green hills all covered entirely in tea. The faint smell of pesticides and fertilizers however do linger in the air which makes me wonder how much is being used to cover all the mountains and mountains of plantations we saw.

This aside, waking up to greenery and the much needed fresh air is a splendid treat. En route, the Indira Gandhi National Park situated in the Anamalai Hills is home to many endemic species that this area of the world is famous for: lion-tailed macaque, the Nilgiri and the common langur, Malabar giant squirrel, elephant, gaur, bison, spotted deer, sambar, barking deer and wild boar. Many of these species are also highly endangered and are being actively protected through many conservation programs.

This area is also rife with hydro-electricity projects which require vast area of forests to be cleared. It also consists of some huge dams like Aliyar, Sholiyar etc. One of the main attractions for me at Valparai was to spot the highly endangered lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus) which is also endemic to the area. Recent IUCN estimates place its numbers at 3000-3500. The lion-tail is an old world macaque and among the smallest of the macaque species and the most endangered. International trade is banned by their listing on Appendix I of the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and they are also protected by Indian law.

The lion-tail is shy and prefers to stay above in the thick canopy of trees hardly venturing to the forest floor which makes it not only difficult to spot but also means that it is unable to adapt to any other environment other than its natural habitat which is being rapidly destroyed. On the second day armed with my camera and other gear we ventured out in search of this elusive creature. Our guide got in contact with some wildlife wardens who constantly patrol the area from which they emerge around mid-day which is the forest on either side of the road. The patrol ensures that monkeys are spared from being killed by passing vehicles and people do not stop to feed them.

As we patrol with them they emerge slowly from the thick cover the bravest ones venturing forward first followed by the entire band. They were clinging to every branch and showing off their amazing acrobatic skills. This band of about twenty monkeys entertained and enthralled. They kept mostly to themselves and viewed us with curiosity and rarely kept still long enough for me to get a crisp picture. As they moved they stopped to feed on insects that they deftly pulled out from the hollow trees and shook branches to release seeds from the fruit. They also showed us how cautiously they cross roads to get to the other side.

We were told that this band was particularly adventurous and usually this species is not so forthcoming. Coming away later that day, what struck me most about the whole experience is that how rarely one witnesses endangered animal species in the wild and how much longer such meetings will last...
Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

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