It was raining intermittently throughout the day. Sitting at the lunch table, I was curiously staring at the 160 years old teak wood antiques of the Woodhouse Mansion with awe. “Keep the doors closed Sir” said the caretaker… “LTMs would come inside”. Excited already, I came out looking around here and there but could not locate anything except for a Hill Myna screaming at the top of its voice sitting on the fruiting tree ahead. The drizzle continued. A pleasant breeze along. A sumptuous lunch, a lazy afternoon, the monsoon drizzle, the cozy veranda of the guest house, the tea plantations spread till the horizon, repeated sessions of hot coffee and anticipation of something exciting that could happen was all that had to happen on our first day at Valparai. No LTM !
Ranked amongst few of the rarest and most threatened primates, this arboreal resident of the Annamalai hills is marked as endangered by IUCN. Being good climbers, they spend majority of their life in upper canopy of the tropical moist evergreen forests. Habitat destruction and their typical avoidance of human proximity is leading to rapid decrease of the population of these mesmerising Lion Tailed Macaques. Endemic to the Western Ghats of Southwestern India in the states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the total wild population of Lion-tailed macaque is estimated to be less than 4,000 individuals.
Next day was as refreshing as it could be. The rains had stopped. The greens of Valparai mesmerised as we explored through the curvy roads. However I was getting a bit restless. There was no sight of LTM as we started returning …. and then suddenly the car stops. “LTM” … whispered Mohan Sir.
The day turns out to be long. We heard that a large troop is coming towards the estate. Since a long time, I had visualized a few wide angle frames of Lion tailed macaques and now, the possibility of being within the large troop sounded like an opportunity. I planned to carry my Sigma 15 mm f/2.8 fisheye on Canon 5D Mark IV and no other gear. It helped to remain focused on what I was looking for. Shortly they were there. All over. Atleast 60 of them. Quite a few of them with babies. I kept moving closer, at times crawling, at times crouching. I showed no hurry to take out the camera and perhaps that made them comfortable. Some of the Moms let me come too close inspite of having the babies in lap. A few of them did make some typical ‘keeeenk’ noise but it was evident, they were not afraid of me. I started making some pictures now and few of these will remain as a precious possession for me ever.
She came silently, while I was engrossed checking the day’s images on my camera LCD sitting on a log, down there in the bushes. The Jackfruit thief was around. Heard some crackling overhead. Once… twice… I looked up and she was there… biting the spiny fruit skin to the glory. She had caught hold of the lowest hanging one and to my surprise, with a mighty twist, she brought the heavy fruit down, just next to where I was. Pretty well conscious about my conspicuous presence, she opted to ignore me and started devouring the precious jewel she managed to grab. I kept my 5DM4 right on the Jackfruit, keeping the live view on, as I just couldn’t dare to push my face that near. She gave a damn though !
Its so typical of us. We are never content. By now I had made enough good images but I was looking for a male in a striking pose that I had dreamt about. Little did I imagine that I would be able to make it in the same trip. My hero of the story was around. The ‘Show Stopper’. I wasn’t very sure whether he was angry or pretending to be. I didn’t feel like taking a risk. I guess, without Mr Prakash Ramakrishnan’s presence, I wouldn’t have tried to be that close to a mighty looking male Lion tailed macaque. Hence this image is dedicated to him.
Male Lion tailed macaques are very interesting to study. Usually there is an Alpha male in most small troops but occasionally there can be 2 / 3 males in a single troop. Extremely territorial and they use calls to denote territorial boundaries. The dominant male protects the group from predators, prevents the members from fighting, uses different calls and body movements to communicate with the members of the troop.
Next 2 days were amazing at Valparai camp. Not only Lion tailed macaques, I came back with satisfactory photo documentation of a few endangered species including Nilgiri langurs, Nilgiri tahrs, Pseudophilautus wynaadensis or the Waynad bush frog and many others. Little is studied about Nilgiri langurs. Arboreal, extremely shy, inhabiting at altitudes between 300 – 2,000 m above sea level. Listed as Vulnerable in IUCN Red list, primary reason being listed is habitat destruction. I don’t see many images of this species in the web and I am happy I got a decent one in its beautiful habitat.
Last day. Had a flight to catch from Coimbatore at 2 pm. Hadn’t got an opportunity to photograph a Nilgiri Tahr in a short expedition of 3 days. The driver didnt understand what species I was talking about. My friend started trying his best permutations and combinations of his Tamil vocabulary to explain Nilgiri Tahr to the driver, but well … in vain. And I said ‘leave it’ as we were running short of time. But with an untiring effort my friend continued – the animal… the goat… the meat we eat you know … ! And then when we were about to reach the 9th bend, our driver exclaimed – Ahhhh ! Varai aaadu !
By early 20th Century, there were only as few as 100 Nilgiri Tahrs were left in the wild. WWF India mentions that there are around 3000 plus now in the Western Ghats (I may be corrected for the numbers, not having the latest stats). But the most heartening thing was to see an endangered animal now being seen on roadside roaming around happily grazing. Or is this a threat again? I leave it to viewers to decide.
LTM memories were unforgettable. Certainly calls me back to the hills again. An earlier study states that 31 troops with around 460 individuals of lion-tailed macaques occur in the rainforests of the Anamalai hills and out of that at least 12 troops now occur in the plantations of Valparai. It was heartening to see the kind of effort that Nature Conservation Foundation is making towards conservation of these beautiful macaques.