As I cycled through the agricultural fields and orchards of Bangalore’s GKVK campus, I heard a loud scream from one of the hostel buildings. Still too far away to see what had caused alarm, I listened to the subsequent commotion that sounded like the cling-clang of utensils and the breaking of branches. I turned a corner to finally lay eyes on a troop of about twenty Bonnet Macaques sneaking away with packets of food from someone’s now-ransacked room. Students were pumping their fists in the air, while the notorious monkeys lunged just out of reach, enjoying the spoils of their early-morning foraging effort. I smiled at them secretly, and got off my cycle to watch the rest of their exploits.
I had just moved to Bangalore to study wildlife biology and conservation, and these macaques had always been one of the main reasons I wanted to pursue a career in this field. For those like me who are interested in animal behaviour, primates are a fascinating group of animals. They are often conspicuous in their activities and let us into their complicated social lives with a pinch of caution. We can watch them play together, groom one another, start and resolve fights within their troops, and feed with their human-like hands. While I have always taken delight in their antics, many monkeys are notorious for rubbing people the wrong way – like the macaques of GKVK, which are routine offenders of people’s trust.
Primates are widely spread across the country, and are especially diverse in northeast and south India. Karnataka is a wonderful state to visit in search of primates – both common and rare. It is home to 7 species of our literal and figurative kin, owing to the diversity of habitats that the state has to offer – from dense deciduous or evergreen forests interspersed with agricultural land, to bustling urban centres like Mysore and Bangalore.
Bonnet Macaque (Macaca radiata)
Bonnet Macaques are the most common of Karnataka’s primates. These small, beige monkeys have characteristic hairdos – parted down the middle – and longish tails that help them balance through their arboreal or urban acrobatics. They are seen across the state in a range of habitats, owing to their adaptability, curiosity and intelligence. They have found ways to survive regardless of people’s presence in a landscape, or the quality of habitat and resources available to them. Bonnet Macaques have also developed unique ways to communicate with people and ask for food near tourist hotspots and highways; they stretch out their arms and make a “coo” call. They have been branded as ‘weed macaques’ for their prolific presence in these areas, and have earned a mixed reputation among people from both rural and urban settings across their range.
Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta)
While Bonnet Macaques used to be the most populous species across Karnataka, their distribution is currently being challenged by the most widespread of India’s primates – the Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta). Historically, Rhesus Macaques were found in north and northeast India, while the endemic bonnets were found in the south. In recent years though, the population of Bonnet Macaques has been dwindling – both due to habitat loss and the gradual invasion of their larger and shorter-tailed cousins from the north. While Rhesus Macaques are perceived to be more aggressive, they may simply be more adaptable to living among humans and changing environments. In the time to come, it is highly likely that we will see Rhesus Macaques more frequently and abundantly in Karnataka, occupying habitats that were traditionally the bonnets’ alone.
Malabar Sacred Langur (Semnopithecus hypoleucos)
Malabar Sacred Langurs, formerly called the Black-footed Grey Langurs, are Old World monkeys that were recognised as a distinct species only as recently as 2005. For decades now, taxonomists have been uncertain about how many species of grey langurs exist, and they were all traditionally considered to be just a single species (Semnopithecus entellus). We now know that there are actually up to 16 sub-species of grey langurs across India. Malabar Sacred Langurs are found exclusively along the Western Ghats and are fairly populous. They reside in the patchy rainforests that occur in western Karnataka (and parts of Maharashtra and Kerala), along with adjoining scrubby-deciduous forests and some agricultural areas.
Tufted Sacred Langur (Semnopithecus priam)
Tufted Sacred Langurs also inhabit the same types of habitats as Malabar Sacred Langurs, though they’re more widely distributed across India. While the latter are found in the western half of Karnataka, their tufted cousins occupy the eastern portion of the state and beyond. They look extremely similar, save for the clear tuft of fur atop S. priam’s head. They’re both light brownish to grey in colour and have triangular black faces and honey-brown eyes. They are large-bodied primates with tails equivalent to the length of their body, and they use these slender tails for balance and communication. They also have long black fingers and a light to white belly. Langurs are typically herbivorous, preferring to dine on leaves, seasonal fruits and the occasional hand-out from people. Depending on the habitat, Tufted Sacred Langurs could be in troops of twenty to a hundred individuals. Although neither of the sacred langurs is endangered, their populations are under threat due to the destruction of their natural habitat, several human activities, and occasional hunting for meat or pet trade.
Nilgiri Langur (Semnopithecus johnii)
Nilgiri Langurs are endemic to the Western Ghats and are my personal favourite of all the peninsular langurs. They are smaller and more slender than Sacred Grey Langurs, and have long, glossy black fur over most of their body, which shimmers just like the feathers of a drongo. They have a crown of light brown fur on their heads, which appears golden-yellow in the sun, and this is often one way to spot them high up in the canopy where they’re otherwise concealed in the shadows. Females have white patches on their thighs, but look similar to the males in the other respects. They have piercing, dark brown eyes, making them appear simultaneously regal and shy. Sadly, this striking primate’s populations and ranges are vulnerable to threats from habitat loss, poaching for their fur coats, forest fires, and the pet trade.
Lion-tailed Macaque (Macaca silenus),
Lion-tailed Macaques, also referred to as ‘wanderoos’ in local vernacular, are Karnataka’s flagship primate species. They are unique among India’s macaques for living in troops with just a single dominant male, unlike others like the Bonnet or Rhesus Macaques, which have troops comprising multiple males and multiple females. Despite their golden manes, they are named as such because of the shape of their tail – narrow and short-furred with a tuft right at the end – just like a lion’s. In my eyes, they are the macaque doppelgangers of the Nilgiri Langur, with the same shiny-black fur coat and dramatic beards that resemble the hair on the langurs’ heads.
These small macaques, unlike their more omnivorous and opportunistic Bonnet Macaque cousins, are picky eaters. They prefer fruits of the Cullenia exarillata tree, ficus fruits and jackfruit (when close to human settlements). If their favourite fruits are not in season, they feed on seeds, flowers, insects, bird eggs, small amphibians or even on babies of the Indian Giant Squirrel. They thrive best in the high canopies of tropical evergreen forests, and hence deforestation and forest fragmentation can severely affect their movement and populations.
Grey Slender Loris (Loris lydekkerianus)
The Grey Slender Loris is the only nocturnal primate in Karnataka. These are small, slow-moving creatures that belong to one of the oldest groups of primates called ‘prosimians’. Karnataka houses two sub-species of these primitive primates: the Malabar and Mysore Grey Slender Lorises. These species are found in the drier mountainous regions of the Western Ghats, but are also found in pockets of wooded areas in semi-rural to urban spaces. For example, the Gandhi Krishi Vigyana Kendra (GKVK) campus where naughty bonnets also reside, and the Indian Institute of Science (IISC) campus in Bangalore house small populations of the Slender Loris. However, these individuals are trapped in urban islands, and cannot disperse to other areas beyond these green campuses.
They are almost exclusively insectivorous and use their long fingers to forage for insects and arthropods inside the nooks and crannies of tree branches or hives. They forage alone and are mostly seen in isolation, but the Grey Slender Loris can also be highly social – they form ‘sleeping pods’ by interconnecting their limbs while sleeping during the day, and groom one another to form bonds just like macaques and langurs do.
All these primate species – from the widespread Bonnet Macaques to the restricted Nilgiri Langurs – are either perfectly adapted to the Western Ghats or adaptable to ever-changing environments. Together, they cover the entire expanse of this highly bio-diverse state, allowing us humans – the eighth primate species of Karnataka – ample opportunity to (respectfully) observe and admire our varied cousins.