Singalika – the name echoes around the still forests of Kudremukh National Park. Birdsong fades as I scan the trees, my eyes squinting in the hot sun. The dense leaves rustle – once, twice. Something is up there, watching me and shifting from branch to branch. The sensation of a pair of eyes on me is unnerving.

Kudremukh National Park, in the heart of the central Western Ghats, in Chikkamagaluru District, is a haven for wildlife spotting, despite its tumultuous history with mining. The park was the site of an active iron ore mine run by Karnataka Iron Ore Company Limited (KIOCL), which was banned from mining in the reserve by a Supreme Court order in 2006. Prior to shutting operations, the company mined in the region for 30 years, causing ecologists great alarm over the impacts of this intrusive activity on endangered and endemic wildlife.

The habitat at Kudremukh National Park.

One of the best-kept secrets of Kudremukh is the Lion-tailed Macaque, a large black monkey with a white mane, and a long tail with a white tuft at the end. This macaque, known as ‘singalika’ in Kannada, is highly endangered and found only in the Western Ghats, where it makes its home in the dense canopies of forests in the altitudinal range of 600-1070 metres. Unlike Bonnet and Rhesus Macaques, Lion-tailed Macaques (LTMs) are shy and mostly arboreal primates with a penchant for wet-evergreen rainforests. A large amount of an LTM’s daily energy budget goes towards foraging and feeding, with fruits, seeds, flowers, insects, and sometimes small vertebrates comprising its diet. It belongs to the family Cercopithecidae, which includes most old-world monkeys, and its closest relatives are Pig-tailed and Toque Macaques.

A Lion-tailed Macaque.

As I stare into the trees at Kudremukh, a wizened face pops into view, staring back at me. With a bushy, greyish-brown mane – much like its namesake – and a humanoid hand parting the thick leaf cover, the monkey assesses me pertly. In the surrounding trees, the rustling and crackling of branches fills the air, adding a new dimension to the orchestra of birdsong, as a troop of LTMs bounds and leaps between trees, suddenly active and alert. A Hanuman Langur resting in a nearby tree hoots irritably as the larger macaques leap around it. All at once, the LTM watching me releases the frond of leaves. The canopy closes, and I hear a crack as the macaque bounds off in pursuit of its disappearing troop. Within moments, the forest is eerily silent, with even the birds seemingly pausing to pay their respects to this endemic primate.

The irony of standing on a forest road and watching one of India’s most endangered mammals strikes me right then. The largest threat to Lion-tailed Macaques is the fragmentation of their pristine forest habitat, with large, contiguous habitats breaking up into smaller parcels due to human causes. Across the Western Ghats, land use and land cover change have transformed the wet evergreen forests and other primary tracts of forest that provide the dense canopy cover, connectivity, and food resources that LTMs require.

LTMs prefer to remain in the dense canopy of wet evergreen forests in the Western Ghats.

The rise of commercial plantations of cash crops like cardamom, tea, coffee, arecanut, coconut, teak, and cashew has cleaved most primary forests into smaller fragments, with tenuous connectivity through a human-altered matrix. While studies from Kerala have found LTMs in cardamom and tea plantations when the surrounding forest is wet evergreen, this primate mostly avoids human landscapes, thus impeded by the continuous upheaval of its habitat. When fragmentation occurs, only a few troops at most can occupy a single habitat patch. If male migration across the matrix is inhibited, interbreeding and subsequent loss of genetic diversity may occur, placing the species at risk of a bottleneck effect (much as seen in the Asiatic Cheetah), should disease affect the population.

An arecanut plantation at the forest edge, one of the main threats to the habitat of the Lion-tailed Macaque.

In Kudremukh, intensive mining by KIOCL for many decades was the primary disturbance to macaques, given the changes it wreaked on the landscape of the national park, the human population required to maintain and work the mines, and the constant vehicular activity involved in transporting materials in and out of the park. When KIOCL was banned from carrying out mining in Kudremukh from 2006 – due to protests by environmental activists, conservation organisations, and the Green Tribunal – the forests were finally given a chance to heal, and the Lion-tailed Macaque reclaimed much of its earlier range in the national park.

Two years after my first encounter with the LTM in Kudremukh, I chanced upon this charismatic macaque in the myristica swamp forests of Uttara Kannada District, Karnataka. A fieldwork stint led me to these relic swamp forests, with towering trees dating back to the Cretaceous period, intact floral communities still untouched by human hands, and barely-studied amphibians and reptiles. The dense canopy does not let light touch the forest floor in these swamps, and perhaps it is this feature that attracts the Lion-tailed Macaque to this unique habitat.

It is in the swamp forest that I learnt about the important role that the LTM plays in propagating the relic, swamp-adapted flora found here. The obligate swamp tree Myristica fatua var. magnifica depends on LTMs for seed dispersal. The macaque preferentially feeds upon the juicy, red aril that encases the seed, and discards the seed, allowing for germination. On occasion, LTMs have been noted removing the fruit from the swamp and traversing a distance before feeding on it, thus ensuring that the seed is dispersed far from the parent tree, helping regenerate this endangered tree species. However, in the case of other tree species, LTMs may act as a seed predator, thus inhibiting reproduction.

The singalika is found in three distinct sub-populations across the Western Ghats: one population is in the Anamalais and Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve south of the Palghat Gap, while the other two sub-populations are in Kudremukh National Park and the Sirsi-Honnavar stretch of forests between Sharavathi and Aghanashini Rivers. It is here that I, while completing fieldwork, occasionally bump into this canopy dweller. Nearly 32 troops comprised of 10-20 macaques can be found in these forests, and at times, the shrieking cries of brawling troops sends flocks of Yellow-footed Green Pigeons and Blue-winged Parakeets fluttering into the air, drawing the attention of avid wildlife researchers like myself.

A Lion-tailed Macaque in Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve.

Sighting the singalika is a rare event, one that never fails to tighten my heartstrings. And sometimes, when I lose myself in dark swamp forests, just knowing that this rare macaque has walked the same trails that I find myself taking is enough to reassure me that conservation is indeed my calling.