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Sunday, October 9, 2011

9. Monkeys

Over their evolutionary journey primates of all animals developed comparatively the most developed brain. However, they possess inherent and persistent inquisitiveness and anxiety about their environs that runs counter to their intelligence.  This trait is so acute that they tend to touch and feel whatever they come across. At times, this intuitive behaviour can be a fatal trap. In his writings R. L. Spittel describes how monkeys reach out to leopards that pretend to be lifeless, making them easy prey. Uncanny leopards make use of the irrational habit of monkeys to probe everything around, even their deadliest enemy.

Once I witnessed an incident which bears testimony to above. I was visiting the main office of Yala (Ruhuna) National Park and staying at the Palatupana circuit bungalow for a couple of days. One evening while I was sitting on the parapet wall in the front veranda it suddenly started to rain heavily.
There is a garage just in front of the bungalow and a Grey Langur was sitting on the bonnet of the jeep parked there with its limbs placed on the support bracket of the side mirror. A while later, a young cow loitering around also got into the garage to escape from the rain and stood near the jeep. This visitor within reaching distance immediately drew the attention of the monkey. The next moment it appeared that the monkey which was watching the cow anxiously wanted to touch her face.
Though the monkey extended its arm to touch the cow it had no courage to actually touch her and pulled the arm back. This repeated several times with the monkey looking at the cow for any reaction. But the cow did not pay any attention and she was looking out at the rain. The monkey finally took courage to touch the cow’s face.
Though the cow did not care much at the beginning she did not like the continuing strange sensation and butted its head while looking piercingly at the monkey. She must have thought that further tolerance of the monkey’s unexpected love might lead to complications. The monkey was expecting a reaction from the cow any moment and as soon as this happened it leapt on to the top of the jeep and bolted. Though this was such a casual incident it clearly depicted the inquisitive anxiety inherent in monkeys.

As well as the individual behaviour patterns the social behaviour of monkeys too is quite interesting. Comprehensive research studies on the ecology of most of the primate species in Sri Lanka, namely the Grey Langur, Purple faced Leaf Monkey and Toque Macaque, have been carried out at Horton Plains and at Polonnaruwa. The study at Polonnaruwa has been on-going for the last thirty years.

A troop of monkeys spends the night on top of a tall tree hugging each other to keep warm and start the day early. Firstly, the dominant male of the troop calls out aloud. Purpose of this call is to let the other troops know its location and the direction. Position of the other troops will be determined according to the reply calls come from them. Other troops are not allowed to enter the territory of a troop dominated by a grown adult male.

A dominant male along with a few females and sub-adults and a few juveniles form a mixed troop. Conceiving the females in the troop is the sole right of the dominant male, as no other sexually matured male is allowed to remain in the troop. The dominant male makes sure that the growing male sub-adults beyond a certain age are expelled from the group. This prevents a possible threat to the leadership of the troop as well as inbreeding amongst closely related animals that would result in genetically weak progeny.
Young males thus expelled form their own small male only troops and move about together. The sole objective of the members of these male troops is to grow strong and try and oust a dominant male from a mixed troop. Only by such domination can a male monkey ensure that its genes are propelled forward.

The dominant male of a troop has to wage a constant struggle with the contenders to its role. Sometimes, such struggles taking place on the periphery of the territory end up with the defeat and retreat of the dominant male. It is very rarely that anyone gets severely wounded or indeed perished in these fights. Mostly, only threatening behaviour such as groaning and grinning is used to chase away the looser. It has been estimated that the average reigning period of a dominant male is only twenty one months.
A new leader assumes duty no sooner the former is banished. But copulation is allowed only with the females who are not bearing infants. The females who suckle the infants fathered by the previous leader and who do not allow mating would be subjected to the wrath of the new leader. His next objective would be to persuade the females to agree to mate by killing off the infants.
Once I met a young university student from south India named Agoramurthy who had studied the ecology of Grey Langer. He referred to ‘infanticide’ by troop leaders and explained that in a research study in South India it was observed that a female monkey carried the dry carcass of her infant killed by the troop leader for weeks.

A mother loves her infant much and keeps constant vigil over it. On sensing the slightest threat she immediately hugs it for protection. Infants create the bond and affection among the members of a troop. When the mother is foraging she hands over the infant to another female for care. The slightest moan from it draws the attention of the mother. In the case of a threat from a new leader all the females in the troop will come to the protection of the infant. But this particular trait has not been observed among the Toque Macaque or ‘Rilawa’.

As an infant becomes a sub-adult the dependency on the mother too is gradually reduced. As the role of a female is to have the maximum number of progeny within the short fertile period it prevents a sub-adult suckling beyond a point and tends to become pregnant again. The sub adults let go such become restless and start quarrelling with each other disturbing the harmony within the troop. If the sub-adult is a male he will have to leave the troop at this point.

The closest relation of the monkey is Loris or ‘Unahapuluwa’. An exceptionally large pair of eyes, the absence of a tail and the slender limbs will distinguish Loris from other species of primates. This innocent looking shy and nocturnal creature spends the day time hiding among the foliage and can rarely be seen in the forest. Mostly, only the sharp squeaky call can be heard at night.  Moving slowly among the foliage Loris feeds on fruit and insects. Birds, lizards, geckos, skinks, and tree frogs too may become prey to it. It slides in utter silence slowly and snatches the prey in a flash, with both hands. Then the prey is killed biting the head with its sharp teeth and eaten leaving no part.

‘Banda’ was a tamed Macaque loved by everybody and kept tethered to a pipe fixed between two cashew trees behind my quarters. Its routine was eating when hungry what was offered by someone and left in a coconut shell and plainly watching around. Its world was lonely and so constrained to within the length of the chain fixed to a belt around its waist. There was nothing Banda could do other than listening to something said by anyone passing by out of sympathy for its loneliness. Banda’s closest friend was Gunasekara, the Driver, who allowed it to touch and feel him freely. Once in a way, he got his head too checked by Banda. Though Banda engaged in the task so keenly and carefully there was nothing much to do as his head was bald in the centre.
Monotony of Banda’s life slightly changes when visitors to the park surround him. He reacts to their fondling and accepts any food offered to him happily. Then he retreats to the familiar fork of the tree. Habit of the Macaques is to fill the pouches of their cheeks with food as fast as they can get hold of and retreat to a shelter where it can be eaten leisurely.
Women in short frocks aroused the interests of Banda who would quickly get close to their feet. Understanding this inquisitiveness women with such a dress sense were cautioned against getting too near it.
The aggressiveness hidden within innocent Banda is aroused when he escapes from the chain. He raids the kitchens in the living quarters at Okanda and topples the containers containing everything such as sugar, tea, milk powder and flour, strewing the contents all over. After such a raid Banda looks like a dancer with heavy make-up.  Whole Okanda becomes a battlefield as everybody runs after Banda to get hold of him. Sometimes, it takes a couple of days to catch him and tether him back to the tree. No sooner he is confined to the tree Banda becomes calm and quiet again.   
The end of Banda’s story was a tragedy. Escaping the clutches of the chain once he bit and severely wounded the small child in a group of visitors staying in Okanda circuit bungalow. All efforts to catch Banda failed and it had to be shot.

Notwithstanding how long a wild animal lives in association with man the tameness developed is rather superficial. It only covers the inherited brutish or wild characteristics temporarily. Living while suppressing the inherited characteristics imposes a severe stress on wild animals and they would quickly jump at shedding their assumed personality no sooner they get the first opportunity.

Taming of wild animals and putting them under the subjugation of man is a great injustice done to them.

“The monkey looked beyond what was real
And imagined possibilities he could not imagine
He thought himself omnipotent
Because, for a moment, he Was
The fire burning inside him
Propelled his curiosity to unhealthy proportions
Then he stopped and thought
Or didn't think
Suddenly he came to his senses
And his senses came to him
For he was a Monkey
Unchanged by evolution or legacy
A product of his own environment

                                              - Winchester Weazill


  1. "Taming of wild animals and putting them under the subjugation of man is a great injustice done to them."
    Zoos must be banned !!

    1. Lanka, it is ok if we use the zoos as research and education centres, which would contribute for the conservation of wild animals. But most of them are used only to make money.