Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In praise of the Hanuman Langur

The face peered through mixed foliage of broad leafed canopy vegetation and an entangled knot of Entada creeper, two dark eyes staring at me…the intruder in this patch of forest. I took a step backward to ease the situation, but one calculated leap, a long hoot and his familiar form melted into the magnificent trees that were his abode, followed by a troupe of half a dozen females and a few infants hanging on to dear life as their mamas and aunts ….from tree to tree in search of food and safety.

This was a usual day in the life of the Hanuman Langur (Semnopithecus entellus sp.), known as the ‘Common’ Langur by most of us who have walked the wilds, while ‘Vanar’ would be the appropriate word for it in amongst fellow Goans.

Being one of the more charismatic of mammals that has been worshipped and revered by Hindu Religion for centuries together, thanks to its linkages to Lord Hanuman, the Hanuman Langur is occurs throughout India and is found in almost all habitats including forests and urban settlements, and its ability to adapt and survive in diverse conditions from sea level to around 14,000 ft in the Himalayas speaks volumes of the adaptability of this species.

This medium common grayish silver primate with a black face has a body length of approx 60-75 centimeters and is a diurnal creature of the tree canopy as well as the terrestrial stratum and males weigh around 18 kilograms while females are smaller and weigh up to 11.5 kilograms.

Being primarily leaf eaters, Hanuman Langurs have adapted to almost all habitats due to their competence in adjusting to all food sources ranging from berries, flowers, left over food scraps, tender shoots of plants, fruits and sometimes even caterpillars and rotten meats. Their three chambered sacculated stomachs help them digest the toughest of low calorie leaves that difficult to digest for other mammal species. They possess 32 set of teeth like us humans, a keen sense of smell and have color vision thus making them more adaptive to all environs. With frontward pointing eyes that provide a great vision and a tail that helps balance while leaping from one tree to another, these primates have evolved significant survival tricks that help them survive in almost any conditions.

With a natural life span of 20 years and a gestation period of almost 160-200 days, the Hanuman Langur is found in troops averaging of 10-60 individuals and is lead by an Alpha male and multi female, adolescent males and other females which are called aunts and help raise the young. The behavior of a new Male leader to systematically eliminate every single infant sired by the previous Alpha male is well known in literature as well as science and is true to the core as is the fact that a males time with a troop is short lived…many a times just up to two years…after which they lead solitary lives.

The Hanuman Langurs are distributed across India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma and Pakistan and are now being divided by scientists into different sub species thanks to detailed studies by primate experts on the same.

That the Hanuman Langur is now divided into the Himalayan grey Langur (Nepal and some of J and K), the Central Himalayan Langur (parts of Bhutan, China, Tibet and some parts of Eastern Himalayas), the Deccan Hanuman Langur (distributed in the north and northwest of the Deccan plateau), the Dark legged hanuman Langur (documented in the Kerala, some parts of Maharashtra and possibly Goa), is a scientific fact and needs to be looked upon with great importance. This is vital as we in Goa still do not know which sub species we have and would require detailed field observations, images and inputs from various foresters, nature lovers and wildlifers in the field.

But sadly, today this urban as well as forest dweller is coming with conflicts with humans all across Goa and there have been several cases where Langurs are shot with Air Rifles, poisoned or maimed due to their foraging habits for fruit and leaves in orchards as well as urban settlements. That the reverence and tolerance for this species is fast disappearing amongst the urban as well as rural village folk is disappearing is a hard fact and is indicative that this trend would continue to harm other species like civets, mongooses, snakes and other urban wildlife that has been a part of the Goan village landscape for ages.

Today with the rapid so called development of our state, species like the Hanuman Langur are being forced to beat a hasty retreat until one day they will no longer be able to hold ground and face local extinction in all their habitats across the state.

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