Elusive macaques show drastic behavioural changes when exposed to garbage

The study has also found that the major threats faced by lion-tailed macaques (LTM) in Valparai are collision with vehicles and electrocution, especially in the town area.
Lion-tailed macaque
Lion-tailed macaque

COIMBATORE: Undertaking a four-year-long study in the lush rainforests of the Western Ghats at Puthuthottam near Valparai in Anamalai Tiger Reserve (ATR), an independent researcher has discovered that groups of endangered lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus) have been increasingly frequenting human habitations after adapting to an unconventional food source-garbage.

The study has also found that the major threats faced by lion-tailed macaques (LTM) in Valparai are collision with vehicles and electrocution, especially in the town area. Though the animal species is traditionally characterised as an elusive habitat specialist, researcher Dr Ashni Dhawale, who observed the ecological changes and behavioural adaptations of one such lion-tailed macaque population numbering close to 200 individuals, found that the group increasingly became habituated to human presence in areas beyond their rainforest homes.

Dr Dhawale meticulously tracked the movement patterns of LTM using GPS mapping and habitat utilisation of these macaques, unveiling their newfound penchant for human-associated areas, including Valparai town and settlements within the Puthuthottam forest fragment. UK-based Rufford Foundation helped with her doctoral thesis, which aimed to shed light on the key drivers of change within this population, potentially influencing their long-term survival in an ever-changing landscape.

"These primates began spending less time foraging and more time engaging in various activities, including resting and social interactions. While this adaptation offered a source of sustenance, it posed significant challenges, including the need to navigate man-made structures, such as roads and buildings, which increased mortality risk. Insulation of overhead power cables and stringent eco-tourism practices are the need of the hour to protect their population. Four LTMs were electrocuted and just as many were found as roadkill at Puthuthottam in the past few months," said Dr Dhawale.

Through awareness campaigns and informed management strategies, including responsible practices by tourists and a complete cessation of food offerings made to the macaques, there is hope that these resilient lion-tailed macaques can continue to thrive in their rapidly changing world, she said

While the population is seemingly increasing, Dr Dhawale's study has revealed that population dynamics such as growth and birth rates have declined significantly over the last decade. Therefore, while the absolute number is 200 individuals split into five groups, the growth rate suggests that the population is highly vulnerable, especially under current circumstances. The researcher has recommended the officials of ATR prepare a proposal to conduct long-term monitoring of LTMs and the Valparai municipality officials to take steps to prevent the open dumping of garbage as it was easily accessible along the road.

K Bhargava Teja, deputy director of ATR, said they have appointed three watchers exclusively to prevent the death of LTMs in road accidents. "When the LTMs come to cross the road in Puthuthottam, our staff will ask the motorists to slow down and then they will divert the animals inside the forest. Currently, we have also set up bridges that connect canopies on either side of the Valparai forest highway. We are in discussion to set up more bridges by identifying their frequent movement areas," said the official.

Speaking about the discarding of garbage in the open, Bhargava Teja said he has requested the Valparai municipality officials to prevent open dumping, during a recent meeting that was convened to discuss mitigation of man-animal conflict.

Valparai Municipal Chairman Alagu Sundaravalli, when contacted, said they have been frequently clearing the waste by engaging sanitary workers. "We will take more measures to address the issue," she added.

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