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Lion Tailed Macaque: Endangered Primates of India

The Lion Tailed macaque is a fantastic and unique primate. Its environment is difficult and contributing to its demise.

The lion tailed macaque, also called the Wanderoo (Berger, 1985) is one of 15 species of macaques, characterized by the gray fur surrounding their all black face and long black tails with a tuft of hair, resembling a lion’s tail, on the end. Lion tailed macaques are the smallest and the most arboreal of all macaques (Sleeper, 1997). Once they ranged over nearly all of India but now they are found exclusively in the southwest region in an area known as the Western Ghats Mountains. Their primary habitat is in the densely forested valleys between the mountains and near the shores. The area is highly fragmented due to land use since colonial times in the 1800’s. The lion tailed macaque has adapted and continue to live in this environment (Cowlishaw / Dunbar, 2000). The male lion tailed grows to around two feet tall and weighs from 15 to 30 lbs. (Docents, 2000). Females are slightly smaller with the same gray mane framing their face and long tufted tail.

Wild lion tailed macaques are omnivorous and dine mostly on fruit, leaves, insects, small birds and small mammals. They forage mainly at the top canopy of the forest and spend 90 % to 99 % of their time in the trees (Docents, 2000); they do however search every level of the forest. Due to their almost exclusive habitation of the trees, they are one of only two species of forty-two total cercopithecines who reportedly do not participate in crop raiding (Cowlishaw / Dunbar, 2000). When on rare occasion they are on the ground they eat reeds, grasses and fungi by picking it off of dead wood. They look for insects under bark and inside dead branches by breaking them open. They have also been observed eating lizards, tree frogs, snails and baby squirrels (Richard, 1985). Lion tails are not known for tool use, but they have been observed to throw leaves over stinging caterpillars before picking them up with their hands (Docents 2000). Males have large canines and can open the tough skins of durian fruits. Females are without this advantage.

Lion tailed macaques rarely come down out of the trees and always observe the surroundings carefully before descending. They keep close watch while eating and jump back in the trees at the slightest sign of danger. The lion tail macaque has cheek pouches they can stuff with almost as much food as they can hold in their stomach. This comes in useful when foraging in dangerous or vulnerable places. When the macaques retreat to a safer place, they pick through and eat their food at their leisure. In some cases they have been observed eating only half of a nut or fruit. Such is the case with the chestnut-like South Indian durian nut that relies on the lion tail macaque for dissemination (Jolly, 1985). They lick dew off the leaves for moisture and although rarely found out of the trees, they are excellent swimmers.

A lion tail macaque starts his day by feeding at the food source closest to the sleeping tree and feeds continuously until dusk traveling a route that covers the major fruit trees of the area within a home range of approximately 20 kilometers (Docents 2000). At night they huddle in a sleeping cluster high in the canopy.

There is no specific breeding season for the lion tailed macaque although births usually peak during the rainy season when food is plentiful. Females reach sexual maturity at five years of age and males at eight years. The males are termed multiple mounters; sometimes as many as ten mounts will precede an ejaculation (Jolly, 1985). Gestation takes about five and a half months (Smithsonian NZP, 2003). Babies have a soft black coat that changes to match the adults in two months. The average life span is 15 to 20 years in the wild (Smithsonian NZP, 2003). Lion tail macaques troops are relatively small compared to those of other macaque species. They live in single male multi-female social groups of 10 to 20 individuals with one or two sub-adult males. Females stay with their natal groups and males leave to join all males bachelor groups.

Lion tails are the only macaques with a loud vocalization to define their territory. This keeps the macaque troops from running into one another in the dense forest. Encounters are more frequent and violent when females are ovulating. When fights occur it has been noted that the aggressor initiates 60 % of reconciliation’s, 40 % by the victim (Docents, 2000). A rarity among primates, both males and females make mating vocalizations. There has been recorded no less than 17 distinct social vocalizations including a specific call for airborne predators (Docents, 2000). No such vocalization has been identified concerning terrestrial predators.

Lion tailed macaques are highly endangered with loss of habitat the number one reason for their disappearance. The expansion of agriculture like coffee and tea plantations, hydroelectric power, timber harvesting and road building is rapidly destroying the already small range of the lion tailed macaque (Animal fact sheet, 2003). They are reluctant to travel across the open spaces of roads, dams, and plantations due to the threat of predators and lack of protection from the trees. This has forced these primates to live in small isolated pockets of forest; as a result inbreeding has created weaker populations with ever decreasing numbers. Some of the fragmented forests that the lion tail macaque lives in are considered sacred groves, called sholas, by indigenous peoples. These sholas are each guarded by different gods so the people protect these areas from disturbance (Animal fact sheet, 2003). This has helped in a small fashion to preserve the species. Although once abundant through out India’s mature evergreen forests it is estimated that today there are less than 2000 lion tailed macaques left in the wild (Docents, 2000).

Over the years lion tailed macaques have been hunted for meat, captured for the pet trade and zoos, and prized for traditional Chinese medicinal purposes. In 1970 during the inception of the endangered species act, lion tailed macaques were among the first to be recognized as being critically endangered. In 1981 the Prime Minister of India drew international attention to the plight of the lion tail macaque during the planning phase of a hydroelectric power plant that would have flooded an area known as the Silent Valley, one of the largest remaining habitats of the lion tail macaque (Docents 2000). However little else has been done since to help conserve the lion tailed macaque.

Lion tail macaques breed well in captivity and the Species Survival Planning committee has succeeded in populating the zoos of the world with them (Docents 2000). There is now an excess of males in captivity, which has lead to some zoos creating all male bachelor groups such as the one at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Even with the reported surplus and the lion tail macaques predilection for successful captive breeding, there are no plans for any re-introduction to the wild, although at least one unofficial attempt at re-populating has been made (Cowlishaw / Dunbar, 2000).

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