Thursday, July 3, 2008

Vanishing Species - Lion-tailed Macaque

An Article by Mohan Pai
Lion-tailed Macaque
Macaca silenus
On the brink!

The rarest and the most threatened Primate.

This is an endemic and one of the most endangered primates in India which came to lime-light when the controversy over the Silent Valley hydro-electric project in Kerala was raging. Its range in the Western Ghats is limited to Kudremukh, Nilgiris, Anaimalai, Silent Valley, Cardamom hills and Periyar sanctuary. The population of this primate in a recent study (1998) has been estimated as around 1000-2000 numbers in Karnataka, 2,000 individuals in Kerala and a smaller population in Tamil Nadu. The total population is estimated to be about 4,000. It is a delightful little creature with black hair, a well-developed grey mane, a tail like that of a lion with tufts of hair at the end that gives it the name.
It has a baboon like appearance and inhabits dense, tropical evergreen forests spending much of its time feeding in the upper canopy. The large cheek pouches serve as food containers until the food can be chewed at leisure. It has a varied diet of fruits, seeds, buds, nectar, gum and resin, mushrooms, lichen, insects, snails, lizards, small mammals and birds. The diverse diet means that lion-tails have a different kind of stomach from other macaques; it can digest sugar and carbohydrates but not leaves. This adaptation explains why the species survive only in tropical forests, where its mixed diet is readily available. Lion-tails live in troops of 15-35 individuals covering a range of 1.5 - 5 kms.
A troop consists of 5-10 adult females and their offspring of various ages, ruled over by a single adult male who will mate with any receptive female. Females give birth once every three years, a much lower rate than other macaques, and will probably produce four young in a lifetime.

Physical Characteristics

The fur of the Lion-tailed Macaque is dark-brown or black. Its outstanding characteristic is the silver-white mane which surrounds the head from the cheeks down to its chin, which gives this monkey its German name of "Beard Ape". The hairless face is black colored. With a head-to-tail length of 45 to 60 cm and a weight of 3 to 10 kg it ranks among the smaller macaques. The tail is medium length with a length of approximately 25 cm and is a black tuft at the end, similar to a lion's tail. The males tail-tuft is more developed than that of the females.Gestation is approximately six months. The young are nursed for one year. Sexual maturity is reached at four years for females, six years for males. The life expectancy in the wild is approximately 20 years, while in captivity up to 30 years.


The Lion-tailed Macaque is a diurnal rain forest dweller. It is a good climber and spends a majority of its life in the upper canopy of tropical moist evergreen forests. Unlike other macaques, it avoids humans. In group behavior, it is much like other macaques: it lives in hierarchical groups of usually ten to twenty animals, which consist of few males and many females. It is a territorial animal, defending its area first with loud cries towards the invading troops. If this proves fruitless, it brawls aggressively.Lion-tailed macaque behaviour is characterized by typical patterns such as arboreal living, selectively feeding on a large variety of fruit trees, large inter-individual spaces while foraging, and time budgets with high proportion of time devoted to exploration and feeding The Lion-tailed Macaque primarily eat indigenous fruits, leaves, buds, insects and small vertebrates in virgin forest but can adapt to rapid environmental change in areas of massive selective logging through behavioural modifications and broadening of food choices to include fruits, seeds, shoots, pith, flower, cone, mesocarp, and other parts of many non-indigenous and pioneer plants


According to the IUCN, only approximately 2,500 of these animals live scattered over several areas in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The Lion-tailed Macaque ranks among the rarest and most threatened primates. Their range has become increasingly isolated and fragmented by the spread of agriculture and tea, coffee, teak and cinchona, construction of water reservoirs for irrigation and power generation, and human settlements to support such activities. They don't live, feed or travel through plantations. Destruction of their habitat and the fact that they avoid human proximity, has led to the drastic decrease of their population.During 1977 to 1980, public concern about the endangered lion-tailed macaque became the focal point of Save Silent Valley, India's fiercest environmental debate of the decade. During 1993 to 1996, fourteen troops of lion-tailed macaque were observed in Silent Valley National Park, Kerala, one of the most undisturbed viable habitats left for the lion-tailed macaque. A self-sustainable single population of 32 groups of lion-tailed macaques occurred in Sirsi-Honnavara, Karnataka, the northernmost population of the species. A local census concluded in 2007, conducted in the Theni District of Tamil Nadu, put their numbers at around 250, which was considered encouraging, because till then, there had not been any records of Lion-tailed Macaques in that specific area. Many zoos take part in breeding programs which help to secure the survival of this species. Over 500 of these Macaque are reported to live in zoos.

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