DRIVING THROUGH a forest early in the morning, you are likely to encounter what at first sight seems to be a group of hunched, old men in silver-grey shawls, sitting by the track, as if waiting for a bus, or, more hopefully, for some kind soul to bring them their hookahs.
But hunched old men don’t have long curving tails, gracefully arching over their backs, and are rarely so slim and lithe. When they turn their coal-black faces to look at you hopefully, stretching out their hands for a fistful of gram or peanuts, you feel bad if you don’t have anything to offer them. Unlike their thug-like compatriots, the rhesus macaques, they seem genteel and well-mannered. They are, of course, grey or Hanuman langurs, commonly found all over the country.
As for their manners, well, reserve your judgment. Ask folks who live in the hills or in rural areas what they think of langurs, and they’ll shake their heads exasperatedly: the langur is as bad as its hoodlum cousin, the rhesus, when it comes to crop and orchard raiding. But, yes, you can’t deny langurs have a certain grace: the lithe way in which they move, their lariat-like tails or the breathtaking leaps they take from branch to branch. And their canines are as wicked and curving as those of the macaques.
Like the rhesus, they have adapted to different habitats — deserts or semi-deserts, tropical forests, mountains and even alpine regions and cities like Jodhpur in Rajasthan — where they battle for territory (and the best fruit and vegetable markets) with gangs of rhesus. We, too, have joined issue with them: in cities like Delhi, langurs have been trained to frighten off gangs of rhesus. Their handlers will cycle down to a rhesus-infested location, with the rotweiller langur riding pillion, attached to a very long leash. As they approach, the rhesus guards will grunt warnings and the troop will turn around and flee, while the langur leaps off the bicycle, grimacing fiercely and chasing them. I’ve often suspected that both parties may be just role-playing because as soon as the langur has passed by, the macaques return.
In the forests, macaques and langurs quite happily share the same tree or waterhole. Here, langurs live in troops: some may have just one macho-male leader with a harem of ladies (and their babies), others may have multiple males in charge along with males and females of all ages, and then there may be bachelor groups. While on the move, the alpha male will lead the way, other males will move with the ladies and babalog, and a guard will bring up the rear to ensure no monkey gets left behind. But having several tough guys in a troop leads to more tension. A new, macho male that has successfully ousted the previous boss, will kill all the babies in the troop to ensure only his progeny (and genes) make it to the next generation, and that the ladies fall in love with him quickly. Which is really something you do not expect from monkeys living on a diet of mainly leaves, seeds and fruit.
Within the troop, a hierarchy prevails. Among the females, the youngest get the highest status as the older ones go down the ladder. High-ranking females get massaged and groomed — and give massages — more frequently than lower-ranking ones, though they do not discriminate over who they groom.
Langurs seem to divide their time between foraging high up in the trees and on the ground. On the ground they are vulnerable to attacks by leopards, tigers, crocodiles and other predators — and you can see they are well aware of the danger by the tentative manner they approach waterholes. Often a guard is stationed up in the trees to warn of danger. They have a wide variety of calls: barks, shrieks, screams, whoops et al.
Usually, one baby is born at a time, and it will stick by mom for its first few weeks. Aunts, sisters and other females may help a new mom by babysitting her infant.
While the common grey langur is doing well enough, two of its relatives are in trouble. The beautiful golden langur, with its spun gold fur, was officially “discovered” by EP Gee in 1953, and is a resident of a small area in western Assam and southern Bhutan. One estimate of its consolidated population is 4,500 to 5,000.
The other is the Nilgiri langur, found in the Nilgiri Mountains of the Western Ghats and in Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. While its fur is glossy black, it has a golden brown mane of hair on the top of its head. Habitat destruction — and poaching — is the main reason for its precarious status. Its body parts are believed to have magical medicinal and aphrodisiacal qualities, so, naturally, it keeps as far away from us as possible, high up in the canopy.