THE PRIMATES OF SRI LANKA

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). The Primates of Sri Lanka. Serendib, the in-flight magazine of Sri Lankan. January-February 2006. Page 92-95.
Write up on the primates and their behavioural patterns.

The Primates of Sri Lanka

Who who who the call boomed across the Talangama wetland. The call of an alpha male Purple-faced Leaf monkey can be intimidating. So close to a capital city it can however be quite poignant, a reminder of a vanishing wilderness. The wetland was awakening. A mist hung over the main lake as the sun peeped over the trees bordering the lake. Across the embankment, paddy fields stretched to the horizon, along a thin ribbon on the bed of a shallow valley. Except for the palatial houses which had sprung up around the lake, it could have been a scene from the 12th century when King Parakramabahu is believed to have constructed the lake.

That morning, the booming call was music to my ears. I had set out to photograph the critically endangered ‘western’ race of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey. This is one of no less than four races of this Leaf Monkey in Sri Lanka. The multiplicity of races or sub-species on one small island demonstrates how islands are such wonderful laboratories for the forces of speciation to weave their magic. Sri Lanka’s topography, with a mountainous core and two diagonally blowing monsoons, has created a diversity of climates and habitats which is more akin to that of a subcontinent. A wet-zone (and very wet too) in the south-west ascends into highlands where temperatures can drop to zero overnight. The highlands are surrounded elsewhere by dry lowlands, with arid zones in the south-east and north-east.

The leaf monkey I was after is a scarce sub-species bordered to its south by the Kalu Ganga (River), the hill country to its west and the dry lowlands to the north. Although sub-species intergrade into the next sub-species along what biologists call contact zones, populations which are far away from each other can remain distinct enough to be separable in the field. To me it was wondrous enough that so close to a busy Asian metropolis like Colombo one could find a primate. Not just a primate, but one which is endemic. That is to say one which is found only in Sri Lanka. But then, the Talangama wetland is full of surprises. At night, a host of mammals come out of hiding. Porcupines, Fishing Cats, Ring-tailed Civets, Common Palm Civets, Brown Mongoose, Black-naped Hare and another endemic Mammal, the Mouse-deer. During the day, there is scarcely a sign of these mammals. The day belongs to the birds, where over a hundred have been recorded, and the gaily coloured butterflies and dragonflies.

The Leaf Monkeys are also active by day and they seem to disperse in two or three small troops. The social dynamics of this animal with its male dominated society would be the subject of a fascinating study. But time is running out as more and more people move in and the trees are cut down. With the trees gone, the Leaf Monkeys lose their sources of food and the aerial walkways they need to commute safely away from the jaws of stray dogs.

Another Leaf Monkey hollered from closer to where I was. But they were behind a wooded ridge. I located the first call atop a tall Ruk Aththana tree. They were out of photographic range. I drove around, switching the engine off at intervals and listening. A farmer came along the road driving some cattle. He looked at me half puzzled, half suspicious. “Monkeys” I said. “Ahh’ he replied. “You should go to Renuka Akka’s garden”. I parked and walked up a little dirt road which wound its way out of sight of the lake and through an old coconut plantation. A small house was at the end and two dogs greeted me with a deafening cacophony. Renuka Akka (akka means elder sister) came out to investigate what was disturbing the peace. Suddenly I felt a bit lame, a bit comical, standing outside this woman’s house, at the crack of dawn, burdened under a tripod and huge lens.

Renuka Akka blinked hard when I explained I was after the monkeys. Did she know where they would be? A loud crash behind me added to my discomfiture. A Leaf Monkey had just hurled itself from coconut tree to the other. Alerted by the dogs, they had hidden from me and now they were making their get away. Renuka Akka had got used to seeing all kinds of strange people from the city coming to Colombo. There were those strange people who would run across their paddy fields, shouting and yelling. The villagers knew when they would come because a few runners would come before hand and leave a trail of paper. None of the villagers could fathom these city people. They would complain about any litter they saw. They said they loved the peace and tranquility… and yet there was this bunch strewing paper, charging through their paddy fields and vegetable plots… . It was the stress in the city her grandson had said. He had said the strange people were called Hash House Harriers.

Now there was me asking about the monkeys. Renuka Akka was busy, she had to help the grand children get ready to go to school. So she said I could walk in the plantation grounds and have the monkeys to myself. I walked away, sure that she was peeping from behind a curtain and watching me. Anyway, the Leaf monkeys had bounded across to another area. It was time to go to my office in Central Colombo, just over half an hour’s drive away.

A few weeks later found me in Sigiriya. A paradise for primates. The fifty century AD rock fortress of King Kasyappa is one of the most remarkable archeological sites in Sri Lanka. Kasyappa attempted to create a heavenly paradise on earth. What he achieved is astounding even to this day. The rock is surrounded by a deep moat which encloses a series of gardens before one ascends the rock to find the ruins of a palace on the top. The architecture is one of the earliest examples of ‘organic architecture’. In this school of thought, the buildings are erected in a way which is sympathetic to the underlying land form without any destructive removal.

Around the archaeological site is a thick, dry zone woodland. Two of the key things primates need, forest cover and water (from the moat and ponds) was available in plenty. What’s more under the watchful eye of the new guardians of the palace, the security personnel of the Central Cultural Fund, monkeys were not molested. Not surprisingly Sigiriya is one of the best places for watching primates. It has four of the five species of primates on the island, The Hanuman Langur, the endemic Toque Monkey and endemic Leaf Monkey (the northern race) and at night, the Grey Loris.

I heard pedal cycles approaching along the road. The cyclists wobbled dangerously as they craned their heads backwards to see what I was doing. The locals are used to seeing many tourists around Sigiriya. But they don’t often see people crawling along their belly, on a cow pat strewn grass verge towards a troop of Toque Monkeys. The Toque Monkeys, is a mammals found only in Sri Lanka, with three races spread across the island. Sigiriya is home to several troops of the dry lowland race. One of the troops were crossing the road which skirted the moat. They had entered from an area of forest which bordered the road. A forest which holds Elephants and Leopards. In the early evening, they were more worried about attention for a rival troop, whose territory they were infringing on.

As they crossed, the low sun backlit them beautifully. One stood up on its hind legs (bi-pedally in zoological parlance) and scanned the area ahead. A few scouts pushed ahead. Suddenly, there was a blood-curdling shriek. The entire troop ran forward to bolster the front line. Abandoning caution to the winds, some of the ran right past me, a blur of brown bodies scampering to form a line of aggression against a rival troop. By the sheer force of numbers, the intruders dominated. The territory holders were in no mood for a fight and retreated further into the core of their territory. Many of the Toques carried battlet��ars. Most were probably received in battles within their own troop to climb further up the social hierarchy. Sometimes a group of bachelors may form an alliance to topple an alpha male. The new alpha may in turn come under siege from another aspirant or another coalition. The primate origins of boardroom battles are only too evident.

As the sun sank, it was time to join my colleagues from Eco Holidays who were patiently waiting with Dr Anna Nekaris, a British based researcher who has carried out a number of field studies in Sri Lanka. After dark she was going to take us on another adventure. We will go in search of a nocturnal primate, the strange and cute Grey Loris.

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Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne (gehan@jetwing.lk) is a wildlife & tourism celebrity, who has authored and photographed several publications. He is the CEO of Eco Holidays (www.jetwingeco.com).
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Where to watch primates in Sri Lanka

Talangama Wetland
On the outskirts of Colombo, the Talangama Wetland is around 30 – 45 minutes drive from central Colombo where most of the tourist accommodation is based. Talangama is a reliable location to see the critically endangered, western race of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey. It is also good for a number of waterbirds, birds, dragonflies, etc and for observing a rural way of life.

Hakgala Botanical Gardens
The Hakgala Botanical Gardens are around 15 – 20 minutes drive from the highland town of Nuwara Eliya. The montane race of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey known as the Bear Monkey and the montane race of the Toque Monkey are best observed here. Both species are used to people. The Toques can be at times alarmingly casual with humans. The Bear Monkey is usually very shy and crashes away at the merest hint of people being present. In Hakgala they are tolerant of people.

Udawattakale, Kandy
The forbidden forest of the ancient Kandyan kings is on a hill behind the famous Temple of the Tooth Relic, which overlooks the Kandy Lake. The wet zone race of the Toque Monkey known as the Dusky Toque reigns supreme, in large quarrelsome troops. Don’t feed them as that in primate behaviour means you are a sub-ordinate.

Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa Archeological Reserves
The archaeological sites in the north central province are surprisingly rich in primates. The dry lowland race of the Toque Monkey, the northern race of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey and the Hanuman Langur are found in troops occurring together. The Leaf Monkeys are relatively shy (although very much less shy at these heavily visited sites) but the Hanuman Langurs and Toque Monkeys are quite bold. The Langurs being leaf eaters are not likely to show an interest in your sandwiches or other tasty morsels. The bold and omnivorous Toque Monkeys will steal your food, given the chance. The area is also very good for the nocturnal Grey Loris.

The Rainforests of Galle
Kottawa, Hiyare and Kanneliya are rainforests which can be reached from Galle. Kottawa and Hiyare are within a half hour’s drive and Kanneliya is at least one and a half hour’s drive. The southern race of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey occur in small, very shy troops in these lowland rainforests. The nocturnal and endemic Red Loris is also found in these forests, but is not easy to locate.