THE HANUMANS OF GIRITALE
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). The Hanumans of Giritale. Living. November – December 2009. Pages 24-25. Volume 5, Issue 2. ISSN 1800-0746.
Time with a troop of Hanuman Langurs at the Giritale Hotel.
Was it mock play or a charge? It may have been play. But I could not take a chance as a sub-adult bounded towards me as I lay flat along the ground. I was feeling very privileged to have been accepted by a troop of over twenty Hanuman Langurs. But I also felt very vulnerable, to any angry Hanuman Langur which could turn on me and sink its sharp canines into me. Being mauled by a Beta male was not in the plan.
In fact, wildlife photography was not on the list of things to do, on what was supposed to be a family holiday at the Hotel Giritale. The hotel sits atop a small hillock and has sweeping views across an expanse of dry lowland with small hills in the distance. The view is of a lake surrounded by scrub jungle. The road passing between the lake and the hotel is hidden beneath the canopy and one is left with a view that is reminiscent of an uninterrupted view of wilderness more typical of a game lodge set within an African game reserve. The veranda view from Hotel Giritale is probably the best in Sri Lanka. It is arguably the best in Asia. Thanks to mobile broadband connectivity I could enjoy the view, sip some freshly brewed coffee and also indulge my compulsion to stay connected.
As I looked across the lake, I knew that only a few kilometers away as the crow flies, The Gathering of Elephants was taking place. My daughters Maya and Amali had announced that we were not going for The Gathering this time. Maya complained that even when I am in a safari vehicle with them, I was not really there. I was pre-occupied with photographing the elephants in my continuing efforts to publicise The Gathering. This was going to be a cultural holiday with visits to Polonnaruwa with mum Nirma leading the way armed with a copy of the Rough Guide to Sri Lanka. As with elephants, the family unit did not stay long together. Nirma led a matriarchal unit with the two girls and I ended alone like a lone bull, fretting over which angle was best for a particular archaeological structure. I was there but not really there. Well at least we were having meals together. As we returned for lunch, Amali pointed another family seated under the trees in the grounds of the Hotel Giritale.
A large troop of Hanuman Langurs were seated under a grove of trees. There were at least ten adults including a few mature males. At least five or six females were with young. It looked like a gathering of a community of villagers. Whispering promises that I will be gone only for a few minutes, I slipped away, clutching my camera. I wriggled into position behind a Weera Tree and steadied the lens barrel against the trunk. The Hanuman Langurs are used to people at the hotel and did not seem perturbed by my presence. I took some family portraits. After a while as they were so relaxed, I decided to lie flat on the ground and to take some ground level images. I had done this before with the potentially aggressive Toque Monkeys, but at safe distance using a 600mm f4 lens.
The Hanuman Langurs are not so aggressive, but I had heard of habituated langurs in Sithulpahuwa who had attacked people. The langurs were thirty feet away when I lay flat. But soon, one by one they moved up closer to me and were soon less than ten feet away. I wished I had my wide angle lens for some dramatic close ups from a low angle. I settled for some low angle images with my 100-400mm lens I had fitted before slipping away from my family. The langurs could now reach me with a few bounds. I watched the alpha male very carefully. I was looking out for any signs of stress. Any threat yawns or grimacing which would show their teeth.
I had not chosen to get close to them. They had chosen to get close to me. They had covered the distance bridging us to feed on fallen Weera berries and were now uncomfortably close. Trouble soon came from a young male which gave me that mock charge. I stood up and shouted. It halted in its tracks and it moved sideways. None of the other langurs seemed concerned. An inquisitive baby ran up to me and jumped onto the tree I was using as cover. It was now two feet away. I was at risk from a concerned mother. I backed away. The langurs kept getting closer. Animals like people are unpredictable. Although they were approaching me, I did not want to be at risk of a sudden charge. I looked for signs of stress. One male, perhaps the same one that had charged me, scratched its feet and looked at me. I recognised the displacement activity and stood up just as it got up and walked towards me. It backed off, but first gave me what was either a mock charge or play.
I knew that if the troop got used to seeing me day in day out, they would accept me. But on a casual visit like this, I had to keep in mind that animals can be unpredictable. The ‘charger’ had kept me on edge. But it had been a treat to have the rest of the large troop accepting my presence and getting close to me with no fear, even with half a dozen young in attendance. Amali had been muttering threats that on the next family holiday I will not be allowed to bring a laptop. To avoid more sub-adult aggression, it was time for rejoin the family for lunch.