de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004). Power Playing and Monkeying Around. LMD. November 2004. Page 202. Volume 11, Issue 04, ISSN 1391-135X.
The fascinating history and lives of the Toque Macaque primate societies of Polonnaruwa.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne learns about the primate societies of Polonnaruwa
We threaded our way along a game trail through the dry scrub forest, leading away from the Shiva Devale No 2 in Polonnaruwa. Leading the way was Sunil Gunathilake, deputy to Dr Wolfgang Dittus who has studied Toque Monkeys in Polonnaruwa for 34 years in one of the longest running field biology studies anywhere in the world. Also with me was James Fair, a staff writer for BBC Wildlife Magazine. He was on a two week tour of Sri Lanka to prepare an eighteen page wildlife travel supplement on Sri Lanka , which will be a strong catalyst in positioning Sri Lanka as a leading wildlife travel destination. The study by Dr Dittus is a one of the most significant studies in the world on the social dynamics and behaviour of primate communities. It has featured in wildlife documentaries and articles but yet remained an eco-tourism trump card which is yet to be used to its full potential with important foreign journalists. The decision to give James an extra nights accommodation at the Teak Forest in Sigiriya, had allowed us to fit in the monkey research to be followed with a visit to Kandy the next day for the Day Perahera of the “Water Cutting Ceremony”. To make it even better we had the good fortune to run into Sunil in Polonnaruwa, after I had failed to reach him on the phone.
Having worked for Dr Dittus for over a decade, Sunil knew each of the troops of the monkeys as if they were old friends. Like Dr Dolittle he also seemed able to talk to them. Reaching an irrigation channel, he scanned the shady interior of the trees for resting monkeys. Seeing none he began calling to them. “darf darf darf ….” He called out. This was the range of the Channel 1 troop which had a territory adjoined by the troops D3 and 22N. All of these troops were Toque Monkey troops. The Toque Monkey or Toque Macaque is a primate endemic to Sri Lanka . Unusually for a small island, some of the mammals with a wide distribution within it have distinct races or sub species. This is because a combination of the topography with a mountainous core and the prevalence of two diagonally blowing monsoons have created distinct climatic zones. The type of climatic variation one would expect a cross a continent is found in Sri Lanka across a relatively small sized island of around 60,000 square kilometers. The Toque Monkey found in Sri Lanka had developed into three sub species or races. The montane race ophistomelas has a distinctly shaggier coat and long hairs on the crown, reaching out from its forehead. The race aurifrons in the wet zone is redder in colour and is known as the Dusky Toque Monkey. The race found in Polonnaruwa and throughout the lowland dry zone was the nominate race sinica .
Over the years, the population in Toque Monkeys have increased dramatically in the Polonnaruwa Sanctuary explained Sunil. When they first began their research, even on Poya days the pilgrim traffic was moderately small. Now, with pilgrimage to important Buddhist visits, undergoing a renaissance, the Polonnaruwa Sanctuary was flooded with visitors. Visitors bring with them food which they leave behind and the monkeys scavenge on. Despite signs asking them not to do so, many visitors deliberately feed the monkeys altering their natural dependency on the environment. The result is within a relatively small area of less than a few square kilometers, there was now around one and a half thousand toque monkeys, an artificially high population.
The noon day sun climbed even higher and beads of sweat trickled down our necks. Our throats were parched with thirst. We wondered where the one thousand and five hundred toque monkeys were. Sunil suggested we returned to the Shiva Devale No 2 and waited for one of the troops to come to it, as the day began to cool. This seemed an excellent idea and we headed off for a well deserved lunch. Returning, Sunil spotted a troop of Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys, resting in the shade of a Damba Tree. This was a real bonus as the Purple-faced Leaf monkey is yet another endemic primate to Sri Lanka . Is has evolved fours sub species or races in Sri Lanka and the race philbricki found here is also known as the Northern Purple-faced leaf Monkey. It is the only race which regularly co-exists with the Hanuman Langur or Grey Langur. All three of the monkeys can be see in Polonnaruwa, at times from the same vantage point. On a night safari, mammal watchers may also encounter the Grey Loris, making Polonnaruwa a prime destination not just for culture buffs but primate watchers as well.
I settled down at a distance from the Leaf Monkey troop hoping to win their confidence and to have an opportunity to photograph them. Sunil, James and Chinthaka de Silva went away on another foray to locate a family of Toque Monkeys. At that time, we did not realize that as it neared dusk, the sanctuary would appear to be overrun by Toque Monkeys who would come out of their daytime shelters from the heat of the sun.
As the day cooled, the Leaf Monkey’s ventured out. Sunil returned with James and Chinthaka and called me over to watch a troop of Toques which were grooming each other. With them was Oshadi, a grandmother with a red face. With the exception of a single male, all of the monkeys with a red face in Polonnaruwa are females. Weeks later, I met Nilantha Kodituwakku who gave me more background on Oshadi’s troop. It had matrilineal lines with the families of Nazira, Oasis, Osda (Oshadi’s daughter), Shivani, Osa and Nishadi. The troop size varies with resources. IH4 had seven whereas D1 had 68 members and held territory in the food rich area near the archaeological department’s office. The troops dynamics revolve around the females, although the battle for supremacy between the males may hog the media lines. During the time Nilantha had worked on the Toque Monkey research project, the dominant males had been Malli, Noc and Garadi. Noc had held sway as Alpha male for about six months but another sub adult male had formed an alliance with Garadi and toppled him. Garadi was ill tempered and gave vent to his frustration on subordinates and even researchers! In a changing kaleidoscope of male dominance hierarchies, the matrilineal lines, subject to caste rankings, provide a stable social framework for the females and juveniles.
Primates are fascinating. Understanding their social life is both intriguing and disquieting. Some of the less desirable activities of the social primates offer a disturbing window into the human soul.
The writer is the CEO of a wildlife & luxury travel company who has written and photographed several publications on wildlife. With weekly appearances in the media, he is one of the most visible wildlife & tourism personalities. To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.