There was much excitement just as we emerged on an open track after a long, winding, walk through the jungle. Our gun-toting forest guard had walked past the track and into the jungle on the other side and found a little tribe of stump-tailed macaques. It was past our lunch-time, and our stomachs urged us back to base. As the others dithered a bit, I followed the forest guard into the trees. Soon enough I heard the rest of the troupers crashing into the jungle behind me. When I emerged into a little clearing, they were there: some of the last of the stump-tailed macaques (Macaca arctoides) of Assam.
The first one I saw looked like an aging hippy: long hair, beard, red sun-burnt face, a little startled at being disturbed in its commune with nature. Later, I realized that the resemblance to hippies ran deeper. After the first few startled glances, the troop ignored us and returned to their simple lives of grooming each other and simple contemplation. It was the middle of the day. We saw them resting on trees, but they would have spent the morning foraging on the ground. Little is known about these monkeys in their home range: south of the Brahmaputra and extending east into southern China, Vietnam and the Malayan peninsula. They are scarce throughout their home range. They are extinct in Bangladesh, parts of China, and are critically threatened in India. They are not found in Myanmar.
For many years these monkeys were used in the testing of cosmetics and medicines, until (in 1985) the Animal Liberation Front rescued an infant being used in sight deprivation experiments in California. This case eventually resulted in much stricter controls on the use of monkeys and apes in laboratories. A population was introduced into Mexico in 1974. I could not find the reasons for doing this: was it someone’s folly, or to create a population from which individuals could be easily captured for laboratory use? Most field studies on the behaviour of M. arctoides have been done on a “study population” in Mexico. All animals adapt to new environments, and monkey behaviour is among the most plastic. So I wonder how much of the literature on the behaviour of stump tailed Macaques is applicable in its ancient habitat. I guess the social hierarchy, establishment of matrilineal territories, and other generic macaque characteristics are independent of geography. But their food habits could have changed when they were put into a different environment. It would be wonderful to study them in the Hollongapar reserve.
The clearing was small, and our large troop of camera-laden humans spread out among the trees. I was fascinated by an individual which sat alone, and seemed lost in contemplation. Was this a philosopher amongst macaques, pondering deeply the nature of reality, or was it lost in thoughts about its bowels? I have not seen any other species in the wild which is so indifferent to humans. As a result, I’ve not had the opportunity to study a wild individual of another species so closely. I look at it photos now, and wonder what fills its head.
The only activity came from a child. It peered about, looking curiously at the nearest cameras, and then, when they did nothing more, climbed further into the canopy. I watched it climb and admired its fludity. Later I realized that all four limbs of the stump tailed macaque are adapted to grasping (you can see it in several of the photos here). So the reports from Mexico of troops foraging mainly on the ground seem a little suspect to me. Even a simple record of how many hours a day they spend on the ground and on trees could be the beginning of an useful research program. This is a species which could disappear just as we are beginning to know them; it is such a frustrating feeling.
We left reluctantly. Even our guide and guard were engrossed in looking at the macaques. As we left, they put a mark on the trees near the trail. Apparently sightings are rare, and this was the first one this year. Our guide thought that the troop could stay here for a few days, and he would like to come back to look at them. Was poaching a problem, I asked as we walked off. He said that illegal logging was a small problem, but poaching was not. My last memories are of the macaque philosopher turning over a knotty problem in its mind. How many years does it have left?