The mystery of Hanuman tails

In the past I’ve often seen tribes of hanuman (Semnopithecus entellus, northern plains grey langur) sitting in a line at the sides of highways. As I sped past, I would notice they had their backs to the road, and tails spread behind straight behind them on the tarmac. I always wondered what makes them do it. But when you are on a highway, going at speed, you can’t possibly stop in time to check.

I solved this mystery quite by chance one day when I was walking down a road near a village and saw exactly this sight. But now I could stop and watch. They were foraging among the dense weeds on the sides of the road. “Of course,” I mentally kicked myself. They are primarily herbivores, just occasionally adding a caterpillar or some other insect to their food as supplement. Unusually for monkeys, they eat mature leaves too. That is exactly what they were doing as I watched. And then I realized that there was little choice in where and how their stiff tails would be placed. It must be convenient to just let it rest on the road behind them, exactly as I’d seen.

Like all mammals which have adapted to a leaf-heavy diet, the hanuman has a very complex digestive system. It turns out that they have a four chambered stomach, with a first chamber hosting a specialized microbiome which helps it to digest, and perhaps detoxify, the leaves that it eats. Interestingly, there is a clade of species, called the colobine monkeys, distributed across Africa and Asia which all have such high-fibre diets. This first chamber has evolved separately in the two continents. Other colobines have three chambered stomachs. They also eat leaves, but they generally eat more fruits than leaves. The solution to the mystery of the hanuman tails seems to be in their stomachs!

In a Jungle

Vegetation makes up a jungle. I’ve written extensively about the animals which find a home in Pench National Park. But most of the time I spent in the jungle was spent looking at trees or bushes twined around each other. Here is a record mainly of the trees I saw in the jungle. This was a mixed jungle: mainly sal (Shorea robusta), followed by the crocodile bark tree (Terminalia crenulata), but also many other species, including the so-called Indian Ghost Tree. I end my stories of this hot season’s trip to Pench with photos of its dried up vegetation.

Return of the Spy in the Jungle

We chanced on a small bunch of jeeps whose passengers were excitedly looking into the darkness below some bushes along a ridge line. It was a tigress and her cubs. We caught sight of her. Just as I was trying to get photos, a ranger came along and told us to move. Our guide figured out that the tigress was headed for a nearby waterhole, and drove there. I’d never seen rangers trying to control jeeps, so we discussed this with the driver and guide. I learnt that in Pench National Park the rangers try hard to balance tourists’ needs and the animals, especially when cubs are involved. Tourists are allowed only in about 20% of the park’s area, but this area contained the range of two tigresses with three cubs each.

Gray langurs on the alert in Pench National Park

There was a group of gray langur sitting in the shade around the waterhole. When we reached the waterhole we saw that they had probably sensed the approaching tigress. They were still on the ground, but looking in the direction from which we knew that the tigress was approaching. Interestingly, there had been no alarm calls. This meant that there were no deer or monkeys along the route the tigress and her cubs were taking.

The tigress we had seen was called collarwali by all the guides, because when she was four years old she had been fitted with a radio collar. Her official designation is a simple T15. I suppose she managed to get rid of the collar soon, because she was without one now. Collarwali is legendary, she has raised 26 cubs in seven litters. Although she is twelve years old, her confident walk and glossy coat indicate that she is in her prime. As a cub she starred in David Attenborough’s documentary Spy in the Jungle.

Gray langurs scatter as a tigress appears in Pench National Park

Within a couple of minutes (although it seemed longer) the band had seen the tigress and ran for the trees. You can see that the monkey in the foreground is running scared, with its tail held out straight behind it for balance, as it picks up speed. One just behind it has not taken off yet, its tail is still curled over its body as it looks in the direction of the approaching tigress. The others are equally divided between still keeping an eye on the danger, and searching for a safe tree nearby. Seconds after this, the langur had all fled. Collarwali came into view, climbing up from the ravine, majestic, well-fed, coat a glossy yellow-orange (see the featured photo).

There’s nothing else in the world like a tiger in motion.

The Tale of the Jackal and the Monkey

If you strain your eyes a bit, in the featured photo you can see a bloody cut on the muzzle of the jackal, just below the eye. The incident that ended with this photo is a wonderful story: every bit as interesting as the folk tales you get to if you Google monkey versus jackal.

Jackal in the distance in Pench National Park

Early in the afternoon we reached a part of Pench National Park which is at the edge of the reservoir formed by the Totladoh dam over the Pench river. It has been a long and hot spring. There was little water to be seen. We came to a stop at a high point which would be the edge of the water after the monsoon. Below us was a small shallow body of water. On the far side we spotted a jackal trotting along (photo above). As it approached the water, it came within extreme range of my camera. I thought I would get a better photo as it came to drink water.

Through the viewfinder, I saw it speed up. I heard our guide say, “It’s going after that monkey!” I looked up and saw the jackal racing after a young langur which had come to drink water. The nearest tree was quite a way off. When I spotted the langur, it was already in flight: away from the water through a patch of rocky grass towards the nearest trees. The jackal was sprinting fast.

Monkey versus jackal in Pench National Park

The langur hopped on to a rocky outcrop. But it was easy for the jackal to climb this. The Family, the guide, and the driver, all were following this unusual incident with their binoculars glued to their eyes. I had only my camera. I could hear their excited chatter as I looked through the viewfinder again.

The jackal was snapping at the monkey, as it hopped desperately from one rock to another. I completely forgot that I could set my camera to record video. This was happening at the extreme range of my zoom, equivalent to 1200 mm. I shot off a series of photos, trusting in my luck, as the chase became desperate. In my excitement, my hand was not at its steadiest. The best photo I have is the one above: where you can see the reddish blur of the jackal’s fur on the far side of the langur, as it tries to bite the monkey’s rear leg. This was just before the jackal caught the langur by its tail!

We thought this was the end of the story. I was waiting to see whether the jackal would drag its kill towards us or away. But the desperate langur smacked the jackal across the face. It let go of the tail and jumped back. The langur remained perched on the highest rock. The jackal walked away.

As it emerged from the tall grass into full view, we could see its bloodied muzzle. It stood there, far from the water, and in the open for a long time. Our guide said “It cannot face its brothers any more.” This time around the proverbial trickster did not win. The monkey is not as much of a simpleton as folk tales would have it.

This was such an unusual sighting that it overshadowed the tales of sightings of tigers and leopards which were being exchanged when we returned that evening to our hotel for tea.

A long and lazy afternoon

When you try to spot a tiger in the wild you spend really long hours in one place. If you are lucky, you will have found shade. If this is near a waterhole, then there are many things to watch as you wait. On a burning summer afternoon, I watched a band of gray langur as I waited for a tiger. They had found a leafy tree to settle in, and, after the first couple of minutes, ignored us as they went back to their normal life. A few would venture cautiously down to the water’s edge now and then, after surveying the area for any sign of danger, dip their faces to the water to drink. They would then saunter back to the tree with their tails held parallel to their body, pointing forward.

A group of langur finds shade in Pench National Park

It wasn’t just tigers that would send them back up; it was also the burning afternoon sun. As I tried to photograph them, I realized that they were all huddled in the shade. As a result, they mainly presented silhouettes to the camera. Most of their time was spent grooming each other. I liked the sight of one with an arm raised, as another groomed it (featured photo). It looked so comfortable that I wished we could spend some time in the jeep scratching each other’s backs.

A langur mother with child in Pench National Park

I couldn’t figure our whether this was a band with multiple males or just one. The male langur are generally larger than the females, but in a band dispersed on a tree, some hidden, it is hard to figure this out. There were several young which chased each other round the branches. Two especially boisterous ones swung from the tails of some adults, who ignored them completely. There were several babies clutching on to their mothers. I managed to get a photo of one only when the mother moved from one perch to another (photo above). Langur are generalized herbivores, happy munching leaves, fruits, and flowers. They are also reported to eat larvae of insects.

A sudden commotion brought us upright. But it wasn’t a tiger. A small band of rhesus macaques had wandered into the tree. There was much chattering, and running around. In the shadows it was not clear whether the langur were more agitated than the macaques. But soon the macaques were gone and the langur were back to their quiet grooming. Their size allows langurs to dominate the smaller macaques in the wild. Nothing much more happened, and the afternoon was soon over.

Alarums and excursions

If you spend a day in one of the Project Tiger national parks, you may or may not see a tiger, but the one thing that you will learn about are alarm calls. Tourists like us move along designated tracks on a jeep inside the forest. Tigers seldom cross these paths. So the best way to find out whether a tiger is nearby is to listen to the jungle.

Wary cheetal and langurs at a waterhole in Pench National Park

Of the three animals which issue alarm calls, the spotted deer Cheetal (Axis axis) and the gray langur (Semnopithecus entellus) can be seen in the photo above, and the sambar deer (Rusa unicolor) is in the featured photo. The cheetal thrive in Pench National Park. They are easily spooked. Sometimes you see a herd grazing near a track, looking up at you warily as you pass. But very often you see them already running. A naturalist once told me that this is a good sign, because it shows that they are not habituated to humans. Cheetal alarm calls are the first thing you hear when a leopard or tiger is sighted. They may soon be followed by the alarm call of langurs. Usually, when you hear this, your guide will drop everything else and rush towards the sound. Since the calls carry easily in the jungle, you will find that there are several jeeps which arrive at the source of the calls.

Sambar wade into a waterhole with extreme caution in Pench National Park

Tiger spotting requires patience and persistence. Sometimes the calls stop, and you do not know whether that is because the predator has stopped moving, or because it was a false alarm. The lore amongst guides is that cheetal calls could be false alarms sometimes, but the alarm call sounded by sambar deer is always correct. I saw sambar approaching water holes on two occasions. Both times they were so cautious that it was a wonder. The featured photo shows a lone sambar moving between trees at the edge of a clearing around a waterhole. It spent almost twenty minutes walking a distance of about a hundred meters. The second time I saw a group coming to a large pond. There were wary groups of monkeys drinking water, taking turns to keep watch as the rest of the group drank. A couple of spotted deer were also drinking water (see photo above). They were quiveringly tense as they drank, but they walked to the water very quickly, drank, and walked away again.

The sambar are different, they took a long time to approach the water. Then after drinking, they waded into the water (photo above). Even inside the water they were extremely cautious: scanning their surroundings with every step they took. The two scouts were soon joined by others, including young. Their coats were matted, as if they were already wet. Sambar like to wade, but they were so wary that they stood in knee-deep water until the light began to fade and we were forced to leave.

From the difference in behaviour that I saw, I could believe our guide when he said that a sambar’s alarm call is always correct.

Monkey’s business

If you observe monkeys, or read accounts by those who do, you’ll find that most of the social life of monkeys centres around grooming. It seems to be as important to monkeys as chatting is to us. I watched the two langurs you can see in the featured photo. The smaller one was initially sitting by itself, when the larger one sauntered by. The smaller was startled, and was ready to run in fright, when the bigger one reached out, pulled it down and began to groom it.

These gray langurs, sometimes called hanuman langurs, have been studied extensively. Much is known of their genetics and social structure. Still, interesting new material comes to light from amateur observation of these herbivorous monkeys. Many interesting new observations are of deception. I wasn’t lucky enough to see anything as interesting as this.

Monkeys hugging each other in Ranthambore

If you spend even a little time in an Indian forest you cannot fail to see an association of Cheetal and langurs. Of course, if amateurs and tourists can spot this, professionals must be writing papers about it. The bottom line seems to be that Cheetal gain from staying around langurs.

We stopped to watch the deer, but my attention turned to the monkeys. After the first incident, which I described above, I saw many more pairs grooming each other. Another encounter was also startling. A smaller monkey ran towards a larger one and hugged it (as you see in the photo). The larger one then started grooming the smaller one. What was it? Mother and older child?

Monkey behaviour is complex enough to be endlessly fascinating.