Monkey business

We reached Kausani late. The hotel spread down a cliff facing the valley. I’d chosen it for the views we would get of the Himalayas, but on the way in to Kausani, I was dismayed by the ring of fire on the surrounding ridges. It was a wonderful hotel, but there was a smell of smoke everywhere. We decided to cut our stay short, and leave in the morning. Perhaps we could be back some other time.

As I packed in the morning I looked out to see monkeys sunning themselves. They are highly conscious of status, and one monkey was afforded a bubble of serenity. He surveyed others to make sure that they kept the proper distance. A very old song popped into my head as I watched this: “Mere monkey Ganga aur tere monkey Yamuna mein, bol Radha bol sangam hoga ki nahin.” Looking at the way they move, probably not.

Raven and Monkey have a tiff

In spite of the heavy smoke in the air, I stood outside and photographed nothing in particular. I was glad that I had an N95 mask on, it was good at filtering the smoke. I’m not good at identifying flowers and plants, so I take photos at the least opportunity, hoping that when I get back home I’ll be able to figure out what they are. On one side of the path that The Family had taken I saw this very common weed with lovely flowers, the Himalayan Daisy fleabane (Erigeron emodi) as I found later. I find it hard to tell the fleabanes apart, so I take photos of several features: the stems, the leaves, and the flowers. As I was busy doing this I heard a raven call.

It takes me a while to figure out whether I’m seeing a raven, but its call is absolutely distinct from those of other corvids of India. This Northern Raven (Corvus corax) was calling insistently. When I looked up, I saw it flapping about a ficus tree with fruits. There were movements behind a branch; a Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta). The bird circled the monkey, calling furiously for a while, and then flew off. I’d not been able to take a photo, so I followed it with my camera as it sat on a distant pine, still calling. In minutes it was back on a different branch of the ficus, calling again. The monkey barked back at it, and they continued this tiff as they kept eating the fruits. Clearly a territorial disagreement. I hadn’t seen these two species in a conflict before. I was happy to be out even on such a horrible day.

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.

Adaptation

One of the most striking things about wild animals is how easily they adapt to circumstances; a fancy term for this is behavioural plasticity. When I saw a group of Cheetal, apparently grazing in the mud next to the tidal creek, I was a little surprised. These animals are grazers, mostly dependent on grass. Cheetal grazing on fallen leaves, Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha But the individuals I saw were eating fallen mangrove leaves. You can see them feeding in the photo alongside. In the featured photo you can see its whole body aligned along the tide line where fallen leaves have gathered. The strong reliance on a leafy diet struck me as an adaptation.

Another odd fact was that there were so many Cheetal near brackish water. These deer drink a lot of water, and I could not imagine them drinking sea water. It gradually dawned on me that there must be fresh water inland. Amar, our boatman, and Bijaya, our guide for the day, told us about ponds and wells which give sweet water. Around these there are also grassy meadows where we saw some deer.

We also saw small bands of rhesus monkeys on the muddy banks of creeks. Strangely, they seemed to be grazing in the mud. Bijaya said they were eating grass. Possibly, because they were certainly not picking up fallen leaves. I never came across them inside the forest, so I don’t know what fruits they eat. Mangrove fruits are unlikely fare for monkeys, but maybe they have adapted. Animal behaviour is so plastic that every niche yields delightful surprises.