For more than a decade, I grew up with an unsettling and ambiguous claim: Bangladesh has three specimens of the long-tailed macaque. I learned this when I was in high school and I have been thinking about it till last week.
Recurring questions are thus natural. How long macaques – monkeys in common tongue – can live? Do they not breed? All the while, why is the number fixed at three? They seemed like a jinxed species!
Tanvir Ahmed, a primate researcher, pinged me last Monday. I received the recent global threat assessment of the species published last week. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) periodically arranges these assessments, usually led by a medley of researchers that knows and works to save the species.
The long-tailed macaque has been declared endangered, falling under the category set by IUCN for the second to most threatened species. The species reels under habitat destruction, changing landscapes, fragmented population and illicit trade practices. In places, it is regarded as a pest, spent as pharmaceutical test subject and often recommended for culling and removal.
This assessment looked into the macaque's status in each of the countries it reportedly lives in and formally confirmed its extinction from Bangladesh.
Our country has lost an enigmatic monkey. Another name has piled up on the ever-expanding list of species that have left the country forever.
Giving in to farming
Bangladesh lies in the westernmost corner of the global distribution of the long-tailed macaques. The species is distributed across Mainland Southeast Asia including the islands of the Bay of Bengal and the Indonesian archipelago.
In response to a variety of habitats, different survival strategies evolved in the monkey. In Bangladesh, the long-tailed macaque showed a clinginess toward the mangroves. It was the Burmese sub-species and it occurred along the Naf River and the coastal stretches of the Matamuhuri River.
In the early 1980s, Dr Farid Ahsan, a professor of Zoology at the Chattogram University found 253 individuals of the macaque in the Chakaria Sundarbans. It was the mangrove forest along the Matamuhuri River.
During that period, the mangrove was 182 square kilometres strong with sporadic records of tigers. I am speaking in the past about the forest as well, for tragic reasons. Or, treasons committed by men against nature, you might put it that way.
The entire forest is now a barren area. The space makes room for a mosaic of farms; most deal with shrimps, others produce salt and a few fatten export-quality crabs.
The tree stumps lying in-between are a reckon to its glorious past and a testament to how human need can completely eat up a forest. Although the macaques enjoyed their stay a little longer, the dramatic drop was evident.
As the new millennium commenced, only 30 macaques appeared in what had remained of the Chakaria Sundarbans. The number dwindled to a single digit in the last decade.
The sweeping of the forest was completed. About three to eight long-tailed macaques were making a last stand at their ancestral home along the muddy, tree-less shores of the Naf.
Yet the vision was lacking. Nobody had thought the unthinkable, took no measure. It did not occur to anyone that even a monkey can get extinct.
"No one ever wants to consider a species extinct but I was forced to do it in my early career. I did not think my involvement in the assessment of the long-tailed macaque would turn sombre. It is the saddest statement I have ever made as a researcher," This was Tanvir Ahmed's opening message I received with the assessment.
Of lure, hammer and anvil
In the order of the monkeys and primates, very few master the tool-use. Tarik Kabir, a PhD student of primate ecology at the University Sains Malaysia, observed intriguing habits in the macaque.
He worked on the last three individuals. The impeccable macaques use their long tail – long enough to be added to its name – as bait to lure crabs out of the burrows and crevices among muds and root networks of mangroves. Their usage of stones to crack open hard-shelled fruits and oysters are also well known.
"These behaviours, especially the tool handling, resemble the stone use patterns of the macaque on Thailand coasts. Like our prehistoric ancestors, only very few animals in the world have such a level of intelligence in using stones but not many are alive in present times," Tanvir Ahmed commented on this discovery.
He went on, "The West African chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys and Burmese long-tailed macaques in Thailand are well-known users of stones." The ceased macaques of Bangladesh were likely an unreported population that knew the feat.
A last-ditch effort
Tanvir made a final try. His workplace Nature Conservation Management (NACOM), in collaboration with Dr Malene Hansen, director of the International Long-tailed Macaque Project, and Isabella Foundation, a local conservation organisation, designed a survey with support from Princeton University, USA.
With optimism and hope, in 2021, the team initiated the search for the last macaques that might be living in seclusion in the remaining mangrove patches and coastal hills of the Cox's Bazar-Teknaf peninsula.
"After every field trip, we could not walk for a few days, thanks to the cuts our feet managed from the broken shell-shards hideously hidden in the mud. We interviewed local men and with the help of Border Guard Bangladesh, we went to the remotest of the areas. We were perplexed why and how a well-distributed and ecologically flexible species could become extinct," Tanvir shared about the fieldwork memories. The survey ended in early 2022. No macaques were found.
Developments and a dog-bite
The findings of the 2021–2022 survey indicated that the last group of three individuals used to hang near the Teknaf Jettison. They were last seen together until 2013-14. In 2015, it came down to a sole individual. By the end of 2015 or early 2016, it succumbed to a dog bite.
"We now know that, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the large-scale alteration of mangrove landscapes, legal and illegal, played major roles in the extinction," said Tanvir.
In the early 1990s, two camps were erected to house Rohingya refugees. Law enforcement agencies soon built their camps near them.
Tanvir added, "The construction and operation of two jetties and a port sealed the fate of the macaques."
And this is how Peninsular mangroves were sacrificed to accommodate bare necessities and development alike.
Rewilding and reintroducing
The Naf River marks the boundary between Myanmar and Bangladesh. In Myanmar, it still lives along the entire coast of the Gulf of Martaban.
The macaques are good, agile swimmers as Dr Hansen informed Tanvir. One day they might return to Bangladesh by crossing the Naf given that there will be mangrove forests in Teknaf.
In the never-ending battle of conservation, being optimistic is the way. "There are already many successful examples of wildlife reintroduction made with precise scientific decisions. We, too, can make way for the reintroduction of the Burmese subspecies," Tanvir hoped.
"When we have the ability to support several hundred thousand refugees, can we not bring back a monkey?" His desperate tone hit me. But it makes sense. If we can save people, we should also be able to save our wildlife and nature.