"19 years ago, the Sal forest of Madhupur National Park appeared impenetrable to me. The rural road to the main park entrance was heavily guarded by towering trees. In winter, we used to have annual picnics in the park; my residence was only 11km away then. I can recall images of large, golden-furred monkeys with charcoal faces, mohawked hair and serpentine tails. They were abound in the buffer zone. In our picnic spot, there were troops of the typical monkey – the well-known banor – looking for free meals," Tanvir Ahmed, a young researcher of Bangladesh, shared his memories when I asked about his first primate encounters.
But he painted a very different picture, somewhat grim, drawn from his recent research experiences, "During 2015-16, I studied the primates of Madhupur. The forest was thin; all big trees had disappeared. The charcoal-faced langurs receded to the core zone of the park. In fact, the species is now under severe threat, formally considered Endangered by the IUCN. This is, in fact, the current story of all our primates."
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global body to assess status of the world's species, echoed Tanvir's claims. An updated assessment of the IUCN published this year marked seven of the 10 wild primate species of Bangladesh as threatened to different degrees. This report shook me to the core, although it went less-heard. An image of our forests with no monkeys will be terribly bland and bleak. But it is in the making, in parallel to the ever-shrinking habitats.
I felt compelled to portray the bitter facts – our primates, the closest relative of man, are disappearing in silence. Tanvir teamed up with me.
Simply, it is not just the banor. And, biologically, not all of them are termed as "monkey" either. You can say that Bangladesh, though small and heavily populated, is a primate-diverse land. We have the hoolock gibbon (ulluk), an ape that spends its life in the tree canopies. We have three different types of langurs (hanuman), one of which was literally a deity in subcontinental mythology. There is one species, a loris (lojjabotti banor), a secretive, slow, arboreal night-dweller with big spooky eyes. Speaking about the monkey, i.e., the true banor, we have five different macaques: Assamese, rhesus, northern pig-tailed, stump-tailed, and the long-tailed macaque.
Cornered in a crammed land
The first shape of any primate that hits our neurone is that of a banor. This is the rhesus macaque. Scientists use them as laboratory subjects. Often, they are trained for performing arts – from acrobatics to the trapeze. In fact, they are one of the most adaptive primates, known to live in urban areas. However, their flexibility is not enough anymore to cope here in Bangladesh. Once common throughout the country, in the wild, it is now mostly restricted to forest areas. Completely isolated troops are reported from the Old Dhaka, Narayanganj and the lower Meghna districts. On average, 40 individuals form each troop. We found about five studies on city monkeys. The last one came out in 2014. In the meantime, the toughest of the monkeys are being beaten, electrocuted, run over by cars and are starving.
In both of the Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Hanuman is revered as a god. The actual species that hoist the respect is even called the sacred langur. But in modern times, their heydays are long gone. The sacred langur is now Critically Endangered in Bangladesh, according to the IUCN. The species is on its last legs, present only in the orchards of Keshabpur and Manirampur of Jessore. The fallen gods now often hitchhike to fruit-laden vans, driven by hunger. Imagine yourself as the last of your kind with no country to dwell in – not so peaceful, is it?
No canopies for swinging
With only 7 percent of the natural forest cover remaining in Bangladesh, our mixed ever-green and deciduous forests account for even lesser dimensions. These habitats are now nabbed at the eastern bordering areas, disconnected or completely surrounded by human habitations. As the habitats are fading in an unprecedented colossal rate, danger is looming over the fate of three specialised species: hoolock gibbon, Phayre's langur and the capped langur. These primates are evolved for life in the canopies. Do our forests have adequately intact canopy layers? No. We cut down trees for wood. Fruiting trees have been removed for monoculture. Bamboo patches are gone.
Forests cannot provide these primates enough branches to sway from, leaf to munch or fruits to enjoy. Around 80 percent of the Phayre's langur population declined in the last 40 years, while for the hoolock gibbon, the rate is an appalling 90 percent. The spectacular show of Phayre's langur is becoming rarer, the mesmerising howl of the hoolock gibbon is now fainter than ever. The IUCN has declared both as Critically Endangered.
Night-crawler yet exposed
The story of the slow loris is the same. The status of the species has been degraded. In its 2020 report, the IUCN demoted it from the Vulnerable to the Endangered category. This implies that its population has declined more than 70 percent in the last 10 years. The slow loris is the smallest primate of Bangladesh – very shy and entirely accustomed to nocturnal life. Secrecy is not serving it for survival, not anymore.
Three in complete darkness
How well do we know our unusual monkeys? Other than the rhesus macaque, the Assamese, pig-tailed and stump-tailed macaques attract less attention. These forest-dwellers are embracing extinction slowly. And, we simply do not know much about them. The pig-tailed macaque, endangered in Bangladesh, shares the same habitat with the rhesus macaque. The Assemese macaque, also Endangered, have very few sighting reports from Sylhet and Chattogram. For the stump-tailed macaque, we do not have any information – "data deficient" as per the IUCN definition. With dwindling habitats and fewer resources, how these similar macaques are living together in isolated patches is a topic of imminent conservation concern.
Have we lost one?
More than a decade ago, the last count of the long-tailed macaque – the rarest of the five monkeys – was only three in Teknaf. In 1981, there were 253 of them in Bangladesh. There is no recent data. Very recently, this macaque has also been down-listed as Vulnerable by IUCN from its previous Least Concern status. Has this monkey already left us?
The high time is now
It appears that the primates of Bangladesh are least-understood, often ignored. They might have the closest semblance to us. Some of them might once have been reckoned as spiritual omens. It appears our connection with the wild primates is becoming weaker, being torn apart slowly. But there are indeed many inevitable and staggeringly high repercussions if we increase our distance with nature. Climate change and pandemics are the two stark telltale signs.
Let me end with another memory, my first wild encounter with gibbons. On one wintry morning of 2012, I was trekking through the Lawachara National Park. It was also my very first visit to the park. The mist was heavy and wet, cold cutting to the bone. Vines and creepers formed an inseparable network on the shadowy forest floor; the dark green canopy seemed prehistoric, unreachably high – only a few first rays of light breaking through. The forest was quiet, offering a stage for some prehistoric creature to emerge. Suddenly, some long howling shrills cracked the silence. I froze in place. The territorial call of a gibbon family was declaring the forest morning from the very top of the canopy. The moment was so enchanted as if I were in heaven and some divine hymn was blessing the entire forest!
I heard gibbons at the zoo. I saw them in documentaries. But to get what their call can convey, you have to listen to them in the wild.
A forest morning with ear-splitting gibbon-holler is an omen. You can term it as happiness-index for nature.
Can we dare to displace an element of nature so intrinsically connected? Covid-19 is giving us plenty of time to think about it.
Our uncommon primates
The Assamese macaque has a yellowish-grey to dark brown fur. The facial skin can be very purplish. The head has a dark fringe of hair on the cheeks directed backwards to the ears. The hair on the crown is slightly parted in the middle. The tail is well-haired and short. To a layperson, it can be very confusing to tell the Assamese macaque apart from the rhesus macaque.
The stump-tailed macaque, also called the bear macaque, is the stockiest and heaviest of our all five species. It has a dark central crown, falling sleekly behind the head giving a "back-brushed" appearance. Ruff-like beard covers the throat, giving the cephalic region a fluffier look. The facial disc is reddish pink. As the name implies, the tail is very diminutive, the shortest of all monkeys.
And finally, the pig-tailed macaque – also a forest-dweller and relatively more common among our less-known monkeys. It has a characteristic deeply parted, dark cap of short hair on the head. Its tail is hairless, always erect with an up curved tip resembling the tail of a pig. The pelage is overall olive-brown. The facial disc is light pink.