On a summer morning in Mandal valley, Uttarakhand, the langur troop we were following had turned its gaze southwards towards Shivalaya (abode of the Hindu god Shiva, in Hindi). The Shiva temple here which also features an idol of Lord Hanuman is located on the banks of the Amrit Ganga river, which hurtles down from the north, meeting the Balkhila river about 100m south of Shivalaya. While the rains are still pulling in, the flow in both the rivers is strong and the adjoining forests are brimming with vegetation. The temperate mixed broad-leaved forests are fresh with new leaves shimmering on the Uttish (Alnus nepalensis) and Toon (Toona ciliata) trees, and the agricultural fields on the other side of the Shivalaya are lush with green finger millet (Eleusine coracana). Walking along the bank of Amrit Ganga, binoculars held close to my chest, I complete a group scan of the langur troop and note down the instantaneous activity of visible individuals.
I have now spent nearly a month with Group S, the troop of Central Himalayan Langurs (Semnopithecus schistaceus) studied by my project guide, Himani Nautiyal, for her doctoral thesis. The prospect of observing them from the time they wake up till they go back to sleep is simply enthralling. In all the time I have spent following the langurs, not a day has passed when I am not amazed by the intricacies of the troop’s behaviour. June 24, 2018, began like any other day, and seldom by the position of the sun in the sky or the direction of the wind can one anticipate an eventful day. But this day, unlike any other, had a lot to unpack.
No strict borders
The mountainous terrain drops down to the river bank where there is comparatively larger ground to cover for the langurs. The area is a richly cultivated tract of land bordered by the Shivalaya to the east and the northern bank of Balkhila in the south. At around 9 AM, the troop started to move towards the agricultural fields near Shivalaya. Never devoid of spectators, a pack of dogs from Mandal village were eagerly watching the troop’s every move. Unaware, the langurs moved further south, across a bridge and to the other side of the Balkhila river, into the forest patch, which marked the southern periphery of their territory. There are no strict borders, and our observations have revealed that this group of langurs sometimes goes all the way to the pucca road that borders this patch of forest. Today, they turned westwards. As the sun climbed up in the sky, clouds came in from the south and east covering the open blue sky and it soon started drizzling.
As the rain came to a halt in the afternoon, the langurs slowly woke up from their slumber and soon they were heading further west. I was recording behavioural observations of one of the troop’s adult males when I heard the canine grinding of another adult male, whom we had named Hari. A shrill scratching sound, canine grinding usually indicates a scenario where tempers can run high and aggression is just around the corner. The stage was set as our study troop was attacked by two adult males from another troop. As the nail-biter unfolded over the next 40 minutes, Harish, who is our field assistant, a quick-witted nature guide and an unmatched birdwatcher in Mandal valley, was the one who spotted the other langur troop watching us from above the road that borders the forest patch. During this interaction, we observed adult males of our study troop chasing the intruders away, and in return being chased by them. The interaction finally resulted in the eviction of the intruders, for the time being.
Attacked by ferals
The langur troop we were studying was not the only one to reside in these forests. Towards the south-western periphery of their territory was a troop from the cool and pristine Kharsu (Quercus semecarpefolia) forest, and another smaller troop bordered Group S on the south-eastern periphery of their territory. Langurs are fiercely territorial animals and visit the peripheral zones of their home range to take stock of resources and to check for encroachment. The events of the day so far had caused the troop to mount a defence and secure their territory.
By now, the troop had made its way across to the northern bank of the Balkhila river. It then crossed the crop fields in a hurry as villagers chased them away, and gathered just below the motorable road that runs west towards the famous tourist destination of Chopta and into the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary.
With no trees to run to in case they get chased by villagers or dogs, the troop was looking to swiftly cross to the other side of the road and on towards the cliff to the east of Gondi village. Vulnerable, now more than ever, the situation was made worse when a pack of feral dogs appeared all of a sudden. The troop got scattered and in the chaos that ensued, one of the adult females was attacked by a dog while crossing the road. The adult female, Seeta, was carrying her juvenile, Shalu with her when it happened. Seeta did not back down and defended her young one with all her might. She single-handedly propelled her young one to the safety of the cliff where dogs could not reach. But in fighting the dog, she sustained injuries on her back and leg.
After much struggle, she was able to rescue herself to a low-hanging Oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) tree that was jutting out of the cliff surface, while the dogs circled down below, their panting mouths anxious for the fall of the injured langur. Harish and Himani dispersed the dogs as it started to get dark, while we kept a watch on how the troop members would react to the incident. Before dark, Remo, an adult male in our study troop was keeping a watch on Seeta from a distance, but as it got late I could not observe any other troop member near the injured female. At around 9:15 PM, we went again to check on Seeta and found her sitting in the same position. Her tail was still moving, and we hoped she would brave her injuries and live to see another day. It appeared to me that the troop had moved to their sleeping site.
Die another day
That night felt longer than usual, and at first light, I headed towards the place where Seeta was resting for the night. It was only 5:00 AM and the first rays of the sun were just descending down into the valley. When the sun touched her injured body, Seeta moved a little bit in the tree where she had slept for the night. These first signs of movement provided much relief, for Seeta had braved through the night. The conspirators from the previous day, the feral dogs of Mandal, arrived at the scene soon after and stood just below the tree to analyse the condition of the injured langur for themselves. Himani had left with another volunteer to check the whereabouts of the rest of the troop, for it remained to be seen who would start and lead the attempt to rescue Seeta from the tree where she was resting. With very little energy left in her body, Seeta made a final attempt to move and shift to the top canopy of a tree nearby. For a long time after that, she did not move from there and neither did any individual from the troop approach to rescue her. It was again a bright day, and the villagers had begun their daily routines.
When we went back in the afternoon to check on Seeta, she was nowhere to be found. She had not joined the troop either when we last left the troop at their sleeping site in an Oak patch above the road that leads to Siroli village. We never saw Seeta with the troop again. She might have succumbed to her injuries or may have stayed in the forest and taken a different course.
The dogs that attacked the langurs have been trained by local villagers to chase away wildlife that wanders into their agricultural fields. Villagers here have small landholdings, and any loss to the crop yield can have a significant impact on them. Moreover, practising agriculture in mountainous soil requires the farmers to adapt to the timing of the monsoon, and in recent years the rains have only become more unpredictable. The villagers too, like langurs, are struggling to cope with the gradual changes happening in the weather patterns. Although, their actions have a lot more consequences for the environment they so closely interact with and for the wildlife that inhabits the forests around them.
These lush green valleys might earlier have been the wandering grounds of herbivores and carnivores alike, but as agriculture has expanded, the ranging area for wild animals has constricted. Langurs, unlike other wildlife, have adapted to these changes by partitioning their time between moving through forests and human-modified landscapes. But as they pass through agricultural fields, they become an easy target for feral dogs. In the past two years, many such casualties like Seeta have happened with langur troops being forced to pass through open areas, devoid of continuous canopy cover.