Lion-tailed Macaques, part two

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December 27th 2016
Published: January 2nd 2017
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Agumbe is a little village half an hour (30km) from the town of Thirtalli or, on the usual road, an hour (55km) from Udupi. There are a small handful of cheap places to stay in Agumbe, the one I chose being the Mallya Residency which is by the bus stand and costs 500 rupees (about NZ$10). Right on the edge of the village is the Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary, which is where the lion-tailed macaques are found. The road from Udupi runs right through this forest, and given how narrow and winding it is, it was actually good that it was currently out of action because it meant that when I was walking on it there was almost no traffic. There was some traffic because only part of the road was being resurfaced, so motorbikes and a few cars were still using it, and there were trucks carrying gravel for the job, but none of them were that regular.

I had got into Agumbe at 8.15am but couldn't get a room at Mallya until check-out time which was 9am, so I wandered off to find some breakfast first. After all that was sorted I headed off towards the forest. From the hotel it is maybe half a kilometre to the start of the forest where there is a checkpoint and a sign saying you need to get permission to enter. But there was no guard there (ever) and nobody seemed to mind that I was walking through. At one point a forest guard on a motorbike stopped to say I needed a permit and guide in the forest but if I was just on the road then that was fine.

Before getting to the checkpoint you do need to run the gauntlet of dogs. There are a lot of dogs in Agumbe. As I was getting off the bus a pack of about ten of them charged past barking and snarling. They were actually after another dog, possibly because he didn't have rabies yet and they were going to teach him a lesson, but the group of girls that had been on the bus started screaming in panic which did not make me think that dog attacks were unknown here! I didn't have any trouble with the dogs in the end. Most were cowardly and harmless. A few liked to bark. I have recently developed a technique whereby when a dog is acting aggressively, instead of running away and crying like a little girl, I just throw it a couple of biscuits which I carry for that purpose. Then the dog is suddenly all "ooh, a piece of candy" and forgets to be aggressive. Then next time I see the dog it thinks we're friends. Probably doesn't work with actual guard dogs or rabid dogs, but for the average strays and dogs-about-town it works well.

I haven't been adding many new birds lately. Most of the species I see in southern India are ones that I saw in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. In the first ten days or so I saw about 120 species in the Western Ghats, and only 29 were lifers. Today I saw quite a lot of birds, but none of them new ones. Also lots of bonnet macaques and four Malabar giant squirrels. The subspecies of giant squirrel further south in Kerala is maxima which is very dark-coloured - apart for the pale belly and head it is otherwise all black with maroon saddle. The subspecies here in Karnataka is indica which has all the black areas replaced with maroon and it is even more attractive.

At the Mallya Residency I had asked the chap at the front where the best place to see the lion-tailed macaques was and he had replied without hesitation "Sunset Point". This is about two kilometres along the road through the forest. A hundred metres before you get there, there is a small lake for boating and a checkpost. There was a squadron of bonnet macaques lined up along the lake's fence, waiting to be fed by visitors. I asked one of the guards where the best place to see lion-tailed macaques was, and he also immediately said "Sunset Point". There were, as might be guessed, no lion-tailed macaques at Sunset Point, which is a concrete viewing platform sticking out from the road over the downward slope of the mountain.

The road from this point turned into a series of hairpin bends. There didn't seem any reason I shouldn't keep walking, so down I went, for just over seven kilometres - I know this because I passed the end of the roadworks and the foreman told me that only the top 7km are Agumbe's concern, all the rest belongs to the Udupi district and it is up to them to sort it out. So the road was closed just for the top 7km to be resurfaced. Just about everyone who passed on a motorbike or who was working on the road wanted a photo with me. I guess not that many white tourists end up here.

There were more bonnet macaques along the road down here too, and I also saw a jungle striped squirrel and a group of black-footed grey langurs. Those last two mammals were what had made me think the Tholpetty jaunt wasn't a total loss. Of the four new birds I saw at Tholpetty the wire-tailed swallow and white-rumped spinetail are both more common further north so I'll probably see them again; and the crimson-backed sunbird is very common at Agumbe (just about every small bird I got my binoculars onto here was one of these sunbirds). I won't see Malabar barbets anywhere from now on, so that becomes the sole species from Tholpetty that I didn't or won't see elsewhere. When I had found out the langurs were found here at Agumbe I thought maybe they would be more difficult to see than at Tholpetty, but in fact they are very easy to see, although still quite shy.

After quite a lot of walking, thinking about how maybe just round the next bend there would be a lion-tailed macaque, I decided to call it quits for the morning. It was getting very hot, the return walk was going to be all uphill, and I had a suspicion that the roadworks would have made sure the macaques were keeping away from the road. It turned out that the roadworks may have been keeping them away but for a different reason than noise or smell - with the road mostly not being used, there were no motorists coming along to feed the monkeys. Like at Valparai, the reason the lion-tailed macaques are easy to see here is because they have become habituated to being fed and so remain next to the roadsides.

In the afternoon I returned through the forest to Sunset Point. On the way I saw two different groups of black-footed grey langurs, and I think I may have even got some passable photos of some of them. There were still bonnet macaques at Sunset Point, but no lion-tailed macaques. Back at the hotel in the evening I was filling out the registration book (because the owner Suhindra hadn't been there in the morning) and when I said I hadn't seen any lion-tailed macaques everyone expressed surprise. I just needed to go down "six bends" on the road and the macaques were "always there". I dislike when someone says an animal is "always there" or "guaranteed" because it usually means you are not going to see it! Suhindra said one of the guys would take me down to the spot on his motorbike the next morning and I would definitely see them. No need to be early, ten o'clock is fine for the macaques - they are "always there". Hmm.

At 10am I met up with Anankumar who, it turned out, worked as a guide for trekking in the forest. Normally this month is busy for him but with the Udupi road closed there was almost nobody coming to the area. He also said that maybe I could see one or two lion-tailed macaques at Sunset Point but only sometimes. So that's not the best place after all. Down the road we went (many more bends than six!), and at about 8km there was suddenly a male lion-tailed macaque
Bonnet Macaque (Macaca radiata)Bonnet Macaque (Macaca radiata)Bonnet Macaque (Macaca radiata)

with its throat pouches stuffed with food
standing on a big rock, waiting. Just one kilometre more and I would have seen them yesterday! There were a few more visible here and there in the trees, including some tiny baby ones, but they didn't seem eager to show themselves. There were also black-footed grey langurs in the trees, equally shy, and bonnet macaques on the roadside, not shy at all. Three monkey species in one spot.

Anankumar said if we had some bananas I would be able to get photos because then the lion-tailed macaques would come out, so I waited there while he shot off on his bike to the village of Someshwara a kilometre or so further on. Soon he returned and the second he opened the box in which he had put the bananas he was swarmed by bonnet macaques. The lion-tailed macaques came galloping out onto the road but mostly missed out. Anankumar said normally the macaques will take the food by hand, but there were so few people passing by lately that they were all famished. That's one of the obvious issues with monkeys becoming habituated to being fed at roadsides - they lose the habit of going and finding their food naturally. I did get a lot of photos of the lion-tailed macaques, and some of them are quite good ones.


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