Restricted to a small part of Himachal Pradesh’s Chamba, the species is facing threats and apathy
In the month of December 2016, an isolated young langur was noticed at the Koti Bridge near Sundla in Chamba, a remote district of Himachal Pradesh.
It was a Himalayan Grey Langur (Semnopithecus ajax).
Langurs are an important species as they occupy a key position in the food chains of many forest ecosystems. In India, most langurs comes under the genus Semnopithecus.
Prior to 2001, Semnopithecus entellus (Hanuman Langur) was considered only one species, with several subspecies. It was in 2001 that these subspecies were recommended as separate species under the genus Semnopithecus. Accordingly, seven different species have been recognised which include Semnopithecus ajax.
The Dark Eyed Himalayan Grey Langur is one of the least-studied species of langur. It is distributed in a varied habitat including dry savannah and tropical rain forests.
They inhabit areas between 2,200-4,000 metres above mean sea level in the subtropical, tropical moist temperate, alpine, coniferous and broadleaved forests and scrublands.
In the Indian Subcontinent, their distribution is reported from Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and from Pakistan and Nepal.
The Himalayan Grey Langur is normally confused with other species of langurs but can be easily identified by its larger size and outer sides of both the fore and hind limbs which are covered with silvery-dark coloured hair.
The long tail of this langur always forms a broad arc over its back, curving towards the head when on the ground. This langur is basically folivorous (leaf-eater) and feeds on a combination of fruits, buds, leaves, stems, barks, roots and flowers but has also been observed eating insects.
They prefer mature leaves as compared to the other parts of the plants.
S ajax is an endangered species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List but after reassessment in 2004, it was re-designated as 'Critically Endangered'.
It is considered endangered due to its restricted range habitat. They are present in an area of occupancy of less than 500 square kilometres in valleys surrounded by high peaks in Chamba.
The Himalayan Grey Langur is present in a particular area only during some parts of the year. They change their locality during different seasons, depending upon the availability of food and environmental conditions.
These langurs come to agriculture fields during the harvesting of crops and move to the deep forest during other periods of the year. This tendency is more visible in the areas of Kala Top and Khajjiar.
Generally, the Himalayan Grey Langur is known to be dependent on agricultural land, particularly in the Khajjiar area during the harvesting season.
Their mode of raiding agriculture fields is different from monkeys that are very violent and aggressive in nature. The Himalayan Grey Langur raids crops in a silent way.
However, Khajjar’s people now believe that this species is no longer shy and violent encounters are frequent. Locals say S ajax was not visible in human habitats in the past and has rarely raided cultivated fields in the past but presently, these incidents are more frequent.
Conflicts and Threats
Conflict between the Himalayan Grey Langur and humans is growing, with increasing incidents of crop raids. This is mainly due to the destruction of natural habitat and reduction in the natural food resources of this species in the forest.
Chamba, the most favourable natural habitat for S ajax is now affected by human activities, causing continuous decline in space. Agriculture, construction of roads and hydro-electrical projects are mainly responsible for this degradation.
In Chamba district, various minor and large hydro-electrical project are being constructed, resulting in large-scale habitat destructions as well as other ecological damages.
Expansion of the human population and developmental work leads to habitat loss. Forty-seven per cent panchayats in Chamba district are affected by monkey crop damage.
Feeding habits of monkeys and langurs have changed. Now, they have become more dependent on human leftovers like baked or cooked food available at human habitations, offered by tourists or left as garbage by hotels.
In the recent past, it has been recorded that rhesus macaques and langurs usually raid the crops of locals and cause huge economic losses to them. A new kind of conflict has developed between the ecology of these animals and local farmers.
There are threats to this endangered species which is struggling for habitat and food in the forest ecosystem and unfortunately, very little is known about its exact locations in the forest which is base line for any conservation measurement.
The major and common threats throughout the region are habitat loss and degradation through human encroachment, overgrazing, building roads through forests, lopping, deforestation, agriculture, fire, unavailability of food, predation by carnivores (leopards and tigers) and attack of several viral and bacterial diseases. Present and future threats are mainly due to agriculture and development practices.
Although the habitat of these langurs is stable currently, it is predicted to decline in the future by 10 per cent due to forest clearance for agriculture, tourism, hydro project construction and encroachments.
At the ecosystem level, primates including Dark Eyed Himalayan Langurs exert a very important feedback control on the vegetation itself and are also essential to maintain homeostasis of the forest ecosystem, especially critical for forest regeneration and survival.
Primates could also be projected as ‘flagship’ or ‘umbrella’ species in a forest ecosystem and by protecting a ‘primate’, a large number of species could be protected.
A primate often performs ecological services that are important to maintain tropical habitat such as seed disperser, pollinator, seed predator as well as food for the top predator.
Primates form an integral part of biodiversity and a cognisable link between humans and nature. This bond of kinship still exists between primates and humans in the region, which can be used to benefit biodiversity conservation by focusing on primates as a flagship species.
Though most of the localities which harbour S ajax are protected areas, special efforts are still required to protect and conserve this threatened species.
Concrete identification of species is required in most of the areas. The identification can be ascertained by using molecular techniques along with physical characteristics. As langurs are common to the Indian Subcontinent, people including experts from the field, are less sensitive towards S. ajax.
Two protected habitats of the species namely Machiara National Park and Dachigam National Park are located in politically disturbed areas. Machiara National park is in Pak-Occupied Kashmir where there is very little scope for scientific inputs.
In the present conditions, proper research and conservation of this species in the present localities of Chamba district has become very important.
Unfortunately, the government (both state and Central) and wild life department are not very keen to maintain the existence of this critically endangered species.
The following management actions for the conservation of this species are needed: wild population management, monitoring, public education, and limiting factor management.
Overall, the density of langurs is low. Hence, the conservation of this langur population should become a priority now to avoid decline in population of this endemic primate.
Vikram Singh is working as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biosciences, Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla
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