Author: Bittu Sahgal
Photo: Harsh Piramal.
Three decades ago, I discovered the joys of langur watching in forests such as Ranthambhore, Kanha and Nagarahole. At first it was their antics – chasing, purposeless bounding, noisy quarrelling and arboreal acrobatics – that would hold my attention. When I got to know and recognise individuals, I began to look out for personality quirks. Like us, some are inveterate bullies, others are shy and timid, some are adventurous extroverts and others seem apathetic, almost bored.
In the 1970s, when the pace of life was slower, I would often walk from the Kanha Forest Rest House, across the famous Kanha meadow, to Shravan Taal (lake) in the company of the late tracker and naturalist Manglu Baiga (Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII No. 6, December 2013). Together we would sit on winter mornings, dry rations in hand, sleepily watching birds and animals come and go. With tigers, leopards and wild dogs about, herbivores would inevitably approach the tank hesitantly, drink and retreat to the safety of shaded glades. Not so the troupes of langurs that would sometimes hang around for hours. My late friend Bhagwan Rekwar who ran Shakti Travels, would be impatient about tarrying too long: there were tigers to watch. But Manglu, if anything, seemed even more fascinated by the langurs than I. He was the first to divulge to me that infanticide was commonplace in langur society. If a bahar ka (intruder) male displaced the dominant male that had sired the current crop of infants and sub-adults, the powerful one would readily kill the young ones and then inseminate available females that would soon come into estrus. Many females would in fact solicitously groom the new male in the hope that keeping him in good humour might enable their sub-adult offspring to live another day.
Looking at this agreeable image of a serene troupe of langurs, shot by Harsh Piramal in Pench, Madhya Pradesh, it is difficult to relate their propensity for violence with the strategy of cooperative existence that marks the evolution of primates. But why look so far when violence is even more graphically on display within human societies? Of course, the monkeys act from instinct, while the naked ape shatters his peaceable kingdom with a bloody-minded, wilful malevolence unequalled in the animal world.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 1, February 2014.