Biswajit De

Golden Heritage on the Thin Red Line!

Golden Heritage on the Thin Red Line!

India is bestowed with rich flora and fauna and is considered among the 12 Mega Bio-Diversity countries of the world. Out of the 25 bio-diversity hotspots in the world, India has two, namely- Western ghats and Eastern Himalayas. The Northeast region of India comprising of seven states viz. Assam (78,438sq.km), Arunachal Pradesh (83,743sq.km), Meghalaya (22,429sq.km), Mizoram (21,081sq.km), Tripura (10,491.69sq.km), Nagaland (16,579sq.km) and Manipur (22,327sq.km) has got two hotspots: The Himalayas and the Indo-Myanmar, comprising of a tri-juncture called Indo-Malayan, Indo-Chinese and Indo-Burmese sub regions. It is the gateway to Indias rich Bio-Geographical Diversity.

Primates constitute one of the important components of the faunal diversity of the Northeast region. The region presents the highest primate diversity in the country. 11 out of a total of 15 (now 17 with the discovery of the species Macaca munzula and Hoolock leuconedys from Arunachal Pradesh) species are found in the Northeastern states. Of these 11 species, the Slow Loris, Nycticebus bengalensis; 5 macaque species (the Rhesus, Assamese, Stump-tailed and Pigtailed apart from the new Arunachal macaque); 3 Langur species (Golden, Capped and Phayris leaf monkey) and two Gibbons (Western Hoolock gibbon and Eastern Hoolock gibbon), the Golden Langurs, Trachypithecus geei, are the most revered. Not only a religious symbol that enchants the visitors to the Northeast with anecdotes, beliefs and folk tales, it is also a species categorized as Endangered in the IUCN Red Data Book which is endemic to India and Bhutan. The distribution is confined to the forest belt in western Assam between the Manas river in the east, Sankosh in the west and the Brahmaputra in the south along the Indo-Bhutan border. Its distribution in Bhutan is limited to the foothills of the Black Mountains. The total range of this species in both India and Bhutan is less than 30,000sq.km.

Discovered by the British Naturalist Edward Pritchard Gee in the 1950s, the Golden Langur is a primate species.
As a tea planter, Gee was part of a highly influential group of British landowners very close to the highest levels of provincial power. Soon after India’s Independence, Gee was one of the first to assess the threats to endangered species and outline conservation measures to protect them.

The Golden Langur has a black face, long tail (can be 50cm in length) and the most appealing coat of rich golden creamish hair that covers its body. They appear more tawny in shade, but when sunlight catches its coat, it does indeed shine a brilliant golden. The long tail of the Golden Langur helps it in balancing itself while leaping across the branches of trees.

Golden Langur on tree

Golden Langur on tree

So close, so conspicuous, they are on the brink of extinction before we even get to know them thoroughly. The Wild taxa like Rhinos, Elephants and Tigers are very familiar to the people, but majority of the people do not know enough about the Golden Langur and the need for its conservation. The natural habitat of the species is shrinking at an alarming rate. In addition to that, a small group of Golden Langurs are witnessing the ordeals of introducing them in a habitat where they have no choice, but to die with time.
Within the city of Guwahati in the state of Assam, a small group of Golden Langurs can be found on the smallest river island of the river Brahmaputra, the Umananda Island or the Peacock Island (Coordinates: 2611’47″N 9144’42″E)as was named by some poetic British Administrator.

Umananda Google Map

Umananda Google Map

The temple of Umananda (Siva) is located on the Peacock Island, hence the name Umananda Island. The temple was built in 1694 A.D. by the Bar Phukan Garhganya Handique by the order of His Majesty Swargadeo Gadadhar Singh (1681- 1696), one of the ablest and strongest rulers of the Tai Ahom dynasty. Mythological stories associated with the islands however say that the Island had appeared from the heart of the Brahmaputra River upon the request from Lord Shiva. Every day, Country boats and Launches operated by the CentralInland WaterwaysCorporation and DirectorateofInland Waterways,Assam ply from the Kachari Ghat, Kuruwa Ferry Ghat and the Fancy Bazaar Ghat in Guwahati to take countless visitors, tourists and worshipers to the island.

A recent survey and interviews were conducted by the author with student naturalists from the schools of Guwahati, as a part of a programme entitled Nature as our Classroom, resulting in new observations and documentation of untold stories. It is said that a group of 15 Golden Langurs were introduced into the Umananda Island some 50 years back. Veteran worshipers at the temple speak of a certain King of Nepal (name unknown) who had taken the Golden Langurs to the Island to sacrifice them to the God. Upon protests from worshipers and some local people, the King was forced to keep the primates on the island and return. Thus as an Introduced species, nurtured and cradled by nature, the Golden Langurs had been on that island ever since. Their numbers had increased to 17 some 25 years back, the veteran worshipers further observed. Now only 6 of them are alive on the Island, struggling to exist.

The Golden Langur is herbivorous and its diet mainly consists of ripe and unripe fruits, mature and young leaves, seeds, buds and flowers. With the advent of mixed religious beliefs and the need for the construction of multiple temples and the resultant increase in stalls to cater to the pilgrim and tourist traffic the daily fuel requirements has increased over the past 15 years. The stall-holders do not hesitate to indulge in illegal logging, wood-cutting and illegal encroachment on the island. Habitat destruction due to cutting of the vegetation on the island has put the status of the Golden Langurs on a knife edge. Lack of their natural diet has forced the Langurs to answer the calls of the people visiting the Island and accept offerings of Fruits, Berries, Nuts, even low-grade sponge cakes, potato chips and other Junk Food. Now, the Golden Langurs need to co-exist with the stall-holders on the island. The shops seem to be their only source of fresh water to drink. Their daily natural diet has been replaced by the cheap sponge cakes and Laddoos. The shopkeepers sell the cakes and junk food to the visitors on the island and encourage them to feed those to the Golden Langurs.

Golden Langur with Sponge Cake

Golden Langur with Sponge Cake

People often come close to the Golden Langurs to pose photographs and feed them with the cakes. The Golden Langurs gently reach out for the cakes and then retreat to a safe distance into the trees to eat. Visitors would often be chided by the shopkeepers for breaking the cakes and laddoos into what seemed like sensible, smaller pieces, as (according to them) the Golden Langurs prefer to have one whole cake. A Boat operator runs a part time business on the Umananda Island as a resident Chai-wala, who sells cakes and laddos at Rs. 10 a throw. A rusted board put up by the Forest department of Assam that reads Please do not Feed the Golden Langurs fails to make the people aware that one should not feed junk food to the animals. But there is something irresistible about the way the Golden Langurs come swinging down when the Chai-wala calls them shouting filmy names, Govindaaaaaaa.Sreedeviiiiiiii.Hemmmmaaaaaaa.

Golden Langur with People

Golden Langur with People

Two of them had been reported to have died of Food Poisoning in the year 1999. Over the past few years the local NGOs have observed that there is a decline in the number of mature individuals. They state that they have witnessed a serious population decline, estimated to be more than 50% over the past years on the Umananda Island. Those actively involved in wildlife conservation in the state of Assam further attribute habitat loss and feeding of junk food to be the two main reasons for the dwindling population of the species.

Translocation was proposed and requested by many organizations to the Forest Department of Assam. On February 14th, 2011, a female golden langur was successfully translocated from Umananda, to the State Zoo in Guwahati as part of the Central Zoo Authority’s (CZA) conservation breeding programme for the endangered species. The officials had reported that the langur had been quarantined. They wanted to ascertain that the animal is free from diseases before putting it with other males in the zoo. But after a few initial tests the Zoo had returned the Langur to Umananda stating Diseases and Genetic Disorders. After ten days another female Golden Langur was to be translocated from Umananda to the zoo but the project was stopped.

Interestingly, the Assam-State-Zoo-cum-Botanical Garden, Guwahati, is also thinking about building a conservation-breeding centre for the Golden Langurs on its premises. Zoo DFO, Mr. Utpal Bora said, The project is highly ambitious and right now it is at a preliminary stage. We have submitted the initial proposals to the government to set up the breeding centre inside the zoo which is a very suitable location for their breeding. Once completed, the facility promises to be a big boon to researchers and if the project tastes success, according to reports, at least 100 Golden Langurs could be nurtured, which could be then released in the wild.

Elsewhere in the State, new lifestyle choices such as the new fad by young locals towards eating primate meat, is also being blamed for the dwindling numbers of the Golden Langurs. Scientists at the Bodoland University areworking towards test tube productionof the endangered Golden Langur, using the embryo-transfer technology. According to the Scientists, Embryo-transfer techniques have been applied to nearly every species of domestic animal and many species of wildlife and exotic animals. The population of the golden langur is fast declining because of various reasons and unless something is done immediately, this beautiful animal will soon disappear from this earth. So it is our responsibility to increase the population of the species. They further state that since the University is quite close to the Manas National Park, where the Golden Langur is also found, hence it would be easy to carry out the embryo transfer process.

Golden Langur Portrait

Golden Langur Portrait

The responsibility lies on us as a country to tackle the real reasons causing the steady decline of the Golden Langur population. Encroachment of our forests by people needs to be tackled either by legislating policies at the state level or enforcing policies of the country already in place. The real reasons why so many people are taking to the forests, resorting to illegal logging also needs to be probed. The solutions here may lie in cheap and renewable energy sources as well educating the locals on the importance of the monkeys in the bio-diversity chain. The role of education is very important to change attitudes and behaviour such as feeding junk food to the animals both in their natural habitats and in zoos and to stop eating primate meat, while still being respectful to any culture or tradition, past and present in the concerned areas.

It is upon us to realize that the delicate balance of the earth is at stake and every endangered species, whether Rhinos, Tigers or Langurs, are equally important. As we debate, discuss, ponder, re-think, act, spread awareness, strive to conserve, the Golden Heritage of the city of Guwahati is facing the Thin Red Line, like many other species.

Are we, the humans, moving to embark on another Ark of Time?

-Biswajit De
Guwahati, 15th July, 2013.

Biswajit De

Biswajit De

Creative Director & HOD. Dept. of Graphic Design, Visual Arts & Media,
Maria's Public School,
Guwahati, Assam, India
Biswajit De