These Intense Photos of Lion-Tailed Macaques Will Turn You Into a Conservationist

A few thousand macaques still exist in the wild—but for how much longer?

Heavy maternal investment makes sense: Females bear only four or five offspring in a lifetime. The tail of this Old World monkey isn’t prehensile but instead is used for balance, as with this adventurous yearling. Anup Shah & Fiona Rogers
Weighing under a pound at birth, lion-tailed macaques nurse for up to a year. Anup Shah & Fiona Rogers
Near an old plantation, a young macaque, not quite an adult, waits in a bottlebrush tree, often grown in gardens in India. Native forests now cover only about 25 percent of the slopes in the Western Ghats, one of the world’s most fragmented biodiversity hot spots—and among the most densely populated, with 50 million people. Anup Shah & Fiona Rogers
Lion-tailed macaques subsist largely on fruits and seeds, a high-energy but narrow diet said to make them more susceptible to habitat destruction. Anup Shah & Fiona Rogers
A male macaque bares his teeth—a common display during mating. “Maybe it was a warning to me,” speculates photographer Anup Shah. Macaque couples tend to withdraw from their group to copulate, thus limiting harassment from other individuals, but this pair didn’t bother with privacy. Anup Shah & Fiona Rogers
Still, the arboreal animals also sometimes forage for frogs, small reptiles and insects, even ransacking a termite nest to get at the protein-rich eggs. Anup Shah & Fiona Rogers
The future of these primates remains uncertain, but it will no doubt depend in part on efforts to reconnect forest fragments and build bridges across existing roads. Anup Shah & Fiona Rogers
Groups of lion-tailed macaques typically move from feeding site to feeding site through the tree canopy. In fragmented habitats, though, they sometimes travel by ground. Anup Shah & Fiona Rogers
When delivering a threat, perhaps to an invading group, lion-tailed macaques open their mouths wide and whoop loudly. Anup Shah & Fiona Rogers
The favored fruits of the lion-tailed macaques vary across the Western Ghats and might include mango, elephant apple, jack fruit and fig. Anup Shah & Fiona Rogers
If the situation worsens, conservation workers might attempt to actively relocate young male lion-tailed macaques, to facilitate mating between groups. Anup Shah & Fiona Rogers
This might look like a fight, but these lion-tailed macaques are more likely playing. Lip shape, gaze direction and gestures all offer clues to the meaning behind behaviors. Anup Shah & Fiona Rogers
Grooming is a highly social interaction. Among lion-tailed macaques, higher-ranking females receive more grooming and groom others less than lower-ranking peers. Anup Shah & Fiona Rogers
Anup Shah & Fiona Rogers

Back when the forest was thicker, it was difficult even to catch a glimpse of a lion-tailed macaque. Small, shy and quiet (nearly silent by howler standards), the monkeys are so habituated to the shadow-filled canopy that some scientists consider them the only truly arboreal macaques on earth. And they only live in the Western Ghats, a mountain range along India’s western coast. Because counting the furtive creatures isn’t easy, the best guess is that only 3,500 or so survive. Whether that number is greater or fewer than decades ago isn’t certain, but the more scientists know about the monkey, the more they fear that road-building, logging and other human encroachments pose a serious threat to the glossy black primate with the arresting mane and tufted, leonine tail

A small village in the state of Kerala, in southwestern India, Nelliyampathy is among the best places to see lion-tailed macaques in what looks like a relatively intact habitat. Many nearby coffee and tea plantations have been abandoned and have begun their slow return to wilderness. My guide, Joseph J. Erinjery, a gangly 27-year-old graduate student at the University of Mysore, spots a group of about 40 animals feasting in jackfruit trees and brings his truck to a halt. The slapstick scene before us pits one of the world’s smallest macaques, maxing out at some 20 pounds and two feet tall, against the world’s largest tree-borne fruit, which can weigh as much as 100 pounds and reaches three feet. I watched a monkey balance between two branches, use its forelimbs to immobilize a jackfruit larger than itself and proceed to tear into it with sharp front teeth. I also saw a young male teetering on two legs as he carried one off to eat on his own.

About a three-and-a-half-hour drive southeast of here, in and around Indira Gandhi National Park, in the state of Tamil Nadu, the photographers Anup Shah and Fiona Rogers spent four weeks observing the daily rhythms of another troop of macaques. “Feed, rest, feed, rest, feed, rest, move to another site, feed and rest,” Shah says jokingly of the monkey’s lifestyle.

Lion-tailed macaques live in groups of, on average, 15 individuals. Groups often have a dominant male, and while adult females remain in the group they are born into, males tend to leave at the age of 5 or 6 to find another group in which to mate. This puts the primates at added risk when habitat is broken up, as it is near the town of Valparai, in Tamil Nadu. Roads not only pose a direct threat—some animals have taken to begging for snacks from tourists, and a number of monkeys have been run over—but also roads, reservoirs and other development make it tougher for roaming males to reach new groups. And that can keep them from breeding or lead to inbreeding, which causes health problems in the long run. Mewa Singh, a primate researcher at the University of Mysore who has spent two decades tracking lion-tailed macaques, said human encroachment’s most dramatic consequences “may show themselves only in several generations.”

Conservationists in the region are working with plantation owners and the government to support the remaining lion-tailed macaques. One approach is to limit forest-cutting and restore habitat. Another is to connect tree canopies with canvas bridges that span busy roads—to help these charismatic primates overcome the obstacles we’ve placed in their way.                      

Tales From Gombe

The Gombe chimpanzees are probably the most famous group of wild animals in history, having been observed and chronicled for more than 50 years. Over the course of the last decade, Anup Shah and Fiona Rogers have dedicated long periods of their time to studying the various dynasties, photographing the key players and observing their actions. In "Tales from Gombe" they introduce the different characters and tell the fascinating stories of their lives, through both words and breathtaking photography.

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