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The Last of the Sri Lankan Monkeys | Thulitha Abayawardhana | Auckland

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Back in the ‘80s when I was a kid raised in the Colombo suburb of Kottawa, I could hear a peculiar sound from afar. It was a loud continuous growl coming from a thicket, which covered a decent range opposite our house. My grandmother used to say, they were monkeys. At that time, I had never seen these monkeys, but by the mid-’90s, we started seeing them around our neighbourhood. As they raided the jackfruit and king coconut trees and damaged our roofs, everyone thought they were a nuisance. Since then, our neighbourhood has been nothing short of such encounters. Naturally, the residents think the monkeys have grown immensely in numbers.

However, another change was occurring back in the ‘90s. Many houses were built in the area clearing the thicket. When the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has listed the Sri Lankan monkeys as endangered, it is unlikely that their numbers would grow. What obviously happened was as the thicket got cleared, they had no option but to scatter around in search of food.

The species of monkey we’ve heard and seen is none other than the Purple-faced langur/කළු වඳුරා (Semnopithecus vetulus). A species endemic to Sri Lanka, found nowhere else in the world. A species listed as endangered by the IUCN.

To be more specific, the monkey found in our area is the subspecies, Western purple-faced langur (Semnopithecus vetulus nestor). Confined to the highly urbanised Western Province, it is critically endangered. Apart from this subspecies, there are three more. The Northern purple-faced langur (Semnopithecus vetulus philbricki), found in North Central Province; Southern purple-faced langur (Semnopithecus vetulus vetulus), found in the South and Sinharaja rainforest and Bear monkey/වලස් වඳුරා (Semnopithecus vetulus monticola), residing in the central highlands and an obvious poster child for the Horton Plains. 

Sri Lanka is also home to two more species of monkeys. The Toque macaque/රිළවා (Macaca sinica), which is also endemic and endangered and Tufted grey langur/හැලි වඳුරා (Semnopithecus priam), found in India as well.  

The Toque macaque consists of three subspecies. Macaca sinica sinica, spreading throughout the dry zone; Macaca sinica aurifrons, found around Kandy and the critically endangered Macaca sinica opsithomelas, found in the central highlands. 

Although the Tufted grey langur is also found in India, Sri Lanka can boast of its own unique subspecies (Semnopithecus priam thersites) found in the dry zone. The conservation status of this subspecies is vulnerable. That means it’s only a matter of time until it joins its cousins on the endangered list.

Just to be clear, the status of Sri Lankan monkeys is that we have three species, two of them are endemic and endangered, while the other is vulnerable. Sounds like they need a lot of protection. But to my shock, I recently learned that the minister of Agriculture and Wildlife had stated that the monkeys had been removed from the Animal Protection Act because they damaged crops.

It may make sense if farmers are allowed to kill monkeys if they are found on their property. But removing them from protection altogether means that anyone can hunt them mindlessly. Since monkey is also a popular bushmeat, the situation may get worse. 

Surely, the monkeys are not as majestic as the leopards and elephants, not as innocent as the hares and deer. No doubt, people care less about them. But they are beneficial to the health of ecosystems. As a creature with higher mobility, they are capable of dispersing seeds covering larger areas. That means the death of the monkeys could also result in the death of the forests. These endemic monkeys can also benefit the ecotourism industry. Many tourists are eager to visit to witness our unique wildlife. 

Why do they damage crops? As mentioned earlier, when their habitat is lost due to human encroachment, they become desperate to find food anywhere. The solution is not to kill them off, but to properly manage wildlife. Sri Lanka has so many talented scientists who research these species and are highly capable of suggesting sustainable farming and wildlife conservation methods. But do our authorities want to listen to them? Do they ever care about protecting these national treasures?

By Thulitha Abayawardhana – Auckland

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