By S G Vinayaka
The formation of the Sharavathi Valley Lion Tailed Macaque (LTM) Sanctuary in Karnataka, India was a global benchmark and a big boost for conservation and protection of the Endangered Lion-Tailed Macaques – a species which is found only in the Western Ghats and nowhere else in the world.
It was on January 9, 2019 that the Karnataka State Wildlife Board chaired by Chief Minister of Karnataka approved the proposal to expand the existing 431 square kms Sharavathi valley wildlife sanctuary for protection and conservation of LTMs. After five months, on June 7th, the Government of Karnataka issued a Notification declaring 930 square kms as Sharavathi Valley Lion-Tailed Macaque (LTM) Sanctuary and the same was confirmed by a Gazette notification dated July 25, 2019. In fact, the sanctuary was formed by combining the existing Sharavathi valley wildlife sanctuary, Aghanashini Lion-Tailed Macaque conservation reserve and the adjoining reserve forest blocks.
The Lion-Tailed Macaque was considered as the flagship species of the new protected area.
Many mammalian species especially primates are becoming increasingly threatened due to changes in their habitat. Based on ecological studies examining species–habitat relationships in the context of changing habitat conditions and increasing anthropogenic pressures on the existing forested landscapes, there is need to enhance habitat protection. Such measures are critical for species that are endemic to narrow ranges of forests. One such species is the Lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus).
The Lion-Tailed Macaques are endemic to Western Ghats. Presently, they are confined to narrow strip of rainforests in Central and Southern Western Ghats. The distribution of LTM once extended from the southern tip of the Western Ghats to some parts of the states of Goa and Maharashtra (Green and Minkowaski 1977). The species’ range is today restricted to Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and the majority is now in numerous small isolated populations.
The lion-tailed macaque has been classified as Endangered (IUCN 2013) because of its highly selective feeding habits, limited range of occupancy (about 2500km2), delayed sexual maturity, long inter-birth intervals, low population turnover and small number of individuals remaining in the wild.
Currently Lion-tailed macaque populations faces severe threat from:
- Habitat fragmentation
- Habitat degradation due to anthropogenic pressures
- Illegal Hunting
Most of the rain forest in Western Ghats has been lost while the remaining LTM habitat occurs mostly as small patches with 1-4 groups each. It is now well known that such small isolated populations face a high probability of extinction because of random variations in demography and environment, catastrophes such as cyclones and diseases and inbreeding.
Rain forest fragmentation and habitat deterioration in the Western Ghats have affected the range and population structure of LTM severely. Large contiguous populations are expected to occur only in very few regions over the entire Western Ghats and the conservation status of the species is likely to differ across these sparse populations.
Presently along the Western Ghats, the Lion-Tailed Macaques occur in six separate populations.
- Sharavathi-Aghanashini valley
- Silent valley National Park
- Agasthyamalai landscape (Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve – Kanyakumari WLS – Shendurney WLS – Peppara WLS – Neyyar WLS)
To be noted, the Brahmagiri-Pushpagiri population was completely decimated by illegal hunting.
Illegal hunting is a serious problem in many places. It had been prevalent in Kodagu forests and Sharavathi valley for many years. As a result, the population in this ideal habitat has been reduced drastically.
Given the low birth rate and high age at first birth, the Lion-tailed Macaque does not have the ability to recover even from low levels of hunting.
The Lion-tailed Macaques being a habitat specialist feeds on a variety of diet. It is primarily frugivorous with fruits constituting up to 70% of its diet. It is known to forage in the top canopy over vast stretches of rainforests (Kumar 1987). This canopy highway is essential to the species because of their food preferences.
As the diversity of large mammals are relatively less in evergreen forests of Western Ghats, arboreal mammals are the key players and are considered as indicator species (Oates 1986). Through the presence of continuous canopy and the availability of diverse fruit-bearing trees round the year, the rain forests of the Western Ghats are extremely rich in arboreal faunal diversity, especially non-human primates.
A Lion-Tailed Macaque from Sharavathi valley. Photo credit: Vinayaka S G
Scientists while outlining the conservation prospects for the Western Ghats, have emphasized the importance of LTM as a flagship species of the rapidly declining rainforests of this biodiversity hotspot.
For Lion-tailed macaques, largescale restoration of its rainforest habitat, protecting important rainforest corridors and extending sanctuaries wherever possible in the Western Ghats are very critical for the long-term survival of the species.
Sharavathi Valley is one of the largest areas of tropical evergreen forest in the fragile Western Ghats. The river valley is home to a diverse array of species and sustains a very rich biodiversity, some of which are still unknown to the outer world.
Sharavathi valley rainforests which recently got enhanced protection. Photo credit: Vinayaka S G
Most importantly, it is home to endangered and endemic LTM and vulnerable Great Indian Hornbill apart from many other endangered species. The landscape is a conservation priority area for long term survival of LTM as it harbours the northernmost and a viable population of these endemic macaques in the whole Western Ghats.
An adult male Great Indian Hornbill from Sharavathi valley. Photo Credit: Vinayaka S G
Map showing Original Sharavathi valley WLS, adjoining reserve forest areas (red) and Aghanashini LTM conservation reserve together constituting Sharavathi valley Lion-Tailed Macaque sanctuary. Map credit: Vinayaka S G
Map showing reorganized (expanded) Sharavathi valley LTM sanctuary. Map credit: Vinayaka S G
National parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries constitute a mere 4 per cent of India’s land area and 5.6 % of Karnataka state’s land area, where intact assemblages of several Endangered species have the best chance of long-term survival in the wild.
Such being the case, the notification of Sharavathi valley LTM sanctuary last year is a historic decision by the Karnataka Government. This is a benchmark for all the nations across the world. Given the accelerated mass extinction of species in recent decades, decisions like these goes a long way in conservation of threatened species, their habitat and biodiversity as a whole.
(THE AUTHOR IS MEMBER OF IUCN WORLD COMMISSION ON PROTECTED AREAS (WCPA) & A WILDLIFE CONSERVATIONIST BASED IN SHIVAMOGGA, KARNATAKA, INDIA)