Sunday, 9 June 2013

Monkeying Around the Himalayan River Runners Camp Site

Monkeys are a familiar sight around the Ganges River and the Himalayan River Runners camp site. You might even find one or two watching with great interest while you take a shower! There are two kinds of monkeys in the area – the grey langur (sometimes called the Hanuman langur, after the Hindu god) and the rhesus macaque. 

Grey langurs are generally shy and like to hang out in forests and wooded areas, although you will also find them in cities.  There are actually several different species, although only an expert could tell the difference. Most are a pretty silvery grey with long silky fur, black faces and ears and a long elegant tail. Some species have a golden tinge and there is a cousin, the golden langur, which is a gorgeous ash blonde.

In general, grey langurs live in low to moderate altitudes but some can be found as high as 4000 metres up in the Himalayas.  Their size varies – males are larger than females – but they are approximately 51 to 79 cm from head to rump, with tales ranging from 69 to 102 cm long.  Langurs move with a graceful economy, whether walking on all fours on the ground or swinging through the trees. 

Since grey langurs can adapt to various habitats, they don’t mind sharing space with humans.  And like most humans, they sleep at night, whether in trees or, when they’re living in a city, making an electrical pole or a tower their bed.  When it comes to diet, they are mostly plant eaters but may enjoy a protein supplement from the occasional termite mound or spider web.  They will accept handouts from humans, and may hang around places where scraps are available.  But for the most part, they are gentle, non-aggressive creatures.

Rhesus macaques

Rhesus macaques, however, are another matter. They are very bold and have become pests in Indian cities. You will almost certainly encounter them if you take a trip into Rishikesh from the Himalayan River Runners Ganga Base Camp.

To be fair to these monkeys, much of their marauding in cities is due to the loss of natural habitat.  That’s why you’ll find them sorting through your rubbish for food or even trying to remove the cover from your water tanks to relieve their thirst. But it’s hard to remind yourself of that when you discover them invading your garden or taking a swim in the water tank!

Rhesus monkeys have the widest geographic range of any nonhuman primate. You’ll find them across Central, South and Southeast Asia, living in open areas or grasslands, woodlands or mountains. Like the langur, the rhesus monkey sleeps at night and subsists on plants for food, with an occasional snack of insects. They have pouch-like cheeks, so they can temporarily store food in their mouths.

The Bandar-log

There is some debate as to whether it was the rhesus macaques or the langurs that were the “Bandar-log” (monkey people) of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.  In these stories, the monkeys are portrayed as a feckless bunch, held in contempt by the rest of the jungle for their irresponsible ways. Their foolish chattering is described in Kipling’s “Road Song of the Bandar-Log”:

“Here we sit in a branchy row/Thinking of beautiful things we know;
Dreaming of deeds that we mean to do/All complete, in a minute or two—
Something noble and wise and good/Done by merely wishing we could.
We've forgotten, but—never mind/Brother, thy tail hangs down behind!”

Our rhesus relatives

When it comes to family relations, it is the rhesus monkeys rather than the langurs that are closest to us. We were distant cousins about 25 million years ago, sharing a common ancestor, and we also share about 93% of our DNA sequence with them. For this reason, rhesus monkeys are used frequently in medical research because they are anatomically and physiologically similar to humans. 

The next time you’re on the Ganga or in the area of the Himalayan River Runners camp site, keep an eye out for langurs and rhesus monkeys. Their antics are fun to watch and they are often fiendishly clever.  Do take care, though, and keep your distance.

Photo: Rhesus macaques in Rishikesh, taken by Ulrike Boecking of the German School, New Delhi

Tags:  rhesus monkey, grey langur, macaque, rhesus macaque, Himalayan river runners, Himalayas, Ganga river, Ganga base camp, Rudyard Kipling, Jungle Book, Bandar-log, primate, Hanuman langur

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