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The Have and Have-Nots: Primate Edition

April 18, 2018

On a recent trip to India, I was surprised to witness a type of pseudo-class hierarchy amongst different primate species. The rhesus macaque call India their home along with parts of Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, and a handful of other nearby countries.  In India, these monkeys are about as common as seagulls, and treated in much the same way. Their defiant and sneaky behavior has left them labeled as pests. The monkeys are not generally mistreated, but are seen as nuisances.

Macaques are considered ecological generalists, meaning they can adapt to live in a variety of habitats. According to the National Primate Research Center at the University of Wisconsin, macaques have been found living in semi-deserts, deciduous, bamboo, and temperate forests, urban settings, and swamps. In parts of India and China, rhesus macaques survive in mountainous regions with elevations up to 4000 meters. In concert with their ability to adapt to many environments, they are also able to consume many food types. They have also developed a scavenger- like diet. In Jaipur, the famous Pink City, my traveling companions and I witnessed a rhesus macaque steal an entire pizza from a man who had his back turned. On a drive through Agra, our driver threw spicy lentil treats out the window and we watched as a group of about fifteen macaques swarmed the road for the snacks. 

 

In contrast, many primate species

are viewed almost as royalty in India. The most sacred primates in the country are the Hanuman langur. This species is believed to be the form of Bajrang Bali, the god of power and strength. Like cows, most famously sacred in India, these monkeys are treated with care and respect and are allowed to roam wherever they please.

 

While langurs are also capable of adapting to many different habitats, their diet is more specific. Hanuman langurs typically have a more specialized diet due to their genetic makeup. Langurs are members of the colobine family, a subfamily of Old World monkeys. As colobine monkeys, their stomachs are specialized for processing leaves and the occasional flower. At a fort site near Delhi, we saw people feeding a grey langur (pictured above) marigolds by the handful. One of my travel companions and a resident of India, told me about the significance of marigolds. Saffron and orange, the colors of marigolds, signify reunification. The garlands are offered in Hindu festivals as symbols of surrender. In Sanskrit, they are called sthulapusha- this word symbolizes trust in the divine and a will to overcome obstacles. In addition to the religious importance of marigolds, it is thought that their oil is good for animals and that is why the garlands are often fed to the grey langurs. 

 

The human population in India has seen a steep increase in the recent decade while the rhesus macaque population also continues to increase. In the same vein that pigeons flock the streets of New York City, macaques take to the roads of large cities like Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. However, unlike pigeons, the macaques have also developed a taste for our foods and continue to perturb unaware pedestrians with thievery.  Although all monkeys are deified, it seems competition for resources and space is stripping rhesus macaques of their royal designation.

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