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The Story Behind Finding a New Species of Primate in India

Text & photos by Udayan Borthakur

The snow-capped mountain peaks of Eastern Arunachal

Conservation of wildlife is both my passion and profession. There is though a slight but important difference: my passion compels me to wander into areas even where my professional requirements do not necessitate me to go. And when another person shares the same passion, there cannot be any place too remote to be explored. Before I tell you the story of how three wildlife biologists and serious photographers recently discovered a new species of rare primate for India, I must first tell you how the three of us got together.

Dr Ranjan Kumar Das, a renowned bird expert from the Northeast and a Geography professor at Tinsukia College shares my interest in wildlife. Only he is more focused on birds. We started taking birding trips together since 2012, when we first met at Dihing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. Another person who is a professional wildlife biologist, and whom I have seen working in the wilderness as a youngster, is Dr. Dilip Chetry. I know him since 1998, when he worked as a PhD scholar in Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary in my hometown Jorhat, and inspired a few like me to get involved with wildlife. Now, after almost two decades, both Dr. Chetry and I are colleagues in the same organization, Aaranyak.

The East Beckons

In the year 2015, we set out for the Eastern corner of India in Arunachal Pradesh. Our target location was Walong in Anjaw district, a place known to many because of the Chinese invasion in 1962. However, to nature and wildlife enthusiasts, Walong is better known for a more recent Chinese invasion! Four new species of birds which were earlier known to be found only in China were found in Walong. Our plan was to see and photograph those as well as look for other rare species, in birding lingo looking for ‘lifers’.

Walong in Anjaw district of Arunachal Pradesh

One fine morning, we set out accompanied by our professional bird guide Binanda Hatibarua. Binanda is someone who has successfully made a career out of his passion, he is now known as one of the best birding guides in the Northeast. That morning, amidst a variety of bird calls, we were driving slowly to our destination for the day, when someone in the vehicle whispered about some movement in the bushes on the roadside. Generally, I always have my finger poised on the camera shutter, but I was rather relaxed that day as Dr Das was ready with his. His massive lens of Nikon 400mm f/2.8 is probably as fast as an assault rifle and this movement on the bushes was on his side of the vehicle. A moment after stopping the vehicle, we saw two macaques on a bare tree, and as soon as Dr Das pointed his lens, they almost instantly jumped down to the steep slope of the hills. But just before they jumped, I could hear his shutter getting released. The next moment, I got down from the vehicle and started looking for more macaques and found a few busy in the thick foliage cover below. After a couple of attempts, I could get a few lousy shots of another individual in that group of about 20 macaques.

Some of the individual of the troop of macaque we have encountered

- The white-cheeked macaque

Once they had gone off, we started reviewing what we captured. Our first reaction was, this one does not look exactly like an Assamese or Arunachal macaque, two species that we were expecting to identify from our photographs. In the field, we were limited by our reach to reference publications for concrete identification.

Joy of Discovery

Once we came back, we started comparing our images with the already known macaques. However, there were some very distinct differences that we noticed. Subsequently, Dr Chetry took up the matter and consulted several primate taxonomy experts in the world. The response was mixed.

It was then that we came across a scientific publication in American Journal of Primatology, describing a new species of Macaque from South Eastern Tibet in China. It was the White-cheeked Macaque, a primate described solely on the basis of photographs and morphological differences from other similar species such as Rhesus Macaque or Assamese Macaque.

What is more interesting was that this publication had come out in March 2015, almost around the same time when we were photographing the primate in Arunachal. After thorough consultation and analysing various pictures that we could capture during the trip, we finally declared that we found a new species of primate, the second new macaque for India, after the description of Arunachal Macaque to science by Dr Anindya Sinha in the year 2005.

Giving Impetus to Conservation

You may wonder, what’s the big deal in having added another species of primate to the list of Indian mammals? Well, the conservation significance of an area is determined by the presence of rare and endemic species, which may get threatened due to anthropogenic or environmental factors. The finding of this new macaque species enhances the prospect of biodiversity conservation in Eastern Arunachal and gives thrust on more field studies, research and conservation initiatives.

The habitat of white-cheeked macaque

Even though we are professional biologists, we went on this trip as nature enthusiasts and wildlife photographers and not to conduct any scientific expedition. Thus, this discovery demonstrates how even photographers and wildlife lovers can contribute to the science of understanding species distribution, a vital aspect of planning conservation actions.

The journey through narrow hilly roads

* Republished from Eclectic Northeast June 2016 issue with edits and photographs from the author

About the Author:

Udayan Borthakur is a wildlife biologist, nature photographer and filmmaker working with Aaranyak. He specialises in conservation genetics of threatened species, having 15 years of experience of working in India and abroad.

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