Colubines in Attidiya

By Alan de Costa

I am usually in position at dawn. Sitting down in my walled garden in Attidiya with a cup of coffee, connected to the world and checking the news on my laptop. I hear them from quite far away at first. A short tripled roar in and out rather like a hunting leopard. This is repeated a few times, and then the usual Attidiya sounds. I must say it is usually very quiet around here. My neighbour keeps a large dog permanently in a cage which does occasionally go mad and barks for hours on end. Any excuse for celebration leads to major pyrotechnics and more barking. And then there are these monkeys. Usually early in the afternoon they are on the move and I hear their roars and the noise of large animals thudding along roofs and the local dogs responding. The citizens are also alarmed and a string of crackers go off allowing me to plot their journey. The garden across the street may be one of their targets. It has beautiful large and mature fruit trees, and does not have a resident dog.

Over the years I have observed what I think is the same group. Initially there were 14 in the group. More recently just four, seemingly all adults.

They are very noisy movers, in this suburb at any rate, and when they hit the tin roof over my head cause a crash which can probably be heard at the airport, and sets off the dog into high pitched hysteria. Sometimes they would stop briefly on my wall and return my stare. The big males are really quite intimidating. Shaggy, grey on the back and seemingly quite straw coloured in the front. Thick long tails, hang vertically downward, with none of the elegant question mark of the Wanduras. The tails are a problem. Last year one of them made what should have been a fatal connection on the power lines and hit the ground in a blaze of smoky blue light and the acrid smell of singed monkey powerful in our nostrils. But he was up in a trice and over our heads into the next neighbourhood, leaving us in the dark until the next morning.Their vocalization is also very unlike the wanduras I know. They don’t seem to have the "kathe-ko" of the wandura, but a barking in and out roar which almost seems aggressive as much as a warning.

Yesterday there were only two, deeply in conflict. They were hurling themselves at each other from prodigious heights with nothing less than murder on view. The larger male scampered into the top of a tall coconut tree waiting for ambush. His challenger seeing the trap, raced up the same tree and there was an almighty scuffle with roars and growls at 60 feet. They both leap out toward the wall entwined for part of the journey and crashed into the banana trees along the perimeter, and then up again into the huge Amberella tree towering over everything. It was exhilarating stuff.

So what kind of monkeys are these? I am pretty certain these are not our standard Langurs. Having grown up with one as a pet, I think I should know. They, I think are more elegant, have wonderous mobile tails, tend to be less vocal unless frightened, and do not perform these incredible aerobatics. They also seem to be calmer, less violent and certainly less threatening. Also when leaping I have noticed the langurs are usually upright fore and hind legs extended in front of them the tail a question marked rudder, and usually a look of horror or a silly grin on their faces. These Attidyaapes leap downward violently. In attack headfirst and to hell with it; ordinarily forward inclined and arms open, tails in the slipstream.

Uncle Google comes to the rescue, and introduces me to "The Primates of Sri Lanka" by Anna Nekaris and Gehan de Silva Wijeyratne. A scholarly work, beautifully illustrated and easy to read. Of course the answer comes quickly and certainly" the Purle-Faced Leaf Monkey" it is. Trachypithecusvetulus. But what subspecies? According to the text the animals that occur around Colombo are Tvnestor. But a description of the animals and their behavior seem much more like Tvmonticola, the Bear Monkey or Maha Wandura. These are usually described in the highlands around Horton Plains. But I do think that is what they are.

I am not sure they have a future here. My neighbour’s garden is slated for development. Tempus fugit!

Alan de Costa is a Professor of Surgery in Australia, and a regular visitor to Sri Lanka

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