Editor's note: As world leaders discuss potential measures to protect the planet’s threatened species and ecosystems at the Convention on Biological Diversity 12th Conference of the Parties (CBD COP 12) in South Korea, Human Nature brings you a story of one of the many field projects already taking action: the Himalayan Langur Project.
“They come into our fields, they destroy our crops, and we have little left for the winter. We do not know what to do,” the village elder lamented.
“Give us a shotgun and we would shoot them all down,” his friend added in a calm, decisive tone.
These men echo the emotions of many farmers living around the forests of Chamba, in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The subject of their complaints? A monkey called the Chamba sacred langur (Semnopithecus ajax).
The Himalayan Langur Project was conceived in 2012 by a team of researchers, conservationists and nature enthusiasts. Our main objective was to establish the taxonomy, distribution and conservation threats of the Chamba sacred langur, one of the three species of Himalayan langurs.
Until we began our research, most of what was known about Himalayan langurs was based on aging skin specimens and ambiguous information catalogued in museums. Evidence suggested that the Chamba sacred langur was the only Himalayan langur in Chamba — and that it was found only in the forests of this isolated region — but we didn’t know for sure.
Such hazy information would have made implementing conservation efforts difficult … if there were any to begin with. Proper scientific research to learn more about the langurs was, therefore, a pressing necessity.
But finding the langurs isn’t easy. They have a highly unpredictable movement pattern and a relatively large home range, and the steep, rugged and slippery terrain where they live isn’t easy to scale. Sometimes the tracks are less than a meter wide and by the time you reach the alpine zone, you are out of breath. The langurs are generally shy of humans, scurrying up trees and hiding out of camera range. It was a bit of a surprise indeed to hear that such shy creatures were habitual crop raiders.
Farmers versus Langurs
Primate crop raiding is a real and persistent issue — not only in Chamba, but also in other parts of India and other countries like Uganda, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
There is an unnerving sense of helplessness and despondency in Chamba’s farming communities. People believe that they have no way of resolving the issue and protecting the resources they have invested so much time and money into. They ask why the langur is protected while they are not.
It was apparent that for any conservation project to be successful in Chamba, we needed the people’s support — and the people weren’t going to support us if they did not feel good about the langurs.
A booming tourist site, Chamba has seen rampant urbanization in recent years. Many roads bisect the forest, resulting in habitat loss and fragmentation and leaving the langurs jostling for space and resources in shrinking habitats. They are currently classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The last thing these langurs need is antipathy from people. Therefore, we decided to narrow our project’s focus to human-langur conflict studies and mitigation.
Understanding the Causes of Crop Raiding
During the baseline survey we conducted from 2012 to 2014, many communities around the Khajjiar-Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary reported crop loss to wildlife raiding. Although many farmers blamed the langurs, crucial information emerged out of our interviews.
Asiatic black bears, macaques and porcupines raided crops too — often at the same time as langurs. Could it be that people are just misplacing and channeling their frustration about all crop-raiders on the langurs? Are langurs actually the prime raiders? If so, why do they do it? Such crucial questions need answers in order to solve the problem.
Currently, there are no raid deterrents in place. “Nothing works. We throw stones, we shout, but they aren’t scared,” one farmer said.
To establish a viable crop protection scheme in the region, it is imperative to understand the feeding behavior of the raider, be it langur, macaque or black bear. Community participation and cooperation are vital for such research. To facilitate such cooperation, we are working to build a platform called the Conflict Mitigation and Conservation Monitoring (CM2) System.
This is a community partnership platform wherein communities affected by wildlife crop raiding come together to discuss the issue, brainstorm potential solutions, implement and evaluate ideas and share their experience with other affected communities in Chamba.
But our project goes beyond establishing the CM2 system. It involves exhaustive research to understand the causes of wildlife crop raiding, raider behavior and the socioeconomic and emotional consequences of raiding on people.
Although women are the primary farmers in many communities, they are often excluded from community conservation programs, their ideas and perspectives vehemently ignored. The CM2 platform seeks to involve local women at all levels and stages of the program, working hard to ensure that no group in the community is left out or unheard. We hope the platform will also help to build conservation awareness, ensuring that local people understand and appreciate the value of their region’s wildlife.
Gaining Community Support
Our work here is not without challenges. The terrain is unforgiving, the weather unpredictable, the solitude overwhelming and the forests filled with black bears and leopards. “The black bear might perform surgeries on you. Stay on guard!” warned a lady during one of our surveys.
Above all, most of the communities are weary of strangers, so success demands considerable patience and persistence.
But we are not without hope! We are adopting a multi-thronged approach to encourage and involve communities. Several community leaders have shown keen interest in the project; they will be our representatives and mediators in the communities, helping us manage, monitor and champion the conservation cause. Our education projects in schools have also succeeded in getting children enthusiastic about conservation. In addition, we’ve received much support and cooperation from the local forest department.
This work is not easy, but we will carry on with increased vigor, learning many lessons along the way.
Martina Anandam is a researcher with Wildlife Information Liaison Development (WILD); together with Praveen Vishal Ahuja, she leads the Himalayan Langur Project. This project recently received a Follow-Up Award from the Conservation Leadership Programme, which is a partnership of CI, BirdLife International, Fauna & Flora International and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
In addition, the Himalayan Langur Project is generously supported by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, the Rufford Small Grants Foundation, the Prince Bernhard Nature Fund and the South Asian network of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group.