Monkeys and apes
These young orphaned orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) in the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah, Borneo, love to be driven in a wheelbarrow into the rainforest, where they learn to climb trees. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
”We are monkeys with money and guns.”
– Tom Waits (born 1949), American singer, musician, composer, songwriter, and actor
Monkeys are our nearest relatives – in fact, scientifically speaking, we are a species of ape, so it is quite true, what Tom Waits says.
A Hindu legend relates that a young man named Narad Muni went to participate in a Swayamwara, during which young girls can choose a husband. This young man was very proud of himself and was convinced that he was the most handsome among the men. However, as the day came to an end, he went away heartbroken, because none of the young girls had chosen him. On his way home, he got thirsty, so he went to a waterhole to quench his thirst. His reflection in the water told him that he now had a monkey’s head.
Before dealing in depth with various groups of (other) monkeys, a selection of photographs shows their great diversity. The main source used on this page is the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (iucnredlist.org).
Red-bellied spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi ssp. frontatus), also called black-browed spider monkey, feeding on coffee-like fruits, Tortuguero National Park, Limón, Costa Rica. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This young long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis) at Angkor Thom, Cambodia, is hanging upside down in a branch, before letting go and dropping headlong into a pond below. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Two northern plains langurs (Semnopithecus entellus), outlined against the light, Ranthambhor National Park, Rajasthan, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Olive baboons (Papio anubis), resting in an African palmyra palm (Borassus aethiopum), Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Male lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus), scratching his head, Puthutottam Forest, Tamil Nadu, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
White-headed capuchin (Cebus capucinus), resting on a branch, Parque Nacional Palo Verde, Guanacaste, Costa Rica. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Young rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta), gnawing on a discarded banana peel, Ganges River, Varanasi, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Zanzibar red colobus (Piliocolobus kirkii) is only found on the island of Zanzibar, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) in Chengdu Zoo, Sichuan Province, China, is trying to get something outside its cage. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A young Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus), living on the Rock of Gibraltar, southern Spain, seems to ask his friend, “Have you found something interesting?” (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), the bonobo (Pan paniscus), the orangutans (Pongo), and the gorillas (Gorilla) are all apes, belonging to the family Pongidae. The chimpanzee and the bonobo are our nearest relatives – in fact, we are so closely related to them that we should belong to the same genus. As humans were described scientifically before the chimpanzee and the bonobo, they ought to be renamed Homo troglodytes and Homo paniscus, respectively!
All species of apes have been declining drastically in the last hundred years due to poaching, infectious diseases, and loss of habitat, caused by expanding human activities. Although conservation efforts have increased significantly in recent years, it is assumed that this decline will continue, due to the rapid growth of human populations, felling of forests, lack of law enforcement due to corruption, and political instability in some countries. Some animals are still caught for zoos, and many are shot for the commercial bushmeat trade in certain African countries.
The chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), comprising 4 subspecies, has a discontinuous distribution from southern Senegal east across the forested belt north of the Congo River to extreme western Tanzania and Uganda, living in various types of forest, along rivers in savanna woodland, and sometimes in farmland, from the lowland up to app. 2,800 m altitude. South of the Congo River, it is replaced by its near relative, the bonobo (P. paniscus). Today, the total population of the chimpanzee is probably less than 400,000 individuals.
The chimpanzees, living in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, were made famous by celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall (born 1934) – the first person to study these apes in depth. This picture shows a large male in Gombe Stream, named Everett, photographed in 1989. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Formerly, orangutans were regarded as a single species, Pongo pygmaeus, confined to rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo. Lately, however, it has been split into three separate species. The Bornean orangutan (P. pygmaeus), comprising 3 subspecies, is still widespread in Borneo. The Sumatran orangutan (P. abelii) is restricted to northern Sumatra, mainly found in the Aceh Province. The Tapanuli orangutan (P. tapanuliensis), which lives in an area of just 1,500 km2 in Batang Toru, south of Lake Toba, Sumatra, was described as a distinct species in 2017. All three species live in lowland rainforest, rarely found above 500 m altitude, the Sumatran orangutan occasionally up to c. 1,500 m.
All three species are seriously endangered due to habitat destruction and fragmentation, and illegal poaching for zoos. It has been estimated that the population of the Bornean orangutan in 1973 was about 300,000 individuals, and it is assumed that this number will decline to c. 50,000 by 2025. The Sumatran orangutan has an estimated population of fewer than 14,000, and it is predicted that this number will decline by 80% by 2060. The population of Tapanuli orangutan is fewer than 800, and this number is still decreasing.
In 1985, I visited the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah, Borneo, where orphaned orangutans are trained to a life in the wild. This centre is presented in depth on the page Travel episodes – Borneo 1985: Visiting orangutans.
At the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, orphaned orangutans are trained to a life in the wild. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Lacking a mother, the orphaned young often become much attached to one another. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
An adult male, now living in a semi-wild state near the centre. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Previously, gorillas were regarded as belonging to a single species, Gorilla gorilla, but have since been divided into two species, the western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), with two subspecies, the lowland gorilla, ssp. gorilla, and the Cross River gorilla, ssp. diehli, and the eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei), likewise with two subspecies, the mountain gorilla, ssp. beringei, and Grauer’s gorilla, ssp. graueri.
The western gorilla is found in Cameroun, Central African Republic, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo, with tiny populations in eastern Nigeria and northern Angola. The population of subspecies gorilla is probably around 250,000 individuals, whereas subspecies diehli is seriously endangered, counting only about 300 individuals. The population reduction of this species, in its widest sense, is predicted to exceed 80% by 2070, due to illegal hunting, disease (Ebola virus), and habitat loss.
The eastern gorilla lives in montane forests of eastern Zaire, north-western Rwanda, and south-western Uganda. This region has been subject to war and civil war for many decades, during which gorillas also fell victim. Subspecies beringei, which counts only about 900 individuals, is the only great ape that has increased in number lately, whereas subspecies graueri has been severely affected by human activities, most notably poaching for commercial trade of bushmeat. This illegal hunting has been facilitated by a proliferation of firearms from the various wars of this region. Previously estimated to number around 17,000 individuals, recent surveys show that Grauer’s Gorilla numbers have dropped to only about 3,800 individuals.
There is an interesting story behind the name gorilla. The famous Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-425 B.C.) relates travels, made by sea-faring Phoenicians of Carthage, among these an expedition along the west coast of Africa c. 500 B.C., led by Hanno the Navigator. In an area, which is today Sierra Leone, members of this expedition encountered “savage people, the greater part of whom were women, whose bodies were hairy, and whom our interpreters called gorillae.”
This word was later used by American physician and missionary Thomas Staughton Savage (1804-1880) and naturalist Jeffries Wyman (1814-1874), when they described the gorilla in 1847, calling it Troglodytes gorilla. (Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gorilla)
The population of the mountain gorilla in Bwindi National Park, Uganda, is the only population of great apes on the planet, which has been increasing in numbers lately. The upper picture shows resting females, whereas the young one in the bottom picture approaches us to investigate. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Old World monkeys
Langurs are a group of leaf monkeys within the family Cercopithecidae, comprising 8 genera with about 40 extant species. On this page, I only deal with three genera, Semnopithecus (true langurs), Trachypithecus (lutungs), and Pygathrix (douc langurs).
The generic name Semnopithecus is from the Greek semnos (‘sacred’) and pithekos (‘monkey’), alluding to the sanctity of monkeys to Hindus. (See chapter Hanuman, the monkey god further down on this page.)
In the past, all grey langurs on the Indian Subcontinent were regarded as belonging to a single species, Semnopithecus entellus, which was divided into six subspecies. However, recent morphological studies, combined with DNA-analyses, have revealed that the grey langurs should be regarded as six full species: northern plains langur (S. entellus), terai langur (S. hector), Nepal langur (S. schistaceus), Kashmir langur (S. ajax), black-footed langur (S. hypoleucos), and tufted langur (S. priam).
Today, most authorities regard all langurs on the Indian Subcontinent as belonging to the genus Semnopithecus. Formerly, two species, the Nilgiri langur (S. johnii) of south-western India, and the purple-faced langur (S. vetulus) of Sri Lanka, were considered members of the otherwise Southeast Asian genus Trachypithecus (see below).
The northern plains langur (Semnopithecus entellus) is widespread in northern, central, and south-central India, from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal southwards to Telangana and northern Karnataka and Kerala, with a small population in western Bangladesh, which probably originated from a single pair, introduced by Hindu pilgrims on the bank of the Jalangi River.
This species is quite common, living in a variety of habitats, including forests, scrubland, temple groves, gardens, and towns, up to an altitude of c. 1,700 m. It is locally threatened by habitat loss due to intensified agriculture and fires, and by hunting for food by newly settled people in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.
Previously, western and southern populations of this species were regarded as a separate species, the southern plains langur (S. dussumieri), but recent genetic research has declared this species invalid.
Troop of northern plains langurs, resting on a rock outside the sacred Udayagiri Caves, near Bhubaneswar, Odisha (Orissa). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Northern plains langurs, quenching their thirst in a waterhole, Sariska National Park, Rajasthan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Female northern plains langur with a tiny young, Udayagiri Caves. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pseudo-mating young northern plains langurs, Sariska National Park. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The terai langur (Semnopithecus hector) is found in the Himalayan foothills, up to an altitude of c. 1,600 m, from Uttarakhand eastwards to south-western Bhutan. It mainly lives in forests, occasionally feeding in orchards and fields with crops. Its fur is thicker than that of the northern plains langur, but not as rich as that of the Nepal langur (S. schistaceus, see below). The total number of terai langurs is probably only about 10,000 mature individuals, and the population is slowly declining, mainly due to habitat loss.
On an excursion with my Indian friend Ajai Saxena to the area around Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, we had company of a couple of terai langurs, which took their seat on the roof of our car. Presumably, many car drivers feed these monkeys, but as we oppose the habit of feeding wild animals, we didn’t give them anything, and shortly after they disappeared, jumping into the trees.
(Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Nepal, or pale-armed, langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus) has a wide distribution at mid-elevations in the Himalaya, between 1,500 and 3,500 m (occasionally to 4,000 m), from Pakistan through India and Nepal to Bhutan and extreme south-eastern Tibet. This species mainly lives in lush monsoon forests, occasionally found in scrubland and agricultural areas. It is quite common, and the population is fairly stable. Threats include habitat loss through logging, fire, and human encroachment, and it is hunted in Tibet for usage in traditional medicine.
The Nepal langur is easily identified by its luxurious, pale grey fur and the large white ruff around its jet-black face. These two were photographed near Lake Dodi Tal, Asi Ganga Valley, Uttarakhand. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This Nepal langur at Dodi Tal is feeding on buds and flowers of Viburnum grandiflorum. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Troop of Nepal langurs, eating soil to obtain minerals, Banthanti, Annapurna, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The black-footed langur (Semnopithecus hypoleucos) occurs in the West Ghats of south-western India, from Goa southwards through Karnataka to Kerala. In some areas, it is seriously threatened by hunting, and it has already been extirpated from parts of the Brahmagiri Hills in Kodagu District, Karnataka. Some authorities believe that the black-footed langur is a natural hybrid between the northern plains langur and the Nilgiri langur (S. johnii, see below), whereas others regard it as a subspecies of the former.
As its name implies, the black-footed langur has jet-black hands and feet, contrasting sharply with its grey arms and legs. This one in Anshi National Park, Karnataka, is busy scratching itself. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Black-footed langur, climbing up a dead bamboo stem, from which it jumps onto another one, Anshi National Park. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Black-footed langur, eating flower buds of a silk-cotton tree (Bombax ceiba), Honnavar Forest, Karnataka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Two subspecies of the tufted langur (Semnopithecus priam) are recognized, priam of South India, and thersites of Sri Lanka and parts of South India. Some research indicates that there are consistent differences between the two taxa, and maybe they will be split into two separate species in the future.
Subspecies priam occurs in disjunct populations from south of the Krishna River, Andhra Pradesh, southwards to the city of Madurai, Tamil Nadu, whereas subspecies thersites is distributed in the dry zone of Sri Lanka, and in parts of the West Ghats in India. The affinity of some South Indian populations is not known, as they have been very poorly researched. The tufted langur lives in forests, temple groves, gardens, and cultivated areas, in India up to c. 1,200 m altitude, and in Sri Lanka up to c. 500 m.
Indian tufted langur, ssp. priam, running full speed along a road, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sri Lanka tufted langur, ssp. thersites, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Nilgiri langur (Semnopithecus johnii) is restricted to the West Ghats of south-western India, in Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, where it lives in forests, between 300 and 2,000 m altitude. Formerly, it was threatened by habitat loss due to mining, dams, and human settlement, and by hunting, but the latter has decreased in recent years due to better protection, and after the introduction of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act in 1972, the population has increased. Since the 1990s, it has been relatively stable, counting around 20,000 individuals.
Some authorities maintain that the Nilgiri langur belongs to the lutungs (Trachypithecus), a genus, which is mainly found in Southeast Asia (see below).
The Nilgiri langur is jet-black, with pale-brown fur on the crown and on the ruff around its face. This one was photographed in Eravikulam National Park, Kerala. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A troop of Nilgiri langurs gathered in a tree, eating leaf buds, Periyar National Park, Kerala. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Four subspecies of the purple-faced langur (Semnopithecus vetulus) are recognized, all restricted to Sri Lanka. Subspecies vetulus lives in an area of less than 5,000 km2 of rainforest in south-western Sri Lanka, up to an altitude of c. 1,000 m. Where its natural habitat has been destroyed, it may live in gardens and plantations, but these habitats offer no long-term survival prospects for it. Subspecies nestor lives in a similar habitat, further north than vetulus, whereas philbricki is found in moister forests of the dry zone. Subspecies monticola is restricted to the montane forests of central Sri Lanka, between 1,000 and 2,200 m altitude. All four subspecies are endangered, as they are believed to have undergone a decline of more than 50% in the last 40 years due to habitat loss and hunting.
Some authorities maintain that the purple-faced langur belongs to the lutungs (Trachypithecus), a genus, which is mainly found in Southeast Asia (see below).
Portrait of a captive lowland purple-faced langur, of subspecies vetulus or nestor. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The dry-zone subspecies of the purple-faced langur, philbricki, is found in forests of moister areas of the dry zone of Sri Lanka. This picture is from Polonnaruwa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The generic name Trachypithecus is from the Greek trach (‘rough’), referring to the dense fur of some species in this genus, and pithekos (‘monkey’). This genus of 15 species of langurs, often called lutungs, is distributed from Bhutan and north-eastern India eastwards to southernmost parts of China, and thence southwards through Southeast Asia to Java and Bali.
The golden langur (Trachypithecus geei) occurs only in Bhutan and adjacent parts of Assam, north-eastern India, living in forests along the foothills of the Himalaya, up to about 3,000 m altitude, between the rivers Manas in the east and Sankosh in the west.
The total known range of this species in both India and Bhutan is less than 30,000 km2, and much of it is not suitable habitat. The estimated population is less than 1,200 individuals in India and around 4,000 in Bhutan. It has declined by more than 30% in the last 30 years and is expected to decline further due to habitat loss. The population in India is highly fragmented, with the southern population completely separated from the northern population due to the effects of human activities.
The golden langur was described as late as 1956, but was known much earlier by naturalists, the earliest record being by R. B. Pemberton in a paper from 1838, Report on Bootan Indian Studies Past and Present. However, his work was lost and not rediscovered until the 1970s, and the golden langur was not mentioned again until 1907, when E. O. Shebbeare reported seeing a ’cream-coloured langur’ in the vicinity of Jamduar.
In 1919, a publication stated that a pale yellow-coloured langur was common in a district near Goalpara in Assam, and in 1947, C. G. Baron wrote: ”I saw some white monkeys (…) and, as far as I know, they are an undescribed species. Their entire body and tail are of the same colour – pale silver-golden, not unlike a blonde.”
A number of other sightings roused the interest of celebrated naturalist Edward Pritchard Gee (1904-1968), who observed and photographed three troops of golden langurs in 1953. He reported his results to the Zoological Survey of India, and in 1955 six specimens were collected. The species was described by Dr. H. Khajuria, who named it Presbystis gee, in honour of Mr. Gee. (Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gee%27s_golden_langur)
The population of golden langur in Manas National Park, Assam, is threatened by hybridization with a close relative, the capped langur (Trachypithecus pileatus). Formerly, these two species were separated by rivers, but a number of constructed bridges has now made it easy for them to cross these rivers.
Golden langurs, Manas National Park, Assam. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Vietnam is home to 7 or 8 species of Trachypithecus langurs, all of which are severely threatened in the wild, mainly due to habitat loss and hunting.
Delacour’s langur (Trachypithecus delacouri), which is endemic to northern Vietnam, is popularly called white-shorts langur, alluding to its characteristic white rear body. This species was named in honour of French-American ornithologist Jean Théodore Delacour (1890-1985).
Delacour’s langur is critically endangered, primarily threatened by hunting for traditional medicine, but also by loss of habitat. As of 2010, less than 250 individuals were believed to remain in the wild.
Delacour’s langurs, photographed in Van Long Nature Reserve. The population in this reserve may be the only one in Vietnam still large enough to remain viable. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Javan lutung (Trachypithecus auratus) is endemic to Indonesia, where it occurs on Java, Bali and Lombok, and some smaller nearby islands. It lives in mangrove and forests, up to an altitude of 3,500 m. This species is threatened by habitat loss due to expanding agriculture and human settlements, and by hunting for food. Many are also captured for the pet trade.
This Javan lutung is for sale at a market in the city of Yogyakarta, Java. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The douc langurs, genus Pygathrix, comprising 3 species, are native to Southeast Asia. They are all highly threatened in the wild.
The red-shanked douc (Pygathrix nemaeus) is native to Vietnam, southern Laos and maybe north-eastern Cambodia, living in primary and secondary rainforest, from the lowland up to c. 2,000 m altitude. This species is almost strictly arboreal, but may occasionally come down to drink or to eat soil with minerals.
The red-shanked douc is endangered. The total number is unknown, but it is believed that c. 1,300 individuals live in the Son Tra area in Vietnam. The species is threatened by hunting for food and traditional medicine, and by habitat loss.
Red-shanked doucs in a breeding centre for threatened primates, Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Macaca is a genus of Old World monkeys, presently comprising 23 species. Recently, two new species have been described, the Arunachal macaque (M. munzala) in north-eastern India in 2004, and the white-cheeked macaque (M. leucogenys) in south-eastern Tibet in 2015.
The name Macaca stems from the word makaku, plural of kaku, a West African Bantu name for a species of mangabey. In Portuguese, makaku became macaco, and in French macaque, the latter adopted by the British. In 1798, French taxonomist Bernard Germain de Lacépède (1756-1825) applied this word of African origin, in the form Macaca, to an almost exclusively Asian group of monkeys, presumably because he was familiar with the Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus) – the only species of the group outside Asia, living in north-western Africa and on the Rock of Gibraltar. (Source: itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003458.html)
Of the 23 Macaca species, the long-tailed macaque (M. fascicularis) is the most widespread, found from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, southwards to the Indonesian Archipelago, and thence eastwards to the Philippines. This species, which is also called crab-eating macaque, lives in a wide range of habitats, including mangrove, forests, agricultural areas near forest, and temple groves.
In the Philippines, it is found at elevations up to 1,800 m, in Indonesia up to 1,000 m, and in Thailand up to 700 m, whereas in Cambodia and Vietnam it generally occurs below 300 m. In the Philippines, some populations are threatened by hunting.
It is rather puzzling, why Sir Thomas Raffles (1781-1826), Lieutenant-Governor of British Java 1811-1815, and Governor-General of Bencoolen (on Sumatra) 1817-1822, applied the specific name fascicularis (‘with a small band or stripe’) to this species, as it does not have any stripes.
The following 14 pictures are all from the so-called ‘Monkey Forest’ in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia, a forested area around the Hindu temple Wenara Wana, which is home to several troops of these monkeys.
King of the ‘Monkey Forest’. – Resting on a wall, this large male long-tailed macaque is scratching his tail. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Young long-tailed macaque, sitting on a sculpture, depicting – a long-tailed macaque. Pictures of other sculptures, depicting this species, are shown on the page Culture: Folk art around the world. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Female long-tailed macaques are loving mothers. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Female, grooming a male – whereupon he mounts her. She seems to dislike it. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This young monkey is stuffing itself with bananas. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Female, grooming another female. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Females, dozing on a wall. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Young, playing. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Macaques start climbing at a very young age. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Most macaques love swimming. This one seems to tell me, “This is nice! You should try!” (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The macaques in ‘Monkey Forest’ are indeed used to tourists. The sculpture in the background in the upper picture below depicts Varaha, one of the supreme Hindu god Vishnu’s avatars (incarnations), a gigantic boar, who kills the terrible demon Hiranyaksha. – Vishnu and other Hindu deities are presented in depth on the page Religion: Hinduism.
(Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta) is the well-known brown monkey of India, called bandar, found almost everywhere in the country north of the Tapti and Godavari Rivers. Its total area of distribution is from Afghanistan eastwards through Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, and thence northwards to central China.
This species has also become well-known through its usage in medical research, which detected the rhesus factor, an inherited antigen in the blood of humans. Its fur is mainly brown, with an orange tinge on the hind parts, and the tail is rather short, 20-30 cm. This monkey lives in very diverse habitats, from semi-desert via various forest types to temple groves and cities, from the lowland up to c. 2,500 m altitude.
Following a strong decline due to felling of forest, combined with export of many animals for medical research, the rhesus monkey is now expanding in India, with an estimated population of 500,000 individuals, or more. This expansion is mainly due to the fact that it has adapted to a life in cities.
The size of a territory of a typical troop of rhesus monkeys has been measured at up to 16 km2 in montane forest, and 1-3 km2 in other types of forest, whereas in Kolkata, a troop of 62 individuals was studied, thriving successfully in an area of less than 4 hectares, in the centre of this metropolis.
In some areas, especially in Laos and Vietnam, the species is hunted for food, and habitat destruction has also affected populations locally in Southeast Asia.
Female rhesus monkeys are affectionate mothers. These pictures are from the great Buddhist stupa Swayambhunath in Kathmandu, Nepal. Several troops of these monkeys live in the forest around this stupa. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Young rhesus monkey, riding on its mother’s back, Swayambhunath. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This rhesus monkey at Swayambhunath is crossing from one building to another by walking upside-down along an electric wire. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
One day, when I had visited the Swayambhunath Stupa in Kathmandu, I was descending the staircase, when I heard a strange sound behind me. Turning around, I saw an empty Tuborg beer can come tumbling down the stairs, pass me, and come to a stop just in front of a rhesus monkey. The monkey grabbed the can, sniffed it, and then quickly dropped it, baring its teeth as if to say, “This stuff is not for me!”
(Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Buddhist temple atop Mount Popa, Myanmar, is also home to a troop of rhesus monkeys. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Young rhesus monkey, eating acacia leaves, Mount Popa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Female rhesus monkeys, enjoying the evening sun, Sariska National Park, Rajasthan, India. The one in front is suckling its young. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In India, the rhesus monkey has readily adapted to a life in cities. The following four pictures show such urban monkeys.
Mother and young on a wall near the Ganges River, Varanasi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rhesus monkey, walking along a narrow wall, which surrounds the Hawa Mahal Palace, Jaipur, Rajasthan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This monkey jumps from one wall to another in Varanasi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Clinging to a clothes-line, this rhesus monkey is looking through a window, Varanasi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The bonnet macaque (Macaca radiata) is limited to the southern half of India, replacing the rhesus monkey south of the rivers Tapti in Gujarat and Godavari in Maharashtra. It is a little smaller than the rhesus monkey, its fur being greyish-brown, paler on the belly. It has an extremely long tail, longer than the body. On its crown is a cowlick, resembling a bonnet.
This species is very common, locally abundant, living in all forest types, scrubland, plantations, agricultural lands, and urban areas. It is usually found below 2,000 m altitude, occasionally up to 2,600 m. As it often feeds in agricultural areas, conflicts with humans is an increasing problem. It is locally hunted, and many are caught for research, as well as for street performers (see further down on this page, Monkeys and culture).
Male bonnet macaque, resting in a growth of bamboo, Periyar National Park, Kerala. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A large troop of bonnet macaques live around the famous Hindu cave temples in the city of Badami, Karnataka, where they mainly feed on offerings of rice and other edibles, brought by devout Hindus. These pictures show females and a young, huddling together for warmth (above), and a young, enjoying the evening sun. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This bonnet macaque in Badami is crossing a heavily trafficked road by balancing on an electric wire, using its long tail as counter-balance. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Like most other macaques, bonnet macaques love bathing, as these young ones in the Theppakadu River, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Along many roads and around temples, bonnet macaques are very confiding. This one is watching its own reflection in a car window, Azhiyar Ghat, Tamil Nadu. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The toque macaque (Macaca sinica) is a reddish-brown monkey, resembling the Indian bonnet macaque (M. radiata), but the cowlick is further forward on its crown. This species is restricted to Sri Lanka, where three subspecies are recognized, sinica in the dry zone of the eastern and northern parts of the island, aurifrons in the south-western lowland rainforest zone, and opisthomelas in the central highland wet zone.
The toque macaque in its widest sense is found in a variety of forest types, from sea level up to about 2,100 m. The distribution of all three subspecies is very fragmented, and opisthomelas is restricted to an area of less than 500 km2, with only a fifth of this area actually occupied by the animals. The chief threat to this species is habitat loss due to establishment of plantations and agricultural lands. Many are shot, as they are doing considerable damage to crops. It is still widely distributed, but the population may have declined by more than 50% since 1975.
The dry-zone race of the toque macaque, ssp. sinica, is found in the eastern and northern parts of Sri Lanka. This one was photographed at Polonnaruwa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Subspecies aurifrons is distributed in the south-western lowland rainforest zone. This one was observed in Sinharaja Forest Reserve. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Young toque macaque at Polonnaruwa, drinking by dipping its hand into a puddle inside a hollow tree trunk, afterwards licking its hand. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus) is unique among macaques, as both males and females have a huge greyish mane around the head, which has given this monkey its German name, Bartaffe (‘bearded monkey’). Otherwise, its fur is jet-black. Another characteristic is the tuft at the end of its tail, which has given it the English name.
This species is endemic to rainforests of the West Ghats, south-western India, in the states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. Although the lion-tailed macaque has a relatively wide range, its area of occupancy is small, being severely fragmented through establishment of plantations (tea, coffee, cardamom, and eucalyptus) and agricultural areas. The total population is estimated at less than 4,000 individuals, made up of 47 isolated sub-populations. In one location, the Kodagu District, Karnataka, the species is highly threatened by hunting for food. In later years, the population seems to have become stabilized due to better protection measures.
In the Puthutottam Forest, Tamil Nadu, a troop of lion-tailed macaques have become accustomed to people, as they are often being fed by tourists. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This male is baring his huge canines, but he is probably just yawning, as this species is not at all aggressive towards people. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This lion-tailed macaque is lying on the road, eating tiny pebbles, which make loud crunching noises between its teeth! (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus) is the only surviving primate in Africa north of the Sahara Desert. In former times, it was widely distributed in south-western Europe and in north-western Africa, eastwards to Libya.
Today, it is restricted to small relict populations in Morocco and Algeria, where it occurs from sea level to c. 2,600 m altitude, being most common above 1,000 m. It prefers cedar forests, but is also found in oak forests, coastal scrub, and overgrazed rocky slopes with sparse vegetation.
Recently, the Moroccan population was estimated at 6,000-10,000 individuals, whereas in 1975 it was about 17,000. In Algeria, around 1980, the population was estimated at 5,500, but the present number is unknown. The total population may have declined by more than 50% since 1980, and the decline is expected to continue. All areas occupied by the Barbary macaque are under growing pressure from human activities.
There is also a small population of about 300 animals on the Rock of Gibraltar, southern Spain, which may, at least in part, be a remnant of the former European population. Historical sources, however, mention repeated release of African animals on the rock. In his work from about 1610, Historia de la Muy Noble y Más Leal Ciudad de Gibraltar (’History of the Very Noble and Most Loyal City of Gibraltar’), Alonso Hernández del Portillo writes, “But now let us speak of other and living producers, which in spite of the asperity of the rock still maintain themselves in the mountain; there are monkeys, who may be called the true owners, with possession from time immemorial, always tenacious of the dominion, living for the most part on the eastern side in high and inaccessible chasms.” (Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbary_macaques_in_Gibraltar)
Barbary macaque, sleeping on a wall atop the Gibraltar Rock, southern Spain, which is home to a population of about 300 of these monkeys, divided into five troops. This species is very characteristic, as it has no tail. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Female Barbary macaque with young, Gibraltar. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tourists used to feed the macaques on Gibraltar, but today this activity is strictly forbidden. However, the monkeys are still very tame, as this young one, pulling a boy’s ear. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pig-tailed macaques are named after their short tail, which is often curved, resembling the curl on a pig’s tail. Formerly, all pig-tailed macaques were regarded as a single species, Macaca nemestrina, but have now been split into two species, the southern, M. nemestrina, which is found on the Malacca Peninsula, and on Sumatra and Borneo, and the northern, M. leonina, which lives in Southeast Asia, from eastern Bangladesh southwards to the northern tip of the Malacca Peninsula, where its distribution overlaps with that of the southern species. Why they have been split, is a bit of a mystery to me, as they interbreed in the overlapping area.
The southern, or Sunda, pig-tailed macaque is common in some places, but generally its numbers have decreased significantly due to habitat loss through establishment of oil palm plantations and agricultural areas, as well as to logging. It is frequently shot as a crop pest.
Minangkabau tribal from Maninjau, Sumatra, Indonesia, with a southern pig-tailed macaque, which has been trained to bring coconuts down from the trees. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
As its name implies, the Taiwan macaque (Macaca cyclopis) is endemic to Taiwan, where it is quite common. This species is mostly found in various primary forest types, but is also living in secondary forest, from where it enters agricultural areas, and even towns, for food. It is quite a nuisance in some areas, but is not harmed, partly because it is protected by law, partly because of the widespread Buddhist conception that you should not kill animals. It occurs from sea level to c. 3,600 m altitude, but is most common between 1,000 and 1,500 m. There are no major threats to the species.
The fur of the Taiwan macaque is pale grey with a brownish tinge here and there. This large male is resting on a rock along a trail in the Bagua Shan Mountains. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Female, grooming its young, Bagua Shan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A troop of Taiwan macaques, Sheding Nature Trail, Kenting National Park. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Like several other macaque species, the Taiwan macaque has adapted to a life near humans. This male is sitting on a house roof in Linbei Chukou, near Linnei, waiting for bypassing car drivers to stop and feed him. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Baboons, of the family Cercopithecidae, are native to Africa and south-western Arabia. They have long, dog-like muzzles, close-set eyes, and powerful jaws with huge canine teeth. The baboons proper, comprising six species, belong to the genus Papio. Formerly, three other species were included in Papio, but have since been moved to other genera, the gelada baboon (Theropithecus gelada), the mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx), and the drill (M. leucophaeus).
Some authorities regard the six Papio species as belonging to a single species, as they often interbreed in overlapping areas of distribution. The six species are the Guinea baboon (Papio papio), found in a rather small area from southern Mauritania southwards to Guinea; the hamadryas baboon (P. hamadryas), which lives around the African Horn, in Ethiopia, and in south-western Arabia; the olive baboon (P. anubis) (see below); the yellow baboon (P. cynocephalus) (see below); the Kinda baboon (P. kindae), which occurs in south-western Tanzania, southern Zaire, western Zambia, and northern Angola; and the chacma baboon (P. ursinus), which is found in southern Africa.
The olive baboon (Papio anubis) is named after its coat, which is grey with an olive tinge to it. It is the most extensively distributed of the baboons, ranging throughout woodland and savanna, from southern Mauritania and Mali eastwards to the Sudan, and thence southwards to Zaire and Tanzania. There are also isolated populations in the Tibesti and Air Massifs in the Sahara.
The olive baboon is also called Anubis baboon, named after the Egyptian god of embalming, who had the head of a jackal. The name alludes to the dog-like muzzle of baboons.
This species is very adaptable, able to survive in secondary forest and cultivated areas. It is locally common, despite being regarded as a pest, which is trapped, shot, and poisoned in places.
In a 200-km wide region in central Kenya, the olive baboon hybridizes with the yellow baboon, often making it difficult to allocate animals to one or the other species.
Male olive baboon, basking in the sand on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Young baboons, playing in a vine, Gombe Stream. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Young baboon, riding on its mother’s back, Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This male is watching a pack of feeding banded mongoose (Mungos mungo). These little carnivores are quite fierce, and the baboon made no attempt to steal their food, which he was clearly interested in. – Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The pictures below show motherhood among olive baboons. A subordinate female approaches another female with a tiny young, exposing its behind to the mother as a sign of submission, after which it is allowed to touch the baby. Note that the mother’s cheek pouches are filled with food.
(Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The specific name of the yellow baboon (Papio cynocephalus) is from the Greek kuon (‘dog’) and kephalos (‘head’), like the name Anubis (see olive baboon above) referring to the dog-like muzzle of baboons. Its common name alludes to its grey fur, which has a yellowish tinge to it.
This species is found from south-eastern Ethiopia and Somalia southwards to northern Mozambique, and thence across Malawi and Zambia to southern Zaire and northern Angola. Where possible, it lives in Brachystegia woodland (miombo), but is also found in scrubland, savanna, and mangrove, and it is also able to survive in secondary forest and cultivated areas. There are no major threats to this species, although in some places it has been displaced by agriculture. Many are also trapped to be exported for medical research.
Yellow baboon, Mikumi National Park, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The chacma baboon (Papio ursinus) lives in southern Africa.
This sign in Cape of Good Hope National Park, South Africa, prohibits feeding of baboons. Where they are fed regularly by tourists, baboons often become aggressive and may have to be shot. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The gelada baboon (Theropithecus gelada) is restricted to high grassland escarpments along deep gorges of central Ethiopia, between 1,800 and 4,400 m altitude. The generic name is from the Greek thero (‘beastly’) and pithekos (‘monkey’), alluding to the rather grotesque appearance of the male of this species. In Greek mythology, Thero was a fierce Naiad, who was the nurse of the infant Ares, who later became god of courage and war, but also of civil order.
The gelada baboon is still widespread, but was much affected by droughts, which ravaged Ethiopia in the 1980s. From an estimated population of maybe 800,000 individuals, a present guesstimate says c. 200,000. Its habitat is being eroded as a result of agricultural expansion, as an increasing number of people are moving into the central highlands. In some areas, the grazing pressure is high, forcing the geladas to move to less productive grass slopes.
In the Simien Mountains, the gelada baboon is fairly common in some areas, here at Gosh Meda. The male has a huge mane on head and body. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
On the chest, males as well as females have a naked red skin patch, giving rise to an alternative name of the species, bleeding-heart monkey. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Colobus monkeys are a group of African leaf monkeys, which are also called thumbless monkeys, as their thumb is reduced to a stump. The word colobus is from the Greek kolobós, meaning ‘docked’.
These monkeys are widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, comprising 5 species in the genus Colobus, called black-and-white colobus, 10 species in the genus Piliocolobus, called red colobus, and one species in the genus Procolobus, the olive colobus (P. verus). Most species are restricted to forests, the Zanzibar red colobus (Piliocolobus kirkii) occasionally also found in scrubland and plantations.
The eastern black-and-white colobus (Colobus guereza), comprising 8 subspecies, is also known as the mantled guereza, a name alluding to the long fringes of white hair along each side. The tail also has a large white tuft. This species is widespread in Africa, found from Cameroun east across southern Chad, Central African Republic, and northern Zaire to Uganda, Kenya, northern Tanzania, and Ethiopia. In parts of its range, it is threatened by habitat loss due to lumbering, establishment of plantations, and conversion to agricultural land. Hunting is rampant in some areas of the western part of its range.
In 1988, during a stay in Arusha National Park, northern Tanzania, my companion Thomas Bregnballe and I were camping on a beautiful spot at the foot of Mount Meru, beneath a couple of huge trees, entwined by strangler figs. On our first night here, we were a little alarmed by an unbelievably powerful noise, coming from these trees, sounding like a mixture of some gigantic croaking frog, and a car engine that won’t start. As it turned out, the source of this sound was a troop of Kilimanjaro black-and-white colobus, subspecies caudatus, which used these trees as night roost.
Kilimanjaro black-and-white colobus, Arusha National Park, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Zanzibar red colobus (Piliocolobus kirkii) is restricted to the island of Unguja, the main island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania. The total population is estimated at less than 2,000 individuals, and it is still decreasing due to habitat destruction, caused by timber felling, charcoal production, clearance for cultivation, and fires. Conservationists are working with the local government to devise an effective strategy to protect this species and its habitat.
Zanzibar red colobus, feeding on leaves of beach almond (Terminalia catappa), Zanzibar. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Guenons, vervets, and patas monkey
Guenons, vervets, and the patas monkey are all long-tailed African monkeys, belonging to the family Cercopithecidae.
The guenons, genus Cercopithecus, is a large group, comprising c. 25 species, distributed in most of sub-Saharan Africa. They live in evergreen forests, sometimes in secondary forest and scrubland, mainly in the canopy, occasionally coming to the ground. They are dependent on daily access to water.
Despite its name, the blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis) is not really blue, but its grey fur has a bluish tinge to it. In its widest sense, this species, which is also called diademed monkey, comprises 17 subspecies, of which Sykes’ monkey, ssp. albogularis, silver monkey, ssp. doggetti, and golden monkey, ssp. kandti, are sometimes treated as separate species.
These monkeys are widely distributed, from Angola and Zaire eastwards to the Indian Ocean and Zanzibar Island, and from Ethiopia southwards to eastern South Africa, from sea level up to 3,800 m. To some degree, they are threatened by deforestation and habitat fragmentation, and in places by hunting for food and traditional medicine.
Blue monkey, Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania. In the lower picture, it is feeding on swarming termites together with an olive baboon (Papio anubis). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Green monkeys, genus Chlorocebus, were formerly included in Cercopithecus, where they were regarded as a single species, the green vervet (Cercopithecus aethiops), which was divided into 6 subspecies. Today, these subspecies are generally regarded as full species, the vervet (Chlorocebus pygerythrus), the grivet (C. aethiops), the green monkey (C. sabaeus), the tantalus monkey (C. tantalus), the Bale Mountains vervet (C. djamdjamensis), and the malbrouck (C. cynosuros), although some authorities still consider them as belonging to one species. Unlike the guenons, the ‘vervets’ spend much time on the ground in the daytime, sleeping in trees at night. They are also dependent on daily access to water.
The vervet (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) is distributed from Ethiopia and southern Somalia southwards through Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, and Botswana to South Africa. It lives mainly in savanna and open woodland, almost always near rivers, but is extremely adaptable and able to survive in cultivated areas, and sometimes in towns. There are no major threats to this species, although many are shot in agricultural areas, where they do damage to crops. It is also hunted as bushmeat in some areas.
Grooming troop of vervet monkeys, Victoria Falls National Park, Zimbabwe. Note the pale blue scrotum of the male. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
At present, the patas monkey (Erythrocebus patas), also called hussar monkey, is the only species in the genus Erythrocebus, but as it is closely related to the ‘vervets’, further genetic studies may place them in the same genus.
This species is widespread across the Sahel zone of sub-Saharan Africa, from southern Mauritania, Gambia, and Senegal, eastwards to western Ethiopia and northern Zaire, Uganda, and Kenya, with isolated populations elsewhere in Kenya, in northern Tanzania, and on the Air and Ennedi Massifs in the Sahara. It lives in savannas and dry woodland, being commonest in woodland with scattered acacias. In some areas, it is threatened by habitat loss due to increasing desertification, and occasionally it is hunted for food or shot as a crop pest.
This sweet and gentle female patas monkey is for sale in the city of Bangui, Central African Republic. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
New World monkeys
Capuchin monkeys are a group of 10 species of New World monkeys, belonging to either one genus, Cebus, or to two genera, Cebus and Sapajus, depending on authority. They are distributed from Honduras southwards to northern Argentina.
The word capuchin derives from a group of Franciscan friars, named the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, which arose in 1520, when Italian friar Matteo da Bascio claimed that God had informed him that the manner of life led by his contemporary friars was not the one, which St. Francis of Assisi had dictated. The friars of this order wear brown robes with pointed hoods, called capuche. When the conquistadors reached Central America late in the 15th Century, they noticed some small monkeys, whose colouring resembled these friars, so they named them capuchins. (Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capuchin_monkey)
The white-headed capuchin (Cebus capucinus) is native to forests of Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and coastal Columbia and Ecuador. In the West, this species is one of the best known of all monkeys, as it was often the faithful companion of the organ grinder, who would walk from town to town, playing his organ, while his monkey would perform a dance. It is quite common in the wild, often being confiding.
These three pictures show white-headed capuchins in Costa Rica. The prehensile tail is used as a fifth limb, when the monkey is feeding. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Howler monkeys (Alouatta) are a group of 15 species in the family Atelidae, distributed from south-eastern Mexico southwards to northern Argentina. They live in various types of forest, including mangrove and swamp forest. Threats to these monkeys include habitat destruction and human persecution for food, for the pet industry, and for zoos.
Howler monkeys are famous for their loud call, which can be heard almost 5 km away. They have an enlarged hyoid bone, which enables them to produce this incredibly loud noise. The main function of the howling is probably to guard the territory of the troop.
The mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata), comprising 5 subspecies, is widespread, distributed from south-eastern Mexico southwards to northern Peru. The golden-mantled howler monkey, ssp. palliata, ranges from extreme eastern Guatemala eastwards to eastern Costa Rica, or possibly extreme western Panama. This subspecies is quite dark, with a rufous mantle. It mainly lives in the lowland, occasionally found up to 2,000 m altitude.
Golden-mantled howler monkeys, feeding in a tree near Bagaces, Guanacaste, Costa Rica. In the centre picture, a tiny baby is clinging to its mother’s tail, whereas the slightly larger young in the bottom picture already shows great agility. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Spider monkeys (Ateles) are a genus of seven species, belonging to the family Atelidae. They are found from southern Mexico southwards to Brazil, living in the upper stratum of tropical forests. These monkeys are characterized by their disproportionately long limbs, which have given them their name, and their long, prehensile tail, which is used as a fifth limb. They live in bands, comprising up to 35 members, which will disperse during the day to feed.
All species of spider monkeys are threatened due to habitat destruction and hunting for food, and two species, the black-headed spider monkey (Ateles fusciceps) and the brown spider monkey (A. hybridus), are critically endangered.
Six subspecies of Geoffroy’s spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi), also called black-handed or Central American spider monkey, are distributed from south-eastern Mexico eastwards to Panama. This species mainly occurs in evergreen rainforest and can also be found in deciduous forest. It is threatened due to habitat loss, which has been severe across its entire range. It is estimated that the species has declined by as much as 50% during the last 50 years. Today, it mainly survives in protected areas.
This young Yucatan spider monkey, ssp. yucatanensis, in Tikal National Park, Guatemala, is clinging to its mother’s back. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Yucatan spider monkey, using its prehensile tail as a fifth limb, Tikal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Monkeys and culture
In many countries, especially in India, monkeys play an important role in folklore and culture. These pictures show a few examples.
Carving in a Jain temple atop the rock Vindyagiri, Sravanabelagola, Karnataka, India, depicting a bonnet macaque (Macaca radiata), embracing a jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus). – You may read about Jain temples on the page Religion: Jainism. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The pictures below, from Taichung, Taiwan, show acrobats, dressed as monkeys, performing various acts, such as walking on stilts while balancing eggs on a stick, and jumping through burning rings.
(Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Wall painting in Tortuguero National Park, Limón, Costa Rica, depicting a golden-mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata ssp. palliata) and a brown-throated three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus), with the following slogan, ‘Tortuguero es pura vida’ (‘Tortuguero is pure life’). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This sign outside a tour agency, likewise in Tortuguero National Park, is advertising jungle trips, using a white-headed capuchin (Cebus capucinus) and a great curassow (Crax rubra) as eye-catchers. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This street entertainer in the city of Tirumalai, Andhra Pradesh, has caught two young bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata), training them to perform. They seem to be arguing about something. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Another street entertainer with performing rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta), Delhi, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sculpture in a Hindu temple in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia, depicting smiling long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis). – Other pictures of monkey sculptures may be seen on the page Culture: Folk art around the world. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hanuman, the monkey god
In Hinduism, Rama is the seventh incarnation of the supreme god Vishnu, and main character in the great epic Ramayana. He was born as the son of King Dasharatha, who ruled the Kingdom of Koshada, northern India, and the king’s first wife, Queen Kausalya, and was thus destined to take over the kingdom in due time. However, in a moment of thoughtlessness, his father promised one of his other wives that her son should inherit the throne for 14 years, and that Rama should be expelled from the kingdom in this period. Rama knew of no other law than to obey his father, and he spent his exile wandering about in the forests with his chosen one, Sita, and his half-brother, Lakshmana.
One day, Sita was abducted by Ravana, a ten-headed and twenty-armed demon king from Sri Lanka. Hanuman, leader of the monkey army, was a supporter of Rama, and he volunteered to go to Sri Lanka to negotiate Sita’s release.
It is told that during his stay in Sri Lanka, Hanuman stole mango fruits. For this sin, Ravana ordered him to be burned. Ravana’s soldiers tied a rag, soaked in oil, to his tail and set fire to it. During his attempt to extinguish the fire, Hanuman’s face and hands were blackened by the fire. The episode was noticed by the god of fire, Agni, who protected Hanuman from the heat, while the flaming tail, in retaliation, set many houses on fire. An enormous leap brought Hanuman back to India.
During the final battle, Rama managed to kill the evil demon king, and Sita was released. When the 14 years of exile had passed, Rama went home and assumed his throne.
As a reward for his services, Hanuman was raised to become a deity. He inspires strength in people, making him popular among men, whereas women generally regard him with mistrust, because he is unmarried. Due to the great deeds, performed by the monkey army in the Ramayana, monkeys are considered sacred among Hindus, and troops of rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta), bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata), or grey langurs (Semnopithecus) often live around temples, where part of their diet consists of rice, sweets, or other edibles, brought as offerings by devout Hindus.
The legend informs us that Hanuman is a langur, which has black face and hands, and thus not a macaque, which is uniformly brown. Nevertheless, macaques are sacred animals on par with langurs.
The following 10 pictures show aspects of monkeys, referring to the Ramayana or to Hinduism.
Sculpture in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, depicting the monkey god Hanuman, carrying Rama and Lakshmana on his shoulders, while trampling a demon. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Balinese Keçak Dance (‘Monkey Dance’) depicts a scene from the Ramayana. Rama’s fiancée Sita has been abducted to Sri Lanka by the demon king Ravana, and Hanuman’s monkey army is trying to rescue her. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This detail of a Khmer relief in Banteay Srei, Angkor, Cambodia, depicts another scene from the Ramayana. The demon king Ravana is shaking the abode of the Hindu gods, Mount Kailash, making gods and animals horror-stricken, here Hanuman, a lion-headed deity, and the elephant-headed god Ganesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This sculpture outside a Hindu temple near Ubud, Bali, Indonesia, depicting Hanuman, is covered in green algae and lichens. Rice and flowers have been brought to the image as an offering. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Over the years, the features of this Hanuman sculpture at the Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, have become blurred due to a thick layer of orange sindur (red powder, mixed with mustard oil), applied by devout Hindus during puja (worship). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This sculpture, depicting a warrior in Hanuman’s army, is guarding outside the Holy Water Temple in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Due to the great deeds, performed by the monkey army in the Ramayana, monkeys are considered sacred, and troops of monkeys often live around temples. This female rhesus monkey and her young are feeding on rice grain, presented as offerings at Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Nepal – a Buddhist stupa, which also contains Hindu shrines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Whereas the temple monkeys in northern India are mostly rhesus monkeys, this role is taken over by bonnet macaques in southern Indian temples. This picture is from the Sri Minakshi Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Temple monkeys often become obese, as they have easy access to food and don’t move much around. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Like a bunch of street urchins, these northern plains langurs are sitting on a roof top in the town of Pushkar, Rajasthan, India, from where they survey the surroundings for fruit or other edibles to steal. Their status as sacred animals ensure that they are not harmed, despite their impudence. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
(Uploaded March 2018)
(Latest update December 2019)