One would expect an animal with a golden coat to turn heads. That however, was not the case with Gee’s Golden Langur (Trachypithecus geei) of South Asia. This stunningly beautiful primate is found in a small patch of land on the Indo-Bhutanese border hugging the southern margins of the mighty Himalayas. Here, on a tract surrounded by the Brahmaputra River (to the south), two of its tributaries – the Sankosh (to the west) and the Manas (to the east), and the Black Mountains (to the north), is found a species of Langur (long-tailed, leaf-eating, arboreal monkeys of the subfamily Colobinae) that was identified very, very late. To be precise, in the year 1956, when an Indian taxonomist – D H Khajuria declared it to be a new species.

The story of its discovery is very interesting. It seems that a Briton, R B Pemberton had mentioned the existence of a population of Langurs in the region in his report on the mountain kingdom of Bhutan, in 1838. The next report was by one E O Shebbeare, who spoke of cream-coloured simians in the vicinity of Kokrajhar (a town in Assam north of the Brahmaputra River), in 1907. Then came a report of golden monkeys in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society in the year 1919. The most interesting observation was made by one C G Baron in a Forest Rest House visitors’ book (in Raimona, Assam). He noted a type of Langur whose “whole body and tail is one colour – a light silvery-gold, somewhat like the hair of a blonde.” That was in 1947.

From then on, things moved fast. In 1953, Edward Pritchard Gee (1904–1968), an Anglo-Indian tea planter residing in the state of Assam undertook an expedition along the banks of the Sankosh to locate these elusive primates. He found three groups, and even filmed some of the Langurs. The discovery was reported to the Zoological Society of London in 1954, and the Zoological Society of India in 1955. The video evidence gathered by Gee convinced the Zoological Society of India to undertake a survey of the area, resulting in the collection of six specimens. Finally, D H Khajuria determined them to be members of a totally new species, the Gee’s Golden Langue (in honour of the intrepid tea planter cum naturalist) in 1956.

The Golden Langur is endemic to this tiny belt (almost square-shaped, bound by three rivers and one mountain range, and covering nearly 30,000 square kilometres along the Indo-Bhutanese border). Biologists believe that the species is closely related to the Capped Langur (Trachypithecus pileatus) of the adjacent regions of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, China and Myanmar. It has most probably always been a rare and little-known species, the product of millions of years of geographical isolation. However, with the sudden rise in the human population of the region, the species’ natural habitat has come under increasing pressure, leading to deforestation and habitat fragmentation. Today, the Golden Langur is counted among the world’s 25 most endangered species of primates.

Here is how the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species describes the population, habitat, ecology and threats faced by the Golden Langur:

There is an estimated population of less than 1,500 individuals in India and around 4,000 individuals in Bhutan, with less than 2,500 mature individuals globally. Demographic trends indicate a decline in the population of this species. 93% of the population is found in contiguous forest, while the remaining 7% is found in several small isolated reserves. Contrary to predictions, groups were bigger and densities higher in areas of more degraded habitat. The population has declined by more than 30% in the last 30 years, and is expected to decline further in the near future due to various threats outlined by field biologists in both India and Bhutan.

This species is found in moist evergreen, dipterocarp, riverine, and moist deciduous forests, and occasionally in degraded habitats with secondary growth. This species experiences a considerable range in elevation of near sea-level in the south to above 3,000 m in the north. One isolated population is found in the Abhaya Rubber Plantation, Nayakgaon, in the Kokrajhar district of Assam. Study of this population has shown that the animals can withstand the effects of habitat change to some extent and survive in altered habitats. The diet consists of young and mature leaves, ripe and unripe fruits, and seeds, with most feeding spent on young leaves. Subba (1989) and Subba and Santiapillai (1989), however, found that this species prefers fruits and buds to leaves. In forest fragments they may depend on cultivated crops such as tapioca, betel, and guava. It is diurnal and arboreal.

Due to habitat destruction, the populations of this species are restricted to fragmented forest pockets, especially in India. Habitat destruction is the major threat to this species in India. Hunting is prohibited in the Abhaya Rubber Plantation, yet electrocution from power lines and hunting by dogs are local threats, which are affecting the population. A comparative analysis based on satellite images taken in 1988 and 1998 showed a 50% loss of original habitat in India for this species. Although commercial logging is banned in reserves where this species is found, illegal encroachment and woodcutting have severely affected these forest reserves. Stone quarrying and its associated noise pollution, as well as artillery firing practices in the Bamuni hills, may also have a negative effect.

Molur et al. (2003) list the following threats for this species: “Crop plantations, grazing, harvesting non-woody vegetation for firewood and charcoal production, selective logging, timber collection, human settlement, deforestation, fragmentation, trade, killed by domestic dogs, habitat loss, high juvenile mortality, inbreeding, and local trade in live animals as pets and in road shows. Trade is insignificant.” Due to road construction and other human activities (settlements), the northern and southern populations are completely separated and this has led to loss of suitable habitats and fragmentation. There are potential threats to the population in the near future in India due to mustard cultivation and other human activities, and therefore the population is also expected to decline.

Hopefully, the conservation efforts being undertaken by governments, NGOs and local communities will prevent its extinction.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is a photograph of the Gee’s Golden Langur. It was uploaded by Vinod Panicker.