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Tracking macaques in the Great Nicobar Island

The Great Nicobar Island’s micro-environments are home to a diversity of endemic plants, animals, insects and marine life

 The endemic Nicobar long-tailed macaques.
The endemic Nicobar long-tailed macaques. (Dhritiman Mukherjee)

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The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are tiny blips caught between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, forming a linear mass of socio-ecological diversity. While it’s easy to gloss over these islands on a map, zooming in reveals their unique geographical positioning, which has resulted in a diversity of plants, animals and habitats.

The southernmost of these is Great Nicobar Island, the largest of the Nicobar group at 910 sq. km, where I studied the endemic Nicobar long-tailed macaques. Getting to it, far removed from the mainland, involves a two-day ship ride from Port Blair, across expanses of shimmering sea. Armed with binoculars and the solitude of zero cellular connectivity at sea, I would watch somersaulting spinner dolphins, travelling bottlenose dolphins, the swift outlines of tuna and emperor fishes, and the constant relay of flying fish darting away from the ship’s hull.

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As the ship halted, I saw waves crashing over a sliver of sandy beach. Just beyond the coast, drooping mangroves formed a thin wall with interlocked leaves and roots. The island is home to about 8,500 people, mostly living in a 35km belt along the south-eastern coast. Over 80% of the island is covered in trees. Sprawling tropical rainforests house its faunal diversity. There are marshy stretches of coast, including mangroves (like the Rhizophora and Bruguiera species) and the endemic screwpine (Pandanus fascicularis), which are regenerating steadily after they were ravaged by the tsunami of 2004. The island also has a hard-edge habitat, where forested land meets agricultural and semi-urban spaces that people across mainland India have called home since the 1960s. This diversity of habitats makes for micro-environments that are home to endemic species of plants, animals, insects, crustaceans and marine life.

I often noted the flute-like song of the racket-tailed drongo as I trudged through the dense, wet vegetation, chiming in a little after treeshrews alerted the forest to my presence. Reconnecting with steady internet several months later, I discovered that there is scientific evidence of a fascinating association between the treeshrews, drongos and accipiters like the Nicobar sparrowhawk. These birds benefit from the treeshrews’ movement through the canopy, which flushes out insects and smaller vertebrates. The drongos and sparrowhawks then swoop in and grab the creatures, making for an unlikely but well-functioning trio.

The thrill of being in a place where nearly every bird, tree, reptile or mammal species was new to me never faded. My days began at 4am, when the macaques woke. I would rush to the tree they had retired to, ready to document their every move. They often slept overlooking the sea. In the early hours, the sounds of crashing waves and sea breeze would engulf the troop and me. Soon, the hill mynahs’ calls would pierce the air, often eliciting an alarm call from one of the subadult macaques. Impressive white-bellied sea eagles would take to the sky soon after, circling the shore and sea with steady grace.

One morning, the juvenile macaques, seconded by the hill mynahs, seemed uncharacteristically perturbed. I looked around to find an Andaman serpent eagle and a Nicobar serpent eagle seated on a sprawling Artocarpus chaplasha tree. Another day, following the macaques into a littoral thicket with my feet sinking through the marshy soil, I came across an empty nautilus shell—cradled by some mangrove aerial roots. Time and again, I was left amazed at the diversity of life.

As the macaques retired in the evening, I would scooter back to my shelter. Between December-February, I would go back in pitch darkness, guided by my unreliable headlight, towards the 13km beach, routinely passing a Nicobar hawk owl on its nightly forage. Two forest guards are posted there in these months. They spend nights under an open shed, periodically scanning the sandy stretch for female sea turtles surfacing to lay eggs. I tagged along on several nights, hoping to spot a giant leatherback turtle.

Over 80% of the Great Nicobar Island is covered in trees.
Over 80% of the Great Nicobar Island is covered in trees. (Dhritiman Mukherjee)

My eyes would adjust to the moonlight bouncing off the water and my ears would soak up the eerie silence between the tides. Saltwater crocodile eyes would catch my torchlight. At times, I would hear their jaws snap and splashes from startled fish diving out of reach. I was lucky enough to see olive ridley turtles dragging themselves on to the shore, leaving flipper trails in the sand to and from the inky sea.

There is immense life packed into this tiny space. Over the last two years, though, monumental development plans have been set in motion in Great Nicobar. While ecologists, anthropologists and concerned citizens have been highlighting these issues in the form of evidence-laden outreach, campaigns and letters to the authorities, the plans to transform this modest land are racing full-speed ahead. Protected areas have been denotified, over 800,000 trees are to be felled and crucial tracts of coastline are being encroached upon for large-scale projects like an international transhipment terminal, an international airport, a power plant and a township, eating into the Biosphere Reserve and National Park. We stand to endanger several endemic species, neighbouring marine life, sea turtle nesting habitats, vast littoral stretches and ancient rainforests.

Ishika Ramakrishna, a doctoral fellow with the Centre for Wildlife Studies, wrote this piece for RoundGlass Sustain, a not-for-profit organisation telling stories of India’s natural world.

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