WILD LIFE | 04.10.18

Playing with Fire

After decades of forest loss, conservation efforts are underway to protect both Sri Lanka’s local livelihoods and the island nation’s (in)famous endemic tree dweller.

Photograph by Anup Shah


As the late-afternoon sun filters through the dramatic ruins of Polonnaruwa, the capital city of an ancient Sinhalese kingdom in Sri Lanka, curls of smoke from the remains of a cooking fire catch the waning light—and the attention of a toque macaque (

Macaca sinica

). Built for life in the trees, these arboreal monkeys subsist mostly on fruit from the forest canopy, consuming a significant percentage of the forest’s annual fruit crop and playing an important ecological role as seed dispersers. The resourceful macaques also regularly seek out opportunities to supplement their diet with higher-protein foods, including insects and any small vertebrates they can catch. This quest often brings the macaques down to the forest floor, and while on the ground, they’re not above raiding farm fields, garbage heaps, and fire pits in search of an easy meal.

With humans increasingly encroaching on Sri Lanka’s toque macaque habitat, such raids are becoming more frequent. Since the 1950s, the country has lost more than half of its forest cover to family farms, firewood collection, and tea plantations. As the trees have disappeared, so too have the macaques: Without enough fruit to sustain them or safe places to sleep, their populations have declined by more than 50 percent. The monkeys that remain come into contact with humans far more frequently than they once did—and those encounters often end badly for the macaques. Because of their propensity to raid rice fields and other crops, farmers often shoot the monkeys on sight, and the Sri Lankan army uses them for target practice. In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the species, which lives only on the island nation of Sri Lanka, Endangered. Despite this designation, the toque macaque remains the only endemic species not protected by Sri Lankan law.

Fortunately, these charismatic and highly social primates have attracted a growing group of champions working to ensure their survival. Wolfgang Dittus, a scientist from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute who has spent the past 50 years studying toque macaques at Polonnaruwa, has worked for decades to mobilize local leaders in business, policy, and education to support primate conservation on the island. And he and his local collaborators have made concrete progress: In 2010, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa issued a mandate for the country to increase its forest cover from 23 percent to 36 percent.

Proceeds from the 2015 film “Monkey Kingdom,” featuring Sri Lanka’s toque macaques, have helped support a growing effort to protect the island’s endangered primates and to conserve and restore their habitat. Conservation International is now working with local communities to develop economic opportunities for the 15,000 people who live near existing protected areas, create new conservation areas, plant thousands of trees, and introduce alternative cooking technologies. These efforts won’t only help Sri Lanka’s imperiled macaques—they’ll also support the hundreds of other endemic species whose forest homes might otherwise become firewood.

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka


ABOUT THE Photographer

Anup Shah received his first

National Geographic

assignment in 2003, followed by seven more. He has since published four best-selling photography driven books. Shah has been named one of the five best wildlife photographers in the world by


magazine, and was one of ten photographers included in the book, "Masters of Nature photography." His work has also been featured in the book, "The World's Top Wildlife Photographers.”

Anup Shah




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