The Monkeys of Bukit Melawati
I have fallen in love with the silver leaf monkeys at Bukit Melawati, a hill fort on the coastline which remains from the 18th century Dutch occupation of Malaysia. It’s a bit under 90 minutes from where we live and I went yesterday for the second time to hang out with the monkeys. I could spend hours there, just watching them and taking photos of them. Well, I guess I have.
There is also a museum, a lighthouse, a royal mausoleum, the surviving Dutch cannons and several other interesting thing to see and learn at Bukit Melawati but, for me, it seems to be about the monkeys.
There are actually two groups of monkeys living together there: the silver leaf and a smaller number of macaques. There are probably about forty monkeys in total, though mostly they don’t stay still enough to count and there are always a dozen asleep in the tree.
Aside from humans (that’s us!), the macaques are the most widespread primate genus, ranging from Japan to Afghanistan and, in the case of the barbary macaque, to North Africa. There is a family of macaques living in the trees just outside our housing estate — and they’re the ones we see along the roadsides–everywhere, in fact, where civilisation has encroached and they’re trying to feed themselves.
The Silver Leaf monkeys, on the other hand, are classified as “near-threatened”. The black monkeys in my photos is perhaps more correctly called the “silvery langur” (Trachypithecus cristatus) and also known as the silvered leaf monkey. It’s also an Old World monkey. It lives in the trees in coastal, mangrove and riverine forests. Of the two sub-species, one if found only on the Malay Peninsula so I’d guess that’s what I’m so crazy about–the subspecies Selangorensis.
There is a magnificent, truly gigantic tree they all seem to occupy near the top of the hill (“bukit” means hill in Malay) and they eat mostly leaves, though at Bukit Melawati, they also eat the bread, green beans and other things that people bring them or purchase from the very nice man who’s always up there and will sell a bundle of long beans or bread for one ringgit (about 20p or 30c).
The social structure of silvery lutungs is matrileaneal and harem-based. Wikipedia, ever helpful, tells me that the females remain in the group for life, while males leave shortly after reaching adulthood, living in small groups of their own until they can take over an established harem. That matches what I’ve seen. There are lots of lady monkeys taking care of the babies and juveniles together, often pairing up to teach the youngsters to climb or swing–but there’s only one adult male within the whole group (there is also an adult male macaque). The baby silver leaf monkeys are born a bright orange and are stunning. There are a number of them in the album if you want to take a moment and aren’t afraid of melting your heart.
The silver leaf monkeys at Bukit Melawati are incredibly tame and don’t mind human contact; they seem innately curious, ask for food rather politely (if insistently at times) and seem very content to be in the company of the groups of people who come to visit and feed them. They aren’t particularly aggressive toward each other and I haven’t seen one be aggressive toward a visitor, either.
The macaques, on the other hand, tend to fight more amongst themselves and are less approachable by far. Overall, the two groups seem to get along quite well and have mechanisms for sorting out their squabbles which seem to work for them — and, fortunately, for their visitors.
For me, spending an hour or more in the company of these monkeys is a lovely experience. Nothing happens and it isn’t particularly dramatic (except when three or four of them end up on some tourist who doesn’t know what she did to get them there and isn’t quite sure how to get them off). I can’t stop taking photos. It’s hard to choose 20 for an album; ok, this album has 25 photos. I’ve taken hundreds of them so I like to think of paring down to 25 as moderation.
They are remarkable, these monkeys with their pointy hairdos and endearing heart-shaped faces. There is something very Dr Seuss-y about them to me. I find their wise old faces — particularly the silver leaf monkeys — wonderful to look at and being able to watch them interact with each other, tend to their young and survive nicely in the middle of a tourist spot is, while perhaps not very natural for them at all, still wonderful to be able to experience.
To see the album of my photos from Bukit Melawati, click on one of the highlighted links or on the photo of the silver leaf and young macaque (below) sharing some dried peas…it’s was lovely to see the older female silver leaf let the macaque youngster come politely along and help himself to a pea from the clutch she had in her hand.