Here in Sri Lanka we breakfast on plantain, as they call bananas here, buffalo curd, a macho version of yoghurt, and kithul, a treacle made from the sap of palm trees. We sit on our balcony overlooking the valley and admire our neighbour’s mango tree, heavy with green, unripe mango.
A troupe of monkeys, macaques, come along. The senior one sits atop an electricity pole surveying the scene. His or her, troops make their way along rooftops, electricity cables, tree branches from tree to tree, quietly and watchfully. Some mothers have babies clinging to their bellies. After a pause one, and then another, leaps into the mango tree.
Our neighbour comes running from the house shouting and clapping his hands. The monkeys move away, the fruit is not ripe anyway.
The next day there is a large white flag fluttering above the mango tree. The mangoes are swelling and acquiring a rose blush on their skins.
One morning we hear a scrabbling around on our roof. I get up and part the curtains to peer out. There, on our balustrade, sits a macaque peering in and, above, another one peers, upside down, from the rain gutter. The monkey troupe are assembling for an assault on the tree. They can see the white flag, but they know what it is.
Our neighbour is better prepared this time, he has fireworks. These make a bang bigger than those we are allowed in UK but not as big as the one guy Fawkes would have made had he been successful.
Bang! Then two more bangs. The monkeys retreat a little and look wistfully at the mangoes. All the dogs in the neighbourhood begin to bark. No chance of a lie-in this morning.
There are more distant bangs now, from across the valley. I cannot see the monkeys but there is a wave of ruffling and swaying branches through the forest as the monkeys make their way down towards the river.
Days pass and there are more bangs. The number of mangoes decrease, and all the big juicy ones have now gone. Was it the monkeys or was it the fruit bats who fly in silently at night?
The white flag is still flying – surrender.
The Macaque monkey (Macaca sineca) is the common monkey of Sri Lanka. They roam around in troops of up to forty with an alpha male as leader. He is often the lookout, perched on a high post. There are scouts who go ahead of the others and will be the first to enter your room if you leave a window open. Many Sri Lankan houses have wire grills over their windows to keep monkeys out. Young males are tolerated in the troop until the age of 6 or 8 years then must leave. The older females are the ones with the red faces and the fertile females are the ones with the red behinds. Mothers have their babies clinging to them for the first two months and they give birth every 18 months after a 6 month gestation.
Monkeys feed on small mammals and insects as well as fruit and flowers. They know where all the mango trees are and when the fruit is ripe. They, in turn, are prey to pythons and leopards but may live for 35 years. They will scratch and bite and have been known to spread rabies so treat them with respect.
A troop of about 30 macaques gathered in our garden one afternoon, they seemed more quarrelsome than normal. Suddenly they organised into two groups and began to fight. Each side lined up and then individuals or small groups of 3 or 4 sallied into the other side with snarls, screeches, bared teeth and flailing limbs. They all joined in, even the mothers with babies clinging to them. Blood was drawn and injuries appeared. Eventually they moved away leaving a ruined flower bed.