Kacang, meaning nut in Indonesian, is the name of a crested black macaque born on 4 April 2007. Four months later, he placed his right hand, by accident or with the curiousity of young primates, in a trap set by men hoping to snare jungle fowl in Tangkoko National Park in north Sulawesi. The rangers who found him had to cut off his limb between the wrist and elbow to save him. Now a young adult, Kacang forages with his troop in a coastal forest hemmed by a dark beach, coconut estates and burgeoning villages whose hogs join the monkeys in their daily search for food. He makes light of his loss, though, climbing and twirling through the vines and saplings with little visible handicap, using his stump as a prop and resting in the shade of familiar thickets as midday approaches.
On this island of lakes and mountains, where creatures from two worlds meet and march in retreat before a wave of humanity, seven species of endemic Macaca are thought to have arisen from ancestors resembling the pig-tailed macaque of mainland Asia and Borneo. Over time, as adventurous, or exiled, individuals crossed hilly ranges and rafted or swam to new territories, the rise of unassailable barriers and sundering of links over land and sea led to palpable shifts in both the genetic make-up and visible traits of isolated populations. The monkeys that ventured into the volatile arc of Sulawesi's northeastern extremities succumbed to the dark side, with one species, confined mainly to Dumoga-Bone National Park, sporting a deep grey wash, and the other, trapped in the tip of a crowded peninsula, turning jet black, save a pair of hairless rump pads, which turn pink in sexually receptive females.
Visitors familiar with the long-tailed pests that infest parks elsewhere in the archipelago would find Macaca nigra a beast both familiar and foreign. Like Macaca fascicularis, black crested macaques live in large groups, scouring the forest floor for plant matter and occasional bodies of protein, and scaling the canopy for figs and succulent leaves. But these monkeys are at least a third larger than local cercopithecids, with the barrel-chested males approaching waist-level on all flat fours and weighing 18 kg or more. The effect is heightened by a tuft of hair with an attitude of its own and a tailless posterior, which recall the great apes of Africa than the crab-eating inhabitants of Malayan coasts. One's gaze is also drawn to the animal's strong brow, which frame close-set red-brown eyes aglow with fire and smouldering in silent accusation. A long muzzle hides cheek pouches for food storage and fangs that threaten with every yawn.
A long fallen trunk served as a pitstop for Kacang's troop, which occupied its length, dozing, stretching, nursing, grooming and chewing. One male indulged in a little masturbation, licking the results with unabashed intrigue. Females with bare-faced infants and mothers with unruly children sat together, exchanging notes and combing each other for parasites. Staring is thought ill in simian society, so visitors are advised to avoid eye contact as well as maintain a wide berth, a warning unheeded by young punks who seem to delight in tagging human shins as they chase each other in mock rage. Other injunctions, against littering and feeding the macaques, suffer from the presence of uncovered troughs from which the odd monkey plucked unfinished snacks and sweet skins.
Kacang's is one of several troops roaming the reserve, which is home to several hundred individuals. Across their native range, only about 6,000 macaques remain after years of deliberate hunting, incidental trapping, habitat loss and persecution for crop raiding. But even at Tangkoko, the species' final stronghold, the monkeys face the risk of poachers, bird snares and repercussions by neighbours whose smallholdings gnaw at the boundaries of the park and who may still fancy the traditional delicacies of a tropical yuletide. A perennial tension of culinary fascination and fear for local livelihoods threatens these imposing primates, which face a bleak future in their little corner of a world with no room to spare for beauties in black and monkeys that mirror the motions of man. Unfazed by existential perils, Kacang's extended family rose from their siesta to resume their patrol, romping towards the entrance gates and entering a domain of apes at odds with their presence and abundance lost to their kind.