So I’m spending three months in a state called Perak in Malaysia. The following is the account of how I’m spending my time. When you are away from civilisation and cell reception you realise the value of the internet. Having to buy something from Starbucks when you come to the city is the only way to get Wifi. So I can’t promise I’ll do this everyday and consistently but for now I’ve done 9 days. Maybe I’ll do it weekly from now on. Pictures are difficult to upload but they’ll come eventually. Meanwhile please feel free to Google about the project, the volunteers and the animals and plants. Excuse the typos, typing on a tablet is tough.
Day 1- No monkey business
So here I was after around half a year of planning and anticipation, at the Segari Melintang forest reserve. I decide to take a year off post MSc to actually help out someone else collect data. So I found and applied for the Macaca nemestrina project spearheaded by Dr. Nadine Ruppert. She has been studying the pig-tailed macaques for quite some time now, even collaborating with the German Primate Centre. I had already travelled 5 hours by bus from KL and been met by Anna, a potential PhD student who after coming back to volunteer multiple times had learnt to drive the quirky Ford with shift like a pro. She was to be my mentor as I am the first field assitant to arrive.
We took a wild moped ride to bring us into the forest where we were seeking the group known as AMY. Anna showed me “checkpoints”- areas the pigtails frequent. The trail are on the periphery of the forest followed soon by oil-palm plantations. We had to dal with minor flooding thanks to the crazy rains last night which diminished our chanes of spotting Amy but this gave me the opportunity to learn the area, watch and listen for animals I could recognise and become acquainted with disappointment which is a critical lesson when attempting to observe animals in their natural habitats. They’d be extinct if they were so easy to spot. So unlike the vociferous dusky langur and the relatively abundant long-tailed macaques, pig-tails are quiter and suspicious. Any movement in the trees was inspected but was anything from a giant squirrel to a bird. But after going along the checkpoints multiple times, suddenly….movement and the unmistakeable tail. I was overjoyed. That is until Anna told me it was group VOLDEMORT (never thought I’d be courageous enough to say that name out loud). But we decide to follow its members anyway. If you thought spotting them the first time was difficult, following them into and inside the forest is no mean feat. We stumbled into spines (I stumbled), got stuck in mud (I did) and my left rain boot leaked so my foot was wet the whole time. We followed members of Voldemort till we were exhausted (ok…I was) and climbed back down. Another quick trip to a checkpoint to see if we could spot Amy but no avail.
A lot of people know what happens after animals have been found and observed but few can romanticise looking for animals in thick forest surrounded by spiny plants. Its a challenge- mental and physical and I for one, am up for this.
PS- The group we wish to follow is called Amy after the first now deceased mcaque to be collared. Voldemort was named after the then alpha male who had no nose
Day 2- The jack in/and the boot
The day started mellow enough. I got to start the day at a leisurely pace and tend to my runny nose, read a bit and pet Mitza who is in love with me or my light brown cargo pants that he likes to lick. We spent a few hours in the forest starting at around 12:45 pm. For the second day in a row, AMY was nowhere to be seen. Every rustle in the trees turned out to be long-tails or langurs and every movement in the bushes was a lizard or a squirrel. We found VOLDEMORT again but they are shy and difficult to follow. There were no workers in the plantation today which is usually invitation for the macaques but the area is stil water-logged which might deter their movements on the ground. We did find a lone male but he has probably left AMY (males disperse after they reach adulthood…google “primate philopatry”). In one of our multiple trips we spotted (I didn’t) Franzi, a male who seemd extremely chill and he moved from one palm to another. We followed him for a bit and entered furthe into the forest before Anna suggested that perhaps Franzi has joined Voldemort as this was where we had followed them yesterday. Also for the second day ina row, my left rain boot had a hole so a semi-flooded plantation was not ideal ground. Anna was sympathetic of my ordeal having seen me empty the personal pool I had acquired and occasionally stopping to wring my socks. So she enquired with Nadine and we decided to take a trip to Sitiawan. We found the boots quickly enough and they were much cheaper than I expected. While we were there, Anna suggested we should invest in a Starbucks drink for the sake of their wifi and then we ate dinner at an Indian-Malay resturaunt. Thosai, it turns out is indeed Dosa but stuff served with it can only be categorised as Dal, soup and the familiar- chutney. Our city adventure done, we headed back on our longish trip back when guess we heard the rare but dreaded sound of the tyre bursting. It had been a while since my last tyre changing lesson but between the two of us and the right tools, I was confident- that is until we opened the boot (refer to title and rain boot- get the pun of my title yet?). It turns out, the jack was exremely rusted and wouldn’t budge. We were a little too far from anywhere to be walking and all hope seemed lost as no acquaintance from Teluk Senangin (the village we stay at) seemed to be responding. So there we stood in the light drizzle on a somewhat desolate street to Teluk Senangin.
But soon enough, reinforcements arrived, thanks to Anna having informed Nadine. 3 boys from the village set to work and after realising our jack wouldn’t work, set about changing the tyre using their car’s jack. Nadine’s husband had also been called and also came around to help. We had moved from muddy, spine-filled Segari Melintang to the air-conditioned Starbucks to a grease and rust filled sweaty adventure. We still haven’t found Amy since I’ve arrived but I can’t say it has been awfully dull.
Day 3- On panic and picnics
Following last night’s adventures, we decided that it would be best to get both rear wheels of the car replaced ASAP so drove carefully to Manjung. Our limited Malay and signs were seemingly being interpreted by a kid no more than 11. All was well, or so we thought before the mechanic dude took our car keys and our interpretor and drove the car out of sight. We had no option but to stand there and hope they were going to go elsewhere and get it fixed. After what seemed like an eternity- they came back, but the tyres had ot been changed. After yet another miming session and radio silence, some calls were made and we were asked to follow one guy from the store. This super cool dude who smoked a cigarette while waiting at a red-light took us through winding roads and areas Anna was not familiar with. The other store of course had been called. We got our tyres fixed and ensured we had a better one to use as spare next time. And super-cool dude had obviously left us so now we were left to our devices to figure out how to get back. After a little while, we did have to use our devices which luckily did show us the right way and combined with my keen eye for landmarks that serve food, helped us get back on although around half an hour late for field-work.
Our quest to find AMY continues and since the last two days had seen lesser rain, we were hoping for more monkeys. It was long-tails everywhere and raucous calls of langurs rang through when we did enter the forest. Yesterday was Franzi and today I met Jesuef (No one knows how to spell it). He was the calmest pig-tailed macaque I had spotted. He was in the plantation feeding on oil-palm fruits that were on the ground. He was cautious but uninhibited by us which is what the rest of AMY should be like. BUT where was AMY? We spotted another pig-tail but it seemed to shy so was probably from Voldemort. We decided to stalk Jesuef. And he was in no hurry to go back to AMY. He sat there enjoying his little picnic, sitting on a little tuffet, away from the pools of water around. Dainty and relaxed, scratching his scrotum while he was at it. We followed him for a short while before abandoning that idea and going to check out other favourite haunts of AMY in the forest. Guess what…nothing yet. The pig-tails are nomadic. The sleep anywhere, rest anywhere and go anywhere. Unpredictability is probably a good thing for them. It’s not ideal for people wanting to study them considering some have studied them before and know that they usually operate predictably. But getting lost in a language and a city and finding my way through a tropical evergreen forest looking for a missing group of pig-tailed macaques all start out at rushed events filling you with dread, panic or excitement until slowly you realise that you have to breathe, calm down and enjoy the ride. Scratching genitalia in public is probably a bit of an overkill though.