Day4-6 Primate Diaries

Author’s NOTE: This is the second part of my 9 day account (up til today- 25th Jan 2017) of my experiences while I volunteer with ethe Macaca Nemestrina Project. Read Days 1-3 for more context.

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(19th Jan 2017)

Day 4- Shows and Showers
Our strategy of gong to each checkpoint and going into the forest from there wasn’t working out too well and we were sick of coming across VOLDEMORT. But we had no other options. A lot of field work is trial and error and requires undying enthusiasm. This can be diffcult to muster when you haven’t come in contact with animals that you desperately seek. But, the view is always nice. The forest is lush green, we passed babbling brooks, smelt rotting dead trees and saw the sun filter through the leaves which all makes for an idyllic image. We finished our latest sojourn with no succes and as we came out into the plantation at check point 1- there they were. AMY- chillin’ maxin’ relaxin’. After all this time. And they were beautiful. Better than the pictures and individual descriptions from virtual ID cards we had back at camp. Now I could start learning about them, their facial features, their behinds (great identification markers) and their quirks. I’d met Franzi already and now I was quickly getting acquainted with Norbert the current alpha male, Scarlett and Chewbacca, Mina, Pippi and many other females and a tirade of juveniles. We followed them as they lazed about and wandered, seemingly aimlesslyfurther into the forest and faster and over boulders we couldn’t climb over. And after we had taken the risk of climbing up(extremely unfit me huffing and puffing whenever I got the chance), the group just came back down from the other side. Finally, we think that after unnecessarily moving in circles, they were getting readyto settle for the day, considering it gets dark fast in the forest (thick vegetation means barely any sunlight reaches the ground). My phone shows that the number of steps I took today equals around 4.2 Km only as compared to the previous day’s 10 and 11 Km. It definitely feels like more when you cautiously step on wet rocks going up and are wary of every spiny branch, every weak spot and every crevice climbing down. I have the bruises, blisters and a palm-spine in my palm (get it?) to show for it.The thunder was beginning to get louder and we decided after a while that we couldn’t risk getting caught in the rain and hoped that AMY had indeed decided to sleep there for the night. We marked that as the sleeping spot so we could find them early tomorrow morning. If climbing up the cliff was a pain, getting down, nay tumbling to get to the vehicle was a whole different experience. And I had decide that this was when I was finally going to try riding the old-timey geared motorbike. As you may have guessed, it first started to drizzle and then to pour like there’s no tomorrow and I quickly exchanged places with Anna on the bike. The little muddy paths to get to the village were turning into rivulets that we wouldn’t be able to see anyway thanks to the downpour. The normally cold-shower felt hot after having beeen drenched despite the rain coat. I decided that tonight waa the perfect ocassion to eat the local Maggi instant noodle (flavour- Kari) because dang all the fearmongering about processed wheat and chemicals. I had to celebrate finally finding AMY.

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Day 5: Little bit of reason, little bit of rhyme.
The rain was pretty bad so the road was muddy when we left at 6:45 in the morning to get to AMY’s sleeping site. Unlike the long-tails, the pig-tailed macaques are eerily quiet most of the time so a lot of the time you are panicking that you have lost them while many individuals are still right there, hiding in plain sight. Most sounds made are from juveniles who produce a sound resembling a crying baby. Otherwise, the proof of their presence is only from sounds of them biting into a nut or jumping from one branch to another. I was also able to hear copulation calls from females which sounds like a consistent cooing. I also got some pucker-faces directed at me- which is a speciality of these macaques and can mean various things depending on the signaller, receiver, and context.I guessed and was tested on the individuals we met yesterday, most of whom I like to think I remembered correctly. Met a few new individuals today and realised that though Norbert is the alpha male, he doesn’t seem to boss anyone around. In fact the group is huge and well dispersed and there are hardly any interaction between or among individuals. They mostly just sit around scratching themeselves and picking at things that look edible. Of course, as I get to know them I will probably understand nuanced behaviour I am missing. Norbert seems to have no set plan and doesn’t call out to keep in contact with the others. Infact, there are few contact calls- a phenomenon I would have presumed was necesssary to maintain such a large group. But hey, what do I know? That is why I am here.
And, we sit and wait to ensure that AMY is moving, sometimes we don’t know what direction they are heading in so…we just guess. As do , I believe, most of the individuals. And how did Anna know the acaques were gonna sleep where they did- experience and intuition. Like I mentioned yesterday- TRIAL and ERROR and FOLLOWING THROUGH. Probably also what these macaques use. It is basic for our survival, human and non-human primates.
Finally met Dr. Nadine who came for the weekend and brought Mimi, another ex-student and ex-volunteer who is back for another round with the macaques. The adventure continues- the more the merrier.

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Day 6: Lost and found
It was decided that we would have to look for AMY again anyway since we did not see where they slept. All 3 of us would keep our eyes peeled and we’d find them at one of the 5 checkpoints eventually. So we started looking, limited by the number of walkie-talkies, their range and poor cellphone reception. All we could do was wait restlessly. We couldn’t risk going inside the forest because it is too vast and the directions the pig=tails could go in are limitless, even within their known range- filled with rock cliffs and crazy rattan-palms. How do you ask can we have taken 3 days to find AMY only to lose it again? And to reiterat, AMY is a group of around 50 not so small primates. Anna and Mimi did go inside the forest, up a hill they frequent while I patrolled all the checkpoints (My phone tells me I walked around 10.3 Km just looking for them. It is weird feeling, searching for one particular animals. You are hyper-aware of every sound, eveery leaf flutter, eveery branch-shake. And that builds you up for disappointment when it turns out to be yet another water-monitor lizard, or giant squirrel or even a dusky-langur. Things that are definitely amazing but not ideal. Plus like I mentioned yesterday, pig-tailed macaques are extremely quiet compared to other primate species. It was now 5:20 pm. We had first arrive at the reserve at 12 pm. And then, my walkie-talkie crackled to life. Anna had found them. She had started following them into the forest. We got her co-ordinates from her and reached, what we believed was their sleeping site for the day. They had found a good spot- close enough to the oil-palm plantation, yet obscured by trees and fortified by the spiny rattans on almost all sides. Well, we had almost lost AMY for another 3 days but FOUND them just when we were losing steam. It was already 7:30 by the time we got back to camp. We were exhausted but had to run errands in town, giving me the opportunity to buy myself a head-torch and taste some local dishes at the Seri manjung night-market. It was 12:30 by the time we got to sleep. We have to leave camp early so as to get here before AMY wakes up.

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