AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am spending some time in Malaysia volunteering for the Macaca Nemstrina Project studying pig-tailed macaques and this is an account of what I’m doing. please read the other entries for more context.
Raid, Rain, Repeat- Primate Diaries
26th January 2017
Wednesday was our collective day off (considering Anna and I had worked around 9 days without a break). A break means we don’t know where the latest sleeping site of the macaques is and so have to look for them the next day, starting at around 10 am. Mimi and I had decided that she would do the morning shift with Anna while I did the afternoon (since I can drive the motorbike now;) )I received a message pretty soon after their arrival that they had found AMY. After days of cludy skies, our fortunes were shining. I too had a leisurely morning, reading a book after breakfast. 20 minutes into the book, I had a series of thumps. Normally paranoid me reading a thriller is not the brave lion you want if you want anything suspicious investigated. After ensuring all the doors were bolted and curtains drawn, I braved a peek. It was the damn long-tails again. Two of them going through the trash while 2 attempted to squeeze through into the kitchen. While I was trying my level best to intimidate the long-tails, Anna and Mimi were having a field-day at the plantation (could not resist making that pun). I was excited that I would for once, get to see AMY without having to crane my neck and squint to make out movements or listen intently for the female pig-tails’ haunting hoots.
I got there at 12:50 but only then received the message that the macaques had entered the forest. Walkie-talkies and cell-phones seemed to not be helping but after about an hour I heard the words ‘logging-road’ amidst a lot of crackle. I rushed to the trail we call the ‘logging-road’ and met Mimi on the way who told me that their ‘field-day’ had taken a rough turn when they got viciously attacked by wasps following AMY into the forest. I got to Anna (complete with swollen face and hand) as quickly as possible. Amy seemed to be running for cover and we soon realised why. Guess what, it started raining again. It was 3:30 pm by the time I had finally got to the location and the rain started almost immediately (FYI- this hurts me as a person whose name literally means ‘cloud’) and didn’t stop till about 4:30. The rain stopped but as my fate continued to mock me, the macaques would obviously not come off the trees. A second not-so-intense rain as it turns out was on the cards and yet again, all macaque-activity halted. By the time it was 5:30 pm, we had taken some unfriendly sounding tunder as warning and realised that AMY too would. We marked tonight’s sleeping site (marked as “AMY SLEEP” on the GPS so we can find them tomorrow morning) and rushed home.
27th January 2017
This morning, I wished Anna and Mimi a pleasant time (as the sleeping site was close to th plantation last night) and finished my book before I had more time to get paranoid. At 8:08 I received a whatsapp message- miraculous considering the internet almost never works at this time. It was from Mimi. Apparently, the car had become stuck in the mud on the way to the plantation and they had been trying to get it unstuck with all resources at hand ( not a lot of resources around- there almost never is in these cases). Nadine was around, having come to Teluk Senangin from Penng on account of Chinese New Year week but was not reachable. I called and messaged from here trying to do my part since I would have been useless at the scene of action. Finally, I received a message that ANna and Mimi were at the planatation.
When I reached, I saw that Anna and Mimi were both sitting near the now muddy car at checkpoint 2. Thnking that AMY was nearby I quickly parked the bike and looked up to see….nothing. Then from the resigned faces of the two macaque-hunters I realised that they couldn’t find AMY. We decided to split up again just before Mimi left for home. I was leaving my designated station after a fruitless hour and it was beginning to drizzle (surprise surprise) when the walkie-talkie crackled to life. Mimi had found them and they were heading to the plantation. With some effort, I found them but not before all of us, including the macaques had to take cover. Before the next quota of rain followed, Mimi informed Anna of the good-news, gave her the GPS with the co-ordinates and braved the rain to head home. While AMY did stay in the trees, I saw Emma and her daughter Emily, mentally coaxing the latter to eat a rather large, fast and practically-impossible-for-a-juvenile-to-catch rat (because Mimi saw the Alpha male Norbert eat one and I wanted to see something like that). Amy stayed in the plantation for a while and started heading back into the forest way before bed-time. They hung out at the aforementioned ‘logging-road’ again and i could finally see some individuals close-up. I finally saw the holes in Puck’s nose that was his identifying feature. I also saw with resignation another tick- at least this time it was on my hand and seemed to ave just got there. Tiga (means 3 in Malay- his tail was shaped like the number when he was younger) and the other juveniles picked and ate mushrooms to be scared away by Franzi who knew the secret crevices where these mushrooms could possibly grow. AMY did not seem to want to go to the planatation though they had plenty of time and opportunity. Soon, we heard the frequent calling and hoots from females and juveniles- a sign that members are contacting each other, proabbly doing a head count. Probably signalling the end of the day. We stayed with them till 6:15 just to make sure. Tomorrow, I take the morning shift so I can practice leading again. After we got back (and I tended to the tick), we met up with Nadine who had invited us to dinner at the resturaunt nearby for belated birthday celebrations. We surprised her with cake and made merry, gearing up for tomorrow.
This morning, Anna and I got to the reserve without incident and found AMY gearing up for a new day at last night’s sleeping site. They were already making noises and moving about so we knew they would get to the plantation quite early. I got to experience my first ‘scan’ at 8 am. Essentially, we spot 3 males, 3 females and 3 juveniles, note what they are doing (acts are classified mainly as aggressive, affiliative or copulatory) and what stratum of the forest (ground, understorey, top) they occupy at the time. Thanks to the thickly wooded patch they were currently in, it was difficult to spot even the three males we did find. The next scan (1 hour later) would be better because they would be in the planatation by then. We were wrong as it turns out. Because on our way to the planatation, we heard a loud ruckus, courtesy of screaming juveniles and barking males and females- a phenomenon so jarring considering the pig-tails are usually very quiet. We couldn’t see what all the drama was about but I could see one male (difficult to identify) who for no apparnet reason was trying to pull at juveniles from branches while they clung on for dear life. I bet prehensile long tails would be of great assistance at this time. Finally, a female, probably the loudest juvenile’s mother charged at the male and he relented. Not for long as yet another little standoff had begun among the mlaes. One glaring absence was of the alpha- Norbert who we realised had calmly walked up behind us (he rarely swings from trees and sits on branches- maybe because he is too heavy and too cool for them) and seemed least bothered by all this noise. Finally, almost unwillingly he climbs up. The noise died down pretty soon but we had by then followed the females into the plantation (always a better idea as the males can quit the group and tend to go on ‘walk-abouts’ often) after our 9 am scan. They were all in the plantation soon enough and stayed there, albeit mostly in the trees. I got to do the 10 am scan while Anna followed Putih ( means white in Malay- she is a dark individual with white eyelids) to do her ‘Focal study’. It basically involves noting down anything the ‘focal’ individual does and anyone with them, eveery minute for 30 consecutive minutes. Nadine had decided to spend some hours with us today and she didn’t have a hard time finding us because we were were quite close to checkpoint 1. And she made it in the nick of time. Amy was ‘travelling’ (movement of the whole group- with an apparent purpose/direction) and we followed closely. After a long time, they seemed to making their way up the hill, with us at their heels. They reached a high point- with a great view of s river stream and the forest nearby and then took us through some Bertrams, to a higher point from where we could see the ocean. There was yet another tussle among the males while the juveniles looked on excitedly. It was time for my shift to end and I would have to climb all the way down. As if on cue, the macaques decided that after this little, seemingly unnnecessary trip to the top of this hill, it was time to go down. So I had human and non-human company all the way to the periphery of the forest. I also removed 1 leech from my neck and one from my back on the way, before they had done any real damage. I was greeted by Franzi outside the forest, who as usual does his own thing and doesn’t wait for the rest of AMY. I switched shifts with Mimi and got back home. I was greeted by our landlord who is back from KL for the week. And as I was talking to him i realised that there was another leech, on my stomach. It was the most awkward conversation of my life. And considering that most of my first-time conversations are awkward, that is saying something. He already thought I was ‘quirky’ because I was the first “Indian” to be doing this- “Usually it is Europeans”, he said. On top of that. I seemed to have the weird twitch of touching my stomach and pulling on my shirt incessantly (I thought I was super subtle btw). I got into my room asap and discovered that the leech had indeed grown nice and fat on my blood. I pulled it out but the anti-coagulant had done its job and the bleeding wouldn’t stop. A shower, and 2 bandaids later, I cleaned the blood out of two shirts and resigned to meditative reading and involuntary itching. Anna and Mimi had to stay in the reserve longer than they expected because the macaques decided to give them another tour of the hill and went into the plantation quite late. But this usually means, they sleep closer to the plantation making it easier to access their sleeping site the next morning.