Day 15-17 Primate Diaries

Author’s note: I am spending tme in Malaysia working in the Segari melintang forest reserve helping study pig-tailed macaques with the Macaca Nemestrina Project. This will be my last post in the diary entry format. Excuse the spelling errors. Photos are difficult to upload when the internet is spotty at best. But feel free to explore terms. Curiosity is the foundation for science and I think should be the the foundation for all interests. Feel free to ask me to explain terms/jargon if you can’t find them online.

Game of thorns- Primate Diaries
29th Jan
Since Anna had a meeting with Nadine later in the afternoon, Mimi and I were to take over from her in the afternoon. Our landlady had gifted us some Pandan cake and we were enjoying the pure bliss of the dougnuts they brought us. Meanwhile, Anna was having a busy day following the pig-tails, trying to do ‘focals’. Mimi and I had to stop on the way to the plantation to mend the muddy (potential to get stuck) road using the large oil-palm fronds/leaves. We still made it before 1 but turns out AMY had moved quite far into the forest and unfortunately also quite high. We had the GPS co-ordinates but navigating inside a forest is a skill in itself; finding the clearest path without losing orientation can be daunting. Bertram pines are common and their spines are a hassle, I still have the remenants of one in my thumb from days ago. Rattans, however are the bane of one’s existence the moment one is made aware of their presence, which to their evolutionary adavantage is often not soon enough. Mimi and I passed through many a thicket of Rattans, contorting our bodies because machetes don’t help with the fine rattan stem that puts J.K Rowling’s “Devil’s Snare” to shame. It took us an hour to get to the aforementioned co-ordinates and Anna was the epitome of patience. And we were just in time for the macaques to take us down the hill on the other side which was achieved by fewer accidents and need for expletives on our part.
Mimi and I followed the group’s progress while Anna did her focal on Franzi after which she left. We did our 3 pm scan in the forest. We realised that Pippi (who is currently swelling) presents herself, mostly to Phoenix (who is not a high-ranking male). He is cautious before he approacher her (probably wary of Norbert the alpha male) and mounts her. We witnessed this tryst thrice in a short time-span. Once at such close quarters, as if for our benefit. Franzi too inspected and mounted her once. AMY was in the plantation long enough for us to do scans. Norbert, Franzi, Scarlet, Pippi and some juveniles were all observed feeding on soft-spined (of course there’s spines) blue berries growing as herbaceous weeds in the plantation. After the 5 pm scan, things seemed tense. The barking calls of males and females are closely followed by barks of a different species. The dogs were here and so AMY decided that it was high time they went back, of course through yet another path lined with the dreaded rattans and other spiny plants. Lianas, standing tree barks, small plants- no surface seemed smooth enough to hold onto so we could pull ourselves out of the muck, and also climb up the hill. I fell on spiny bertram spines and looked like I had sat on a porcupine. It was painful so I took out all my aggression on the upcoming machete-able stems in my path, which obviously barely made a dent in the thickness of the vegetation, causing us to almost lose them. However, we sighted Emma and followed her upto….the same damned hill they had climbed up on and climbed down from earlier today.
Though the contact hoots, normally signalling the end of the working day had begun and many individually were climbing high up, many a juvenile was still playing and mock-fighting. Emma was still foraging for mushrooms and eating the oil-palm fruits she had stored in her cheek pouch. So we waited around for half an hour for Emma to finally stop eating and until Joey and Rico (Sub-adult males) reached an impasse in today’s series of fights. Mothers called and collected their juveniles and we returned before it gre too dark. It was a very long-day (as evidence by the length of this post). But the difficulty of coursing the unworn trails that made us wince in pain also made us plan harder for how we will reach them tomorrow morning.
They don’t like to move it- Primate Diaries
30th January
Marking an X near the access point of the trail to the sleeping site was a good idea. We avoided blundering about in the dark for the most part and were there by 7:33. It was still somewhat dark in the forest and we were relieved to hear the low hoots of the pig-tails and rustle in the trees. We were going to be using the Macacanemestrina Project’s tablet today and doing scans every 20 minutes instead of an hour if possible.
We were all geared up for some serious following and we saw Norbert go downhill calmly walking on all fours instead of erratically swiging. But we know better than to follow the alpha male when he is not followed closely by at least some of the females. So we waited. We saw other individulas, but no was seemed to want to move anytime soon. Scarlet was foraging on the tree and I had eyes on Putih and her baby “Pumelluff” (the German name for the pokemon Jigglypuff). Putih was climbing downwards before she was obscured by the canopy but in the other direction to Norbert. Suddenly, we lost sight of Scarlet as well and could only see a few juveniles which usually means we were at the back of the group. Which could mean high chances of losing them if we didn’t make a move now. But we were yet to see many other females and males. I’d caught a glimpse of Oliver (the ‘Beta male’) who had followed in the same direction as Norbert. It was decision time and we were just about to move when we heard female hoots again. Pamkin (pronounced Pumpkin) whose butt even when not swelling is easy to distinguish was foraging on the ground and climbing up the tree nearby. Pippi was here too. I saw Putih again for a bit and Mimi tried to follow her but the shy Putih screeched and climbed up a tree and disappeared from view yet again. Added to our frustration, we now only had eyes on Pippi and she was giving the loud hollow hoot given when one is lost. Wait, by depending on Pippi to be in the group, had we doomed ourselves now that she herself seemed lost? And why was no one answering her. How far was the rest of the group anyway? Just as we were about to declare “AMY LOST” on the GPS, we saw that Putih, Pamkin and another female or juvenile were still around. But no one answered Pippi whose calls were becoming more frequent. “Maybe she is calling out to her juvenile”, Mimi suggested. Pippi has her own kid Pie and had sort of adopted Lori whose mother disappeared. Neiher seemed to be responding. This is where you need Anna’a experience and intuition. We decided that they had been at the sleeping site for close to two hours now so they MUST be going to the plantation, although some went in the direction towards yet another hill. We climbed down, mimicking the hoots as closely as possible but no response. This was not a good sign. We heard a rustle- long-tails. Not a good signa at all. And we took an impulse decision because I thought I heard a juvenile hoot from the direction of the plantation. It is interesting that though science is objective and based on empirical evidence, on the field, so much is speculative and based on these impulse decisions and riddled with confirmation biases. It is a good thing we don’t treat data we collect the way we decided the path of AMY. We finally reached the plantation and heaved a sigh of relief. There they were, and the rest were just coming out. turns out some had just decided to take the scenic route. It was 11 when the fially got to the plantation and we hoped they’s stay till Anna arrived.
We did a few more successful scans thanks to better visibility in the plantation than the forest (Though forest scans and plantation scans are treated separately) and Anna turned up earlier so she could do focals befor AMY returned to the forest. We handed over the tablet, waited for all of the group to go back in and left. On the way, a man was standing in the middle of the road. He spoke incessantly to Mimi who seemed weirded out by this and then pulled out his wallet. “Polis”. I don’t need to speak Malay for this. I sat there not undertsnading anything, glad that Mimi was Malay. The conversation seemed to have reached an impasse and we could see a woman, dressed in the police-uniform this time also approaching us. I was still clueless as to what was happening. Turns out, their vehicle had got stuck in the mud (because even authority does not exempt you from this sort of stuff). They wanted one of the cops, accompanied by Mimi to go to the plantation and call the Indonesian plantation-workers for help. Well, I said I’d wait while the lady-cop and Mimi went back to checkpoint 2.5. They were back presntly and we left the site. Another cop was standing with the car but were luckily able to pass through. The day had turned hot and sultry and we were both dozing on and off while reading. It was cooler outside but still too sunny. Nadine and her kids visited the beach nearby so dropped in for a visit. Anna was back only by 7:30. Like yesterday, they again moved quite a bit-though this time only in the latter part of the day. They returned to the plantation late in the evening which usually means they sleep close to the edge of the forest. Mimi and Anna go tomorrow morning and hopefully, will have a hassle-free time finding them.
Different views- Primate Diaries
31st Jan 2017
Turns out I was wrong. The morning wasn’t as hassle-free for Anna and Mimi. It was pouring when they left, and AMY was gone by the time they reached the sleeping site after the rain slowed down a bit. So AMY was lostyet again and when it is a rainy day, they can retreat further into the forest without a trace. Matters hadn’t improved much even when I got there albeit 5 minutes late thanks to three instances where cows refused to budge from the road. So we split up yet again and I went into the plantation, at a location suggested by Mimi while her and Anna were at two different checkpoint. I was walking along, carefully so as to not step in cow-dung when I had a rustle in the oil-palm. I saw something run and jump across the moat in the plantation. It looked stocky and virtually tail-less. But it could just be a manifestation of my wishful thinking. Meh! I had nothing else to do so I headed out in that direction and I heard yet another rustle, it kept moving. I had less hope now. It could just be a squirrel (giant and beautiful are both seen). It turns out it was a group of long-tails, moving quickly. There is no antagonism between the long-tails and the pig-tails for the most part (they even groom each other and have been known to mate to produce fertile offspring in captivity apparently). However it wouldn’t make sense for them to feed in the same place with limited resources…unless they were each others lookouts, highly unlikely because AMY is a big group and can take care of itself. But I still felt like I should follow the long-tails as I was sure the individual I had seen jumping across the moat was a pig-tail. I followed the long-tails, quite close to Check-point 1and there they were, AMY. In the trees, on the ground, grooming, filling their cheek-pouches and blissfully unaware of the inconvenience their absence had caused. I contacted Anna and Mimi went back home.
Since AMY was on the ground for once, Anna took this opportunity to do focals while I did the scans. I was observing and trying to identify individuals at the same time. The group looked like they were ready to leave. I happened to be with Emma, who yet again showed no self-restraint and was lagging behind because she wasn’t done foraging. Finally, she too went in, followed by the males and juveniles who generally form the rear-end of the group. I realise that I couldn’t see Anna anymore. Perfect. but hey I hoped she was still with her focal and was laready in the forest. I went in and was soon in a little clearing with lots of mangrove like plants- prop roots and everything. Casimodo (alternative spelling Quasimodo) was sneaking up behind me at this time and needed to be avoided. He is a strapping male who tends to be volatile. I saw Norbert investigating some yellow bracket-fungi that I didn’t know you could eat when I almost hit my head against a swinging liana, containing an unfazed Emma staring into my soul….actually she was just getting ready to poop but still- we had an intimate moment right then.Fortunately I found Anna in time as AMY seemed to be travelling further up the hill. Anna continued with focals, choosing random individuals, this time a sub-adult male while I spotted Emma and decided that though she always lagged behind, she still found the group. There was indeed a point when I couldn’t see Anna (who admits freely that she hardly notices where she is going when she conducts focals) or AMY. Yet again, I decided to go with my gut and go down. I saw Brienne and she seemed more reliable than Emma. I finally saw Scarlet getting groomed by the juvenile Tiga and could see Pamkin (or her unmistakable butt)and many others. Anna, it turns out was indeed lost as the focal she was following decided to do his own things and was in no hurry to get to the group. Since Scarlet and Tiga were in no hurry and eveeryone seemed relaxed or having a siesta, Anna had enough time to get to where I was. We went down further to where the females with infants were hanging out. They too were busy grooming each other while the juveniles played with the infants, who were for once free to expllore the world the right-side up (It can be difficult to do when you are clinging on for dear life on your mother’s belly).
After a while there seemed to be some movement so I ent in further. They seemed to make a move to head to the planataion. Pippi and Phoenix were still at it with their rondevous and I got pucker-faced while I watched the mounting process so I could be made to feel guilty about my voyeurism I guess.
I saw scarlet yet again and even Brienne going in, closer to the edge of the forest but soon they turned back. Anna was back to. AMY was travelling yet again, going up the same way they had come down. There was an atmosphere of calm and we hoped exhaustion because that meant sleeping-time. We still waited till 7 pm before we decided that it was time to go back.
After my shower, I was informed that we had been invited to abarbecue by some people in the village. It seemed like a good meet-and-greet opportunity and who can resist a barbecue at the beach. I got to meet some of the people. There was prawn (Udang), crab (Ketam) and fish satay among other things. And warm balck coffee (Kopi) to coomplement the cool sea’s breeze. I also heard about everyone’s questions about India, their knowledge (mythbusting and counter-stereotyping becomes my main vocation at such times) and queries. They got a chance to practice their English and I got a chance to again hear about how the youth is dissatisfied with their government, a sentiment that is common everywhere around the world currently. I realised I am a fan of such cultural exchanges, more real than my mock-UN sessions and a truer test and teacher of diplomacy.



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