Day 21-23: Primate Diaries

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an account of my experiences with the Macaca Nemestrina Project in Perak, Malaysia. Since, I don’t have great internet connection, each blog post will be an ccount of 3 days. I will try to explain biology jargon and/or provide links for them. But I’m pressed for time as internet is precious and I use Starbucks’ wifi (shoutout to Starbucks for all the caffeine). Excuse the atrocious spelling and grammar. I’m using a tablet and I miss MS Word pointing out my errors. Photos are more difficult to upload but I’ll figure out a way to do it later, and hope that my words are enough to paint a picture. Please read the previous posts for context. Feedback and questions are appreciated. Curiosity drives us. It drove me to this adventure.


4th Feb 2017- Tripping, tumbling, trolling

Anna was taking the day off today to work on her data. Mimi and Michelle had successfully scaled the hill and found AMY already gearing up to move. Meanwhile, I had killed another leech outside the kitchen this morning and our shy female cat Blacki seems to have been its victim. I had gotten less than 6 hours of sleep thanks to late night viewing of the one episode of ‘Sherlock’ I have on my USB ( “The Blind Banker” if you must know). So I mostly spent the morning catching up on sleep-it seemed to be a hot day.
Vino and I headed out after lunch, with the information from Mimi that AMY would probably be in the plantation when we got there. I am happy to report that other than a few minor moments of intense gripping fear that Vino definitely felt about my driving through the scary spots- we got there in one piece and ready for duty. This time- tablets and GPSs were exchanged and we bid Mimi and Michelle adieu. AMY having slept in the dreaded location was probably hungry and was filling up. We got a chance to identify some individuals and conduct two scans. We also witnessed Oliver mounting Pippi who groomed him. That is until, she saw Mina- they exchanged glances while Oliver probably felt pampered by all this attention. Pippi moved away quickly as Mina approached Oliver and presented to him. He took his chance and mounted her though she didn’t bother grooming him afterwards even as Oliver held his butt up in her face (an action like this and similar ones are called ‘groom presenting’, different from sexual presenting).
Amy had begun moving inside, travelling quite fast for our likig. But we resolved to persevere. They were climbing up hills, picking at rattan fruit, rolling them on tree barks when possible and also foraging for mushrooms. We realised that after climbing some way up, they seemed to stop. The juveniles were playing on the vines. Tiga was laying on one one his stomach,swinging it like a hammock and we relaxed a bit. Pippi came towards the back and Oliver mounted her. A little while later, AMY was going down- I thought to the logging road. I had not yet been in the area we were currently in. We also saw Norbert mount Mina and thrust long enough for it to be we thought-copulation. Pippi presented to Phoenix who mounted her.

We were starting to get a bit worried as we were starting to go downhill at a rapid pace- and not on purpose but because the hill was steep and devoid on much vegetation that we could hold on to. I WAS NOT GOING TO LOSE THEM TODAY! We slid down most surfaces and tripped on tree roots that were jutting out when we did walk on slightly flat surface. Climbed over huge fallen trees, with only Scarlet in our line of sight. It was painful considering we went through a terrace with just spiny lianas and bushes. But we got there. And realised that Scarlet and Schatz, her juvenile were heading back up. Again, over the huge tree and amongst the spine maze. But we got to a clearing. Unfortunately- we couldn’t hear anything and then…..a rustle in the trees and some barks- nope just long tails. “This is just great, I thought between breaths- I’ve managed to lose them yet again.” But just in time we heard barks, definitely from AMY. The males were fighting and females were hooting. We got there to see the females quickly disappearing into a thicket. Obviously it is a thicket of twisted spiny plants- “another obstacle course for us” exclaimed Vino. Suddenly Tiga disappeared into the thicket but from what looked like a clearer path. Oh how wrong I was for this was one of the infamous “swamps” Anna and Mimi had told me about. Well….it was a part of it- hopefully the best rather than the worst part. In such situations I’ve noticed that your brain claculates scenarios very fast. It’s this panic that grips you as you set your priorties. I wish someone could show me a scan of my brain in such situations. Anyway- we had no option but to go through. The swampiness of it is combined with the spininess of it which is the reason for its deviousness. But, we were fortunate enough for recent dry weather and prop roots to step on. Soon we were in a clearing and could see AMY again. It always amuses me how calm and composed the individuals mostly look, it could even be seen as indifference almost but that is probably a bias because you want to contrast your own fatigue and shortness of breath and are flooded by immense relief upon seeing them- an emotion you project onto them.

Soon enough, another fight had broken out. For once Norbert too seemed super involved. The females started moving again while some of the juveniles stayed back to watch the show. We decided that we would follow the females though we caught a glimpse and of course- Jesuaf the big dude who makes a cameo in AMY every now and then to pick fights, was around. They were finally heading in the direction of the logging road and soon we were on it but they were going into the other side of the forest again. We were growing worried that they would sleep really high up and we might have to come down in the dark, in an area I was unfamiliar with, and then drive the bike back in the dark. But fortunately for us, they seemed to finally have stopped travelling for the day. It was 6:30 pm. We stayed till 7 to ensure that they weren’t moving. The hyper energetic juveniles were still having a blast with each other while the females were busy grooming each other or their juveniles. All was well….except Vino discovered another leech bite on her. We drove back, with no accidents I assure you, and went to the night market . Tomorrow, Michele and I go in the afternoon shift while the other three go in the morning.


5th Feb 2017- Rocky Road

Michele and I had the afternoon shift today. We parked the bike and were heading towards the given co-ordinates when we witnessed a mass movement from the plantation into the forest by…AMY. This unidirectional, often fast paced movement is called travelling although right then it looked like they were running away from something. This was probably because they had been starteled by the sound of the bike and the excess of orange t-shirts. Anna’s focal was ruined but she wasn’t having a great time with focals today. She wanted to follow some of the juveniles, all of whome were chased out of sight by Phoenix, that spiral tailed douche-bag who loves to chase juveniles and make them scream. That is when he is not secretly mounting Pippi.
Mimi and Vino left and AMY started trickling back, although we weren’t sure for how long. The plantation workers were here today though we could only see one and he seemed far away. Most of them were hanging out in the buffer zone- an area that is around 10 m of the plantation and 15 m into the forest. The macaques seem to immediately relax upon entering the buffer zone and this gave Michele and me the chance to observe them at close quarters, especially since many of them were sleeping (because why not) and the juveniles were playing. Phoenix was lying on his back, his body on a swinging branch while his head lolled back, watching the world upside down after having completed his quota of terrorising the juveniles Emily, Felicia and Malu.

The group was starting to go in. Michele and I went in knowing/or hoping we would meet Anna with her focal along the way. We followed Scarlet, who is growing to be my favourite female- she is slow, calm but though she hangs back to get groomed a lot, she is still a reliable individual if you want to find AMY. We had reached the centre of the group. Brienne (the female with a mohawk and a kinked tail) and Goldie (named so because of her golden eyes; has a lot of colours on her butt and is probably the oldest) were at close range. Anna had found her way back to us and so we hung back towards the edge of the group so as to not overwhelm the macaques. The group in question was steadily moving straight over a rocky outcrop and disappearing fast. We had no time to look for an easier way so had to climb over and between huge mossy boulders, one higher than the other on this hill that was getting steeper. My acrophobia had no time to manifest itself because AMY was moving so fast.So we finally reached the top of this hill only to climb down again, fighting our arch nemeses- the Bertams on the way, obviously. They then climbed back up again and we had to stop to catch our breath and watched Emma voraciously but thoroughly and carefully forage as a form of meditation.
Finally, the climbed down again into a thickly wooded area with a canopy that made sunlight difficult to penetrate. It was 5:45 and the hoots and hums signifyig the end of the day could be heard though it is by no means a very reliable signal. The weird guttural call, usually emitted by Norbert had begun- a vocalisation, the mechanism and significance of which is a mystery. We contemplated such questions and many others- from vibrant colours of non-human primate genitalia to the helpfulness of callosites, to oestrous cycles and social heirarchy. About birds and spiders, and skills we acquire when studying Animal behaviour, the academia and working our way into it. You have a lot of time to reflect, introspect and debate while you wait for pig-tailed macaques to go to sleep. On the way down, it was quickly growing dark but probably because we had got waylaid by the amazing view of the sun setiing over the sea- the perks of height and the clearing in the canopy. Another exhausting but beautiful day. Plus no leech bites is always a bonus, though I’m afraid I can’t say the same for Vino who got her 5th leech bite this morning.


6th Feb 2017- Balls

Mimi and I were in such deep sleep that we didn’t even wake up when Vino and Anna left this morning. I got up only at around 7:45. I’ve been falling behind on blog-updating and reading although the time has been spent with the increased number of humans from different backgrounds and almost always resulted in amazing discussions.

Michele and I received the last location of Anna and Vino only after we had reached the plantation and parked the bike. And then one most recent message from Anna, ” They are quite high up in the hills. I got lost with my focal and separated from the rest of AMY and Vino. Vino can give you co-ordinates…Vino?’ and then nothing from Vino. It was a stream of messgaes from Anna trying to contact Vino or ask us if she had made contact. We were walking around rejoicing in the few moments we had reception so we could know the latest developments. Finally Anna found AMY but Vino was nowhere to be found. This was alarming considering Vino wasn’t familiar with the forest yet but at least she had a GPS. We got the co-ordinates from Anna who instructed us to look out for Vino on the way up. We were just about to start when Michele spotted a sudden burst of orange from amongst the green…”VINO”, we both exclaimed. She looked sweaty, exhausted and scratched up with some blood on her forehead but safe. She quickly told us of her ordeal. She doesn’t quite remember when exactly she got lost but she looked up from the tablet and AMY was gone. She waited for a bit. There was no phone reception so she moved a bit hoping to find some and realised she had better make her way down but unfortunately, the GPS had lost signal. So there she was, in the forest dazed and confused but she worked on instinct, tumbled through Rattans, fought with Bertams, resulting in the cuts and bruises. Finally, after shedding her blood (her 6th leech bite), sweat and probably tears, the GPS had found a satellite and she had burst through like a badass Dora the Explorer, without the damned map to help her. I would definitely have sat down and cried before I found my resolve in such a situation.

We quickly called Anna while I still had momentary cell signal and reached her as quickly as we possibly could (we had to climb quite a bit). We reached her and AMY and relieved her of her duty for the day. We followed AMY closely, over one steep climb and muddy patch after another. Pippi’s love life continued to blossom and keep us on our toes but Norbert and Mina were in very close proximity to one another. This posessiveness by Norbert is a sign that Mina is probably reaching her full-swell (Though I can’t fathom how she can carry her already cumbersome swell). I pointed out Goldie to Micele and her multicoloured butt, Putih’s juvenile Puck who has a hole in his nose, and the juveniles Dani and Charly. Oliver mounted Pippi, both of them watching us, Oliver puckering incessantly and Mina watching uninterestedly.

Mimi had still not received word about Vino’s safety and called in a panic. After we assuaged her fears, we decided that AMY seemed to be climbing down. A short walk later, we reached what seemed to be the napping spot. It was a flat patch, probably a naturally occuring terrace on the hill. Light filtered through but almost everything looked like it had a green tint (or there’s something wrong with my glasses). There were a lot of vines for the juveniles to climb and hang from while girthy fallen logs made ideal benches to sleep, groom, mate or eat on. AMY was on the move again, headed towards the plantation we supposed and I had my eye trained on the juveniles who sometimes have no sense of personal space. I moved a stem to avoid them and found it to be unnecessarily heavy. It was a split second too late because the whole tree nearby shook as I realised that I had startled Oliver who was chilling on the branch of the tree whose stem I had moved and on learning that, I was so disoriented, I went and stood, right under him- his testicles on one side of the branch and his puckered face on the other, staring me down. I had already witnessed his erect penis twice today and did not need another scary reminder of his potential to inflict physical harm so I moved quickly before he was tempted to lunge.

AMY moved to the plantation, quite late in the afternoon but were not comfortable enough to step onto the ground, probably because it had rained quite a bit and the ground was still wet and mucky. they stayed for close to an hour and we watched my chill interspecific bae Norbert mount his current conspecific bae Mina just above our heads. We contemplate the pros and cons of having testicles this far back on the body and so exposed while we waited for everyone to fill their cheekpouches for what we hoped was the last time today.
Barely an hour later, AMY had started to move back in. They took us through a very swampy patch filled with rotting trees, spiny palms and thick canopy before leading us to a small clearing where the nightly humming and hooting ritual had already begun. Scarlet chose a tree nearby, the bark of which was filled with spines. She lost her footing on the way though and startled…..Oliver who immediately switched to the offensive and Scarlet wouldn’t back down. There was some squaling and barking until Norbert (followed closely by Mina) rushed in to intervene and everyone calmed down. We stayed on to ensure that this was indeed the sleeping site and I hoped I could find my way here tomorrow morning.


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