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.
Feb 1st 2017- Urges
Mimi and I were to take over from Anna and do the afternoon shift. We were hoping for a respite from the rain as Anna wanted to take the car to the city. She was to run errands and pick up two new additions, Michelle and Vino, the soon-to-be worshippers of the force that is AMY. Mimi decided that perhaps I could drive the bike one way. Bad move as it turns out because I’m not used to people riding pillion with me and she was too nice to say how frightened she was. Well, we got there without TOO much trouble (Mimi might think differently). AMY was out in the plantation so Mimi and I were saved the trouble of learning co-ordinates or navigating mazes of Rattans and Bertams. Anna, again conducted focals while Mimi and I did scans every 20 minutes. I had a personal hooray momemt because I spotted Norbert (the alpha male) furiously wolfing down what looked like a rat. Obviously, I was overjoyed because he was close enough for me to take a video of the behaviour. Mimi believes that he probably bullied someone else into giving it to him. He certainly is physically imposing enough. I was also able to record some of the individuals partaking berries that we aren’t sure have been recorded yet (so I can’t reveal what the plant is- ssshhh SPOILERS!)
Anna left soon after AMY decided to hang out in the forest. And after moving for a bit, we were about to follow them onto a hill when there was a sudden flurry of macaques rushing to climb up trees. Chewbacca gathered her infant (Chocolate) so fast off of the nearest branch, it looked like she gave it a concussion. Males were barking and juveniles were whimpering. And then we heard the dogs. They sounded quite far away but in such cases, it is better to trust the macaques’ instincts more than your own. So we sat there for some time while the only individuals low enough in the canopy were a few juveniles. Other than occasional hoots from females, we would have no other evidence of their presence.
It had been about 40 minutes now and the dogs were long gone, but AMY had no intentions of moving anytime soon. Scarlet was once again getting groomed by Tiga, the juveniles were playing and for once, Norbert was on a tree branch. Well he had to use two parallel tree branches because he is so massive. We sat there, watching him nap lying on his back,his hands splayed out,seeming very human. He finally decided that it was time to leave and lunged onto the branch below. What he didn’t take into account was how brittle the thin branches he jumped on to were. It was a hilarious fall and we couldn’t help startling a nearby juvenile with our laughs of sadistic pleasure. AMY was now moving to another patch of the forest. While we were cautiously stepping around Rattans, I noticed something flutter by. Turns out it was a bat roosting at what seems a weird time, in a weird place for a bat. And as we were about to take pictures was the exact moment an excited juvenile pig-tail decided to jump on the closest branch. We got over the disappointment pretty soon as we spotted Pippi, whose recent dalliances with Phoenix and Oliver were a source of amusement and scientific curiosity. We followed her. Pippi is sort of a loner and skittish around others in the group. We spotted Pippi pass Oliver but Norbert was nearby. Calmly eating some mushrooms and scratching his scrotum. Febe was nearby, with her infant Fefe. Pippi saw him too late and had a fright so immidiately course corrected, crashing into Febe and then tried to groom her started grooming Febe. Febe, who seemed startled and repulsed by Pippi, quickly moved away clearing the path for Pippi to avoid Norbert completely. He didn’t even seem slightly inconvenienced. Anna thinks he is biding his time till Pippi’s swelling grows. But as it turns out, the second encounter between Norbert and Pippi was also in our fortune. Pippi still seemed scared. But she presented to Norbert. He decided to inspect her swelling but Pippi was too nervous and went away from him. But Norbert, always the epitome of chill, waited patiently. She returned and freaked out twice more before she finally let him mount her.
Finally, the group had decided to lead us to the plantation. However, the sky was filling up with dark clouds and our minds were filling with dread as we realised we would have to deal with the rain and then go back by bike. The macaques either didn’t think the rain was going to be too bad, or they were too hungry to care. We decided to go with the former explanation and their instincts. So they hung out. But because it had started raining, it was difficult to do any scans as most of them were in the crown of the palms. Some even kept moving back and forth from the trees in the forest to the oil-palms. After about an hour of this, the rain got heavier, though still not unbearable. The macaques were still not travelling into the forest despite it being 6:30 already. Some more bouts of thunder later, we agreed that it would be safer for us to get back now because the sky seemed unrelenting and the macaques seemed to be slowing down and would definitely sleep close to where they were.
Mimi and I both decided that she would be the best person to drive through such weather and worsening road condition as a result of the rain. Ok, so there were some hassles and I fell into the mud once and got hit in the face by a palm frond a lot ut Mimi definitely handled the bike much better than I would have. Anna too had enjoyed her half-day in the city . By night, we met Michele and Vino. Now I guess, I get to teach them what I have learnt over the past few days.
2nd Feb- Tree falls in the forest
Mimi and I were to run errands in the city while Michele and Vino needn’t to buy grocery. Anna had said she would do the morning shift and Mimi and Vino would do the afternoon shift. I was up at around 7. Made myself a nice cuppa and decided to start reading 1984. It was raining but was more of a pleasant, more tolerable drizzle. Perfect reading-while-drinking-coffee weather. I picked up my phone to take a picture of this bliss for Instagram. I had a whatsapp notification. It was from Anna. She was wondering if any of us were awake (Vino and Michele had only got her last night at around 11:30 pm and Michele had travelled from the Netherlands). I answered immediately. Turns out there was a fallen tree blocking the road. A large one and it was wedged so hard among other vegetation you couldn’t move it. Anna said she would walk if we could go by car and one of us could drive the bikw back. I woke up Mimi who got her machete just in case.
At the scene of the crime, we realised that the branch was too thick to hack with a machete. We tried breaking it with our combined weight, attacking it at seemingly weak point. You realise that knowing fulcrum and its appications theoretically is very different from using those principles when a tree won’t budge. We realised that ifwe cut its main branches, it would be unstuck from the vegetation on the other side. So I used all my aggression (I have a lot of it) and all my strength (probably don’t have too much of it) to free the tree from one side. I am happy to report that we moved the tree….by about an inch. We didn’t lose steam though. We cleared enough of a path so at least the bike could pass. But the macaques would have definitely left the sleeping site by this time and looking for them could be difficult because they would still be in the forest. We were getting late to go to the city. And fortunately for us, since the tree had fallen on a used route, it would be removed soon; or someone with a saw or an axe and not a machete, would soon come by. We were able to convince Anna to come with us to the city and assured her that they would find them in the afternoon. I got my work done, the others got their grocery and we had lunch at our regular ‘biriani’ spot.
On returning, we heard that the road had been cleared so Mimi, Vino and Anna went to the reserve. Turns out theat they found AMY quite soon as they were in the plantation. Meanwhile, I recooked some silica gel. Boxes that store our equipment need to be free of moisture which can be difficult when it is so humid; the silica beads help. Meanwhile, Nadine’s husband and friends came to fix the other bike. We also caught a glimpse of the new car, better equipped to take into the forest. Michele wanted to go to the beach, which was somthing I still hadn’t done so as the weather got more pleasant, we went to the beach, saw some hilarious crabs fighting to claim a bivalve’s meat, talked about our dreams, aspirations and frustrations, came to the conclusion that all of us seem to have the same set of problems, regardless of culture, religion or race…all while wading along the shore.
Tomorrow, Anna, Michele and I take the morning shift. I’m excited to see another person get mesmerised the power of AMY.
3rd Feb 2017: Accidents
Michele, Anna and I reached the sleeping site birght and early- well not so bright yet but that’s good. We saw some juveniles but most of the individuals were skittish because of 3 people; one of whom is new. However, Michele was already rather surprised at how close they were to us, though we informed her that this proximity was actually called far. The view would get even better later, when they hung out in the plantation. Anna started with her focal with Chewbacca, who carries her infant Chocolate. Michelle and I conducted scans at a distance so as to not startle Chewbacca with 3 stalkers instead of one. I also pointed out the individuals I was now able to recognise- to Michelle. As we were scanning, we saw a male- Phoenix enjoying some fruit sitting on a fallen tree that forms a bridge between us and the rocky outcrop on the other side. Biru came from behind him and jumped over him like a boss in the calmest manner. He saw her and mounted her. She then stated grooming him. But wait- Biru isn’t swelling. I conferred with Anna but didn’t have to describe what we saw in great detail as it happened- again and again. I made an entry of each event in the ad-libitum section (entries to be made if you see something interesting between scans). Pippi was around again and is easy to spot, and her dalliances with non-alphas that we have been witnessing is exactly what Michelle is here to study- How females exercise choice in the matter although the alpha males seemingly solicit all swelling females. But today, we again witnessed Norbert mounting Pippi. this time, she ran away-looking back as if surprised at what had happened and gave out a series of short hoots-like a hoo-hoo-hoo, the copulatory call. I wonder if the reason she doesn’t do that when she mates with other males is becauseshe would not want the alpha male to know that she has decided to diversify her options of genes.
AMY had begun to move. Pippi, the loner who usually hung out only with Pie, her kid and Lori-her adopted kid, was not associating with them while swelling and upon enquiring, Anna informed me that it was the case for other females while they were swelling as well. Though it wasn’t too hard on the juvenile as it was usually a year after she gave birth, that the female would swell again (though it would happen earlier, if they lost their baby). I was also amused to learn that chewbacca, Putih and Febe who all currently have infants, do not associate with each other much when they don’t have babies whereas they hang out and travel with each other a lot these days. We were discussing such fascinating and probably undocumented/univestigated behaviour going down the hill, when we realised it had turned eerily quiet. This is not uncommon as the pig-tails can sometimes be very quiet while moving through the forest. But there should at least be leaves rustling. Luckily, I saw Emma’s juvenile Emily right then and we heard some females call. Relief came flooding back in. So we decided to go down. Michele was clarifying somethig with Anna so I decided to follow in Emily’s direction. We went down into an area I knew before. Mimi and had lost AMY here before. It was swampy, with the plantation straight ahed but two rocky, steep hills on both sides. This was the only path we could take. So we went ahead and were closer to the plantation but no matter how much we strained our eyes or ears- there was no sign of AMY. Some long-tails, some Duskies but that is it. I had made us ‘lose’ AMY. We were too far in the swamp to go back and course correct. So we came out into the plantation hoping they were there. We searched for them, in vain. Anna decided to climb up the hill close to their sleeping site (being the faster climber and the resident AMY expert) while Michele and I went further into the plantation.
We had almost lost hope and were at our wits’ and shift’s end when we received a message. Anna had sent co-ordinates. They were on the hill. We decided to go in. Franzi was sittin on a rock calmly picking out spines from between his toes waiting to welcome Michelle and me. He is like Heimdall, the gatekeeper of Asgard, and a source of comfort when you can’t spot any Orange t-shirts yet (Check out why we wear orange). We found Anna doing a focal so hung back. She was grateful because she had finally got 30 minutes worth of data on Malicia- one of the shy females. Michele and I soon went down again to switch shifts with mimi and Vino.
It was my turn to ride the bike with Michele sitting pillion. I avoided most pothole and we survived all the dangerous muddy spots, including the one where i had taken a spill. I was quite proud of my achievements and we were quite close to home. We had to stop for cows that had decided to chew cud right in the middle of the road. Instead of stopping the second time we encounteered them, I accelerated to scare them off and I worked. Too bad I accelerated straight ahead into a patch of sand and couldn’t control the bike. The bike turned sideways and we fell. Luckily- we weren’t injured…physically (I can’t account for Micheles’s possible mental trauma). I drove home more carefully. Mimi and I had forgotten that the tablet was iwth me so she would have to take scans on paper. Ughhhhh. Too many things, such little brain space. But I was glad that Michele had already had the pleasure of meeting AMY, fel the disappointment of losing them and the joy after finding them along with the risks associated with bad roads and inexperienced, overconfident drivers (that would be me- hold sexist comments about women driving). She was overwhelmed, exhausted and still jetlagged and I left her to rest after discussing and viewing pictures of all the individuals we had met today.
Anna sent me a message that they would be late because AMY was in the mood for movement today. They had climbed quite far up and did not seem to be stopping. It turns out Anna was right (as she tends to be when t comes to AMY) and the three of them only came back at around 8:30. It had taken them 30 minutes just to get down, stumbling through a mostly unknown part of the forest. Mimi and Michele were to go in the morning tomorrow and expected at least 45 minutes to get all the way up there. Vino’s personal achievement was that she got her first…and second leech bites. The second one was still attached to her and I had the honour of discovering, detaching and destroying so it wouldn’t latch on to one of us, or the cats. I might have been trying to make up for all the stuff that got screwed up because of me. But you learn lessons quickly when you have no one else to bail you out all the time. And so I’ll be more cautious tomorrow when Vino and I do the afternoon shift. I’ll drive carefully, not lose sight of AMY and remember to take and fill the tablet.