Days 31-33: 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 account 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.

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14th Feb 2017: Back in business

Anna and I rode out on the two seperate bikes this morning.The partying was done and we were back on track. AMY had slept in the same place they had slept the day they…I didn’t even want to think it- ran super quickly and dragged us to “The Swamp”. We were dreading that outcome but AMY was feeling kind today. After confusing us a bit by moving in no particular direction, we caught up to them moving into the plantation. Most of the oil-palm fruits had been harvested and the macaques decided that they weren’t even going to bother leaving the buffer-zone. Anna could still do focals on the juveniles she needed though. I sat down and checked off all the individuals I could see, the state of swelling that the females were in and which males had achieved the coveted ‘pink scrotum’ (when they have a red penis- Norbert and Oliver currently do so). It had only been an hour and the last few individuals were trickling back into the forest. I looked around for Anna but couldn’t find her. I presumed she must have gone inside already and waited for Biru (swelling considerably), Brienne (starting to swell), Mina (regrowing swell) and Phoenix (currently mounting Biru when he has the chance). Soon, they started to move in. They were going through small thickets which I could access with some difficulty and the difficulty level kept increasing. Finally, I only had eyes on Mina who quickly averted my gaze and climbed quickly up a steepish rock. I couldn’t see or hear anyone. But I knew this area by now and so I kept climbing. I was climbing a small rock when my leg slipped and I tripped over a vine. I got up and realised that Phoenix was intently staring at me. He has no concept of personal space and is growing increasingly troublesome. He torments juveniles almost everyday and even the usually calm Scarlet and Emma are wary of him. Scarlet even chased him screaming today after growing tired of his rubbish. I avoided him and kept on my path. I was just about to start panicking because Anna wasn’t answering me when I heard juveniles playing and males grunting. Anna was at the far end doing a focal on the shy-ish mother Chewbacca (and her infant Chocolate). I realised that is why she didn’t answer- also because she knew I would find her and was panicking unnecessarily.

AMY was moving around quite a lot though not really towards a particular place. I was keen on seeing my bae Norbert who seemed to be a rare sight today. Oliver, my slightly intimidating frenemy was abundantly visible though. He was sneaking up on me and testing how close he could be without needing to pucker or run away. Phoenix and Anakin were taking turns hanging out and mounting the swelling females. Anakin too has become more habituated to us I believe. He doesn’t pucker as much and is cool just sitting around pretending to ignore us while snidely keeping an eye out to track our movements.
AMY began to move again, this time climbing quite high up. We were almost close to the highest pointthat boasts breathtaking views of the sun setting on the ocean. But AMY had alternative plans for us. They decided that we were better off fighting Bertam palms’ spines that relaxing on a hill top with views of the ocean. And so we started climbing down, watching juveniles clamber onto falle logs that were to big for them to grip and Brienne quickly moving away when she encountered Scarlet. I caught a glimpse of my valentine Norbert but he ws too busy barking in short grunts to mollify some juvenile probably or discipline them (we don’t know much about vocalisations and their purpose in different contexts).

Michele had the day off today and Mimi and Vino have been tasked with attempting to find the other group- VOLDEMORT. And Anna being the badass she is and amazingly nice had decided that she was going to pull yet another 12 hour feat and let me go home whenever I wanted. I was disappointed as I had failed to get a chance to try a focal yet again because AMY kept moving downhill so fast even Anna had to stop focalling. I asked if she needed any chores to be done back at camp, just so I could make up . “Go and enjoy your birthday”. Man, such awesome humans studying pig-tails.
So I returned in time to see Vino off. She is going to another project site for 2 weeks. I showered, ate a late lunch, tried to write my blog, got annoyed of all the flies and mosquitos, decided to go to my room to type and then decided that I would take Anna’s advice and enjoy my birthday. And so I took a nap- for almost 2 hours. It was a beautiful birthday
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15th Feb’ 2017: You-Know-Who

I woke up at around 6:30 and decided to ask if Anna and Michele who were about to leave for the morning shift needed some equipment from our hut. They realised that Mimi had the keys and I realised that they were still in her bag. So I had to go wake the poor thing up. After handing over the keys I reminded both Anna and Michele to fill petrol in their bikes. Michele realised that she couldn’t find her head-torch. And it couldn’t be lost in her bag. It is fluorescent-ishly pink and would stand out. Since they were getting late I offered her mine and tried to write the blog while being side-tracked by the cats and the dawn -chorus of the birds. Mimi and I were to leave soon too as today she and I were to repeat what Vino and her did yesterday, in vain. Look for VOLDEMORT.

I have mentioned VOLDEMORT in my first blog. They are the other group that share the reserve with AMY. They get their name fromthe alpha of the group who had no nose. Nadine hopes that we can habituate VOLDEMORT like we have habituated AMY. This is good because it will increase the amount of data collected for the different projects and we will avoid confounding our data by having just a single group who may have a particular set of behaviours that are only observable in them and can’t be claimed to be common to all pig-tails. We had already made big plans for VOLDEMORT. Anna had told us that many of VOLDEMORT’s indivuduals were still not-photographed or catalogued, we had a chance to name them. Vino had quipped that all the individuals should be named after deatheaters. Or if not, at least some one should be named Bellatrix. Having conversations like these make you realise how much of an impact certain books have on people (also that Potterheads are everywhere).

So, here we were, Mimi and I. We decided to split up at checkpoint 1. I would scour the plantations while she would stay closer to the forest edge. We would go all the way uptil checkpoint 0 in this fashion and meet at a designated point (Such good planning whe you know your communication devices are going to be useless). So I made my way into the plantation and kept an eye and a ear out for any movement in the leaves or low hoots characteristic of pig-tails. And there was nothing. I don’t mean no pig-tails….nothing at all. No long-tails, squirrels, shrews, rats, dogs, cows, humans. Nothing. You know those movies where when there’s supposed to be pin-drop silence they fill it with sounds of crickets chirping? Yep that was it….just some crickets chirping. I remembered that Vino and Mimi had informed us that almost all of the fruits in the plantation had been harvested so there would be lesser feeding opportunies for the macaques and others. My mind wandered onto other things. I noticed that the sun was filtering out through the leaves manifesting in my favourite scenario-The Tyndall effect. This also made a lot of spider webs visible. I immediately decided to take some pictures and hopefully be able to photograph some of the designers. I was trying to get this beautiful crab spider in focus when I heard a rustle from the dried oil-palm leaves on the ground nearby. Probably a skink, I thought. But then a sound as if something was laughing like we type a laugh “He He He He”. I turned around and tried to look for a source- nothing. So I went back to trying to focus on the spider. But there it was again, the sound. You know those same movies with the pin-drop silence and the crickets chirping which suddenly gets filled with soft maniacal laughter and then a piercing scream from the protagonist as they die? Yeah. Me too. Thus I moved away cautiously and quickly knowing full well that it was probably a frog or a gecko that makes the sound.

After scouring the area without much luck, I went back. Mimi and I decided to use the logging road and go as far inside as possible, “Hmm”ing and “Huh”ing to mimic the sounds of pig-tails as convincingly as possible in the hope of a response. Mimi had made the sound and heard a lost call, turns out it was from a lost long-tail though. We walked along sharing our common amazement of fungi diversity and flowering plants along the way. “Maybe VOLDEMORT needs to be resurrected” Mimi said. “Hmm, bone of the father unknowingly given, flesh of the servant willingly sacrificed, blood of the enemy forcibly taken” I chanted (Well I I had to google the exact words- I’m not that big a nerd (that’s a lie) ). Mimi spotted a tiny little leech trying to look for an ideal location on her skin to bite and suck from. She flicked it away and suddenly I felt something on my neck. I realised that it was a leeck. It had begun biting and I now had a red mark on my neck. Red blotch is better than being drained of your blood though.

We had decided to scout checkpoint 3 next when Anna communicated that they were going to the plantation with AMY, which was moving to checkpoint 2. So we wnt there after a quick-ish albeit relaxing lunch since we had no pig-tails to keep our eye on. I finally got a chance to do a focal. Anna decided I should start with someone simple- Scarlet, my favourite female. It was a mostly successfull first attempt thanks to Scarlet’s activities being limited to foraging for and peeling or cracking unripe oil-palm fruits while the her juvenile Scatz (darling in Deutch) and Tiga (means 3 in Malay-after the shape of his tail) hung out nearby.

While I waited for Mimi, she had gone to checkpoint 3 and had her own adventures while waiting for a sign of VOLDEMORT which involved getting ice-cream from the local vendor (ice-cream box on a bike), realising she had no money and being given free ice-cream because the vendor took pity on her and knows the ‘orange t-shirt girls’. Mimi got back and we decided that it was time to think out of the box, or atleast flip the box and look for VOLDEMORT on the other side of the forest, where there exists yet another planatation. Who knew? Well, Anna did and so did Mimi. So we took the jeep and heard the same Maroon 5 song that was stuck in our head already because we had heard it this morning too. We went into the plantation there, which grew a little more wild and the borders between forest and plantation were less clear. “Gosh we should be able to summon them. Get the dark mark tatooed on ourselves” I said. Mimi said she couldn’t as if she had seriously considered it. “Well you can get a dark mark with Henna. Should work just fine”. And we went on at length about summoning the Dark lord which would definitely sound super creepy in a small village like this with strong superstitions about dark forces if they understood English and did not know the context. We also discussed our dream to go to Orlando to live the real Harry Potter experience. We went ahead till the plantation was so thick with weeds that we thought it better to return.

It was almost 2:30. We had been looking for them since 9:15. But it’s the same difficulty we face with AMY when we don’t know where they are. THE PIG-TAILS CAN BE ANYWHERE is the general mantra. Any chance of finding them can only come when they present themselves to usin the plantation or the periphery of the forest. We spent the next half hour climbing up a small hill near checkpoint 2.5 where Mimi remembers having seen VOLDEMORT, although that was 2 years ago. Well, we were out of ideas so we spent the next half hour climbing up and down the small hill. “THIS VOLDEMORT IS USELESS. We are actually using the name”. I said exasperatedly, taking out spines from my hair and scratching my hand. We decided to head back, realised we couldn’t get down to the plantation at the only opening possible so stepped and swung on lianas hoping they would support our weight.

We got back around 3:30 and witnessed Michele get really excited saying she HAD to show us something she had photographed. It was Norbert sitting like the boss that he is while investigating something fluorescentish-ly pink. Michele’s missing head-torch! She had probably dropped it along the route somewhere yesterday before Franzi found it. It had been passed on to Schatz and then Norbert had played with it before abandoning it and Michele could retrieve it. Norbert-this is why he is my bae. Full of surprises. Anna got back after her 12 hour day. AMY had come back to the plantation and stayed late so slept in the buffer-zone. Anna was able to get a hold of Putih finally to do her mother-infant focal but still no Chewbacca.She feels and hopes that scrlett and Brienne are pregnant as they haven’ been swelling. Brienne’s ‘swell’ doesn’t seem to progress or regress so it could just be a body feature she has when pregnant. We told Anna of our plans with VOLDEMORT very excitedly until we realised that she wasn’t getting any of our HP references because she is a complete muggle, unaware of the books or the movies. Mimi, Michele and I almost immediately decided to explain all of our Harry Potter references all at once and probably overwhelmed the hell out of her. The three of us were busy fawning over Ronald Weasley, debating Snape’s morality and the political struggle and analogies in Harry Potter before we realised that Anna wasn’t even there anymore. “We need to have a Harry Potter movie marathon” we said together. But until next week (because we spend only 2 days of a week looking for VOLDEMORT), AMY.

PS: I realised that considering how many Harry Potter references we had made already, perhaps it would be cool to count the number of references we can make before we finally find VOLDEMORT. Also of course, the number of kilometres we walk.
References today: 3-5
Kilometres walked (as phone says)- 6.45 Km
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17th Feb 2017- The Summoning

Mimi and Michele had the morning shift today designated to the usual things- scanning and following AMY. At 9:43, I received a message on the whatsapp group fromMimi “We found Nagini”. At first I thought they had found another individual of group VOLDEMORT, hence the Harry Potter naming, as per our earlier conversations. It turns out, they were following AMY when the juveniles had seemed very excited about something and huddled together. Michele got closer to them to take a picture before Mimi noticed and warned her about the reticulated python that was slithering away to safety under a tree nearby. That was excitement enough. Anna and I had to make do with watching Miezer the cat eat a bunch of grass to cough up, nay, almost vomit his furball. Reticulated python in the forest and cat coughing furball. Same right?

At noon, we were getting ready when there was another series of messages starting with- “Megha, is your scar hurting?”. Another Harry Potter reference, this time well placed because Mimi and Michele momentarily lost AMY and then Michele spotted some juveniles so they followed them for a few minutes before they saw a male that was barking. He turned back and they saw his face. He had no nose. It was the Drak-lord himself (This is what I could glean from their excited narration of the incidents afterwards). It was as if the python was indeed the sign, forewarning for the sighting of Voldemort himself, the alpha male of the group VOLDEMORT*. Luckily, they found AMY back soon. VOLDEMORT was not on the agenda for today.

By the time Anna and I reached, AMY had apparently climbed quite high up and obviously were not on a rocky hill that was easy to climb. Mimi and Michele did not know how to get down so we sent them the way we had climbed up because it was the best of the bad ways. AT least we had AMY. Anna was desperate to do a focal on Charli because he was difficult to see and very skittish.While she was doing that, on this very slippery hill, I was precariously perched at a somewhat stable location watching Pamkin and Emma climb down. Anna dejectedly said that she had lost Charli yet again because he had gone down and she couldn’t see him anymore. “Oh we can go this way. Looks okay. And there;s no rocks, just mud so we can slide down without injury if it is too steep.” I said. Anna looked weary but agreed. Charli was getting away. So we carefully climbed down. She went first and warned me that there weren’t too many things to hold on too and place your foot on. “That’s fine. We only wanna go down anyway.” I assured her. Soon, she reached a platform while I was still struggling to make up my mind about my next step on this almost 80 degree incline. “Umm, we can’t get down any further from here. It looks pretty bad.” Anna said. We decided to go back up and go down the same way we had suggested Mimi and Michelle to go. And remember that loose soft mud which was going to make it easy to climb down. Well, it made it really hard to climb back up. I apologised profusely for wasting our time and we were back on the route we knew. Luckily, AMY was waiting for us. So we went back to carefully following them. While Anna did her focals, I sat down, removed all the mud from my boot and did some scans. Goldie was swelling and quite poular . Pippi, no longer swelling, had gone back to hanging with her juvenile Pie and adopted kid Lori.

We reached a place where Anna’s focal individual was in one direction whereas other members of the froup were in another and moving upwards though to where I couldn’t say as my view was blocked by a big rock. I sat ona tree trunk so I could turn around and keep an eye on Anna. I could see Pamkin in front of me. She started to move. I looked back but Anna had already left. I thought I should follow Pamkin so at least I KNOW where the group is in case Anna is following a male who takes her elsewhere and she gets lost. I followed Pamkin till I reached a series of bif rocks- they form a sort of bridge between the cliff I was on and the hill on the other side. I knew this ‘bridge’. It was two big boulder with a small one wedged in the middle. It was a little slippery but easy enough. I could still hear the group, easpecially the excited juveniles. I saw Malu so I was relieved even though Pamkin would have been my first choice to have followed. He and the male next to him puckered in my direction. and turned back to leave. I decided to climb back over the rocks and follow them. I could now see a mother with an infant going away from me. I thought it might be Putih or Chewbacca as they are both shy. I could see a male sitting on a small boulder facing away though. He had a dark back. “At least Oliver is here” I thought. And then he turned and all my thought imploded in my brain. I couldn’t belive my eyes though he was so close. I needed confirmation so I fumbled through my bag. My hands were shaking as I looked through the binauculors. There could be no doubt. He had no nose.

Literally, they were slits. All this time, I still didn’t picture him to look like this. I was face to face with Voldemort*. I had lost AMY and found VOLDEMORT. That is why they moved so fast. Everyone but the alpha. He saw me and puckered. We were quite close and his face is slightly disconcerting especialy after Norbert’s. But I followed him while he walked around assuring ‘hmmm’-in juveniles with short barks and sitting calmly, looking at the sky and foraging. I noticed that he had white eyelids and his dark tail curved outwards at the tip. He seemed okay enough with me and I decided that I could follow VOLDEMORT to their sleeping site and hasten the habituation process after I had informed Anna and the others of my separation from AMY. The GPS was working as was my phone and I knew this are of the forest. I would be fine.

Voldy hung out on the ground instead of in the tree, much like Norbert. I could still hear the group. They had climbed trees because of me but not run far away. There was hope. Suddenly, Voldemort started to move. I followed, as closely as he would allow me too. I was climbing up an incline when he suddenly turned to pucker at me. I stepped back to give him some space, accidentally cracking some twigs under my foot and holding a tree. I heard a female screeching and before I could think I saw Voldemort rushing in my direction. He lunged and I moved to my left. Away from him and the tree with the panicked female. He puckered again and I decided to retreat. Change of plans. Maybe we should look for and habituate VOLDEMORT when 2 of us come together. I was unnerved and didn’t realise that i was stepping in a ditch. I fell on somewhat soft ground but was on all fours. I could take the slight bruising of my knee to macaque-attack though. We didn’t get off to a great start because I startled a female but I like to think that in a few weeks, Voldy and I are going to be great friends.

Anna had received the message that I was separated and I followed her directions to reach AMY who were in the plantation. She confirmed later on that she too thought that AMY and VOLDEMORT had crossed paths again today. After my little adventure, I was more than happy to be with the already habituated AMY where on the way to the sleeping site, Phoenix was the only upstart who tried to pucker at me before turning it into a weird squint of his eyes and leaving me alone.

While we were going back to the bike after having left AMY’s sleeping site, I heard calls that were unmistakably of an Alpha and humms that were of female pig-tails. Yet, AMY was quite far away from the edge of the forest. “Its not AMY, right?”. No, Anna said. “Is it them, VOLDEMORT” I said the name with a hushed reverence. We got back and obviously discussed at great length about our encounters today and hoped we would find VOLDEMORT just as easily when we look for them next week.

*The name of the group shall always be in all caps so as to differentiate it from the individual Voldemort/Voldy/dark-lord,You-know-who etc.

PS: Follow my adventures via images and videos on twitter- @mad_megs

or

Instagram- meghamajoe

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