Primate Diaries: Days 49-51

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 and hope that my words are enough to paint a picture.

If not- follow me on twitter @mad_megs or instagram-meghamajoe for some images and videos.

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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4th March:  Impending
I spent the morning lazing about. It was extremely hot and I was glad it wasn’t me who had to walk all the way to the forest early in the morning (Both bikes were in need of tweaking). Nadine and her husband came by to fix the bikes and it was almost 1 by the time I left but luckily AMY was in the plantation. Michele was nursing her newly formed blisters while Anna was yet again looking for the elusive Putih, who is master of sneaking around with her baby Pumeluff attached to her. I spotted her and yelled for Anna who came running to conduct her focal.

Anna and Michele left and AMY too decided that they had had enough. The thunder sounded threatening and strong winds were blowing. It is the sign of a storm brewing and I would be happier in the forest too when it started to pour. But AMY lingered on, spending time grooming and drinking from puddles in the buffer-zone at the cusp of the plantation and the forest. Norbert sat there, in all his magnificence and made some grunting noises in response to or as a stimulus for the juveniles’ humming. I had my eye on Pippi who is swelling again. Brienne, it turns out is definitely not pregnant and is now hanging about the periphery of the group to solicit some mounting. I followed Febe, through the access point at Checkpoint 2. Inside, it was cosier and I already felt protected from the wind. But soon, the sun was streaming through. False alarm about the rain then. Though the thunder seemed unrelenting and growing louder. AMY hung about for a while before starting to climb up.

Yet again, Casimodo and I had a stand-off. He puckered at me and moved toward me while I decided to stand my ground till he was too close. Waving your arm like I do to get the juveniles when they get too curious is not avstrategy that works. Plus, Casimodo is a pretty big male. Luckily, he got distracted and decided that was more novel than I. We were steadily climbing for what felt like a half-hour. A lot of it was obviously me just being paranoid about losing them and climbing too fast without realising my foot was placed in lose soil. When I did reach flattish land, my view was obscured by all the Bertums. I could only hear the pig-tails yet again ravishing, what Nadine claims is a rather bland snack.

We seemed to be going along the same route Anna and I had climbed the hill up yesterday. But at least we seemed to be going downhil.. Maybe they were going back into the plantation since it didn’t rain after all I thought. I leaned against a tree to rest my weary legs. I had a good view of Pippi puckering at Pie who dutifully came to groom her mother while Lori was in a Bertum clump in my line of sight too. And then I felt a drop, and then another. But it didn’t feel like rain. I could see a pig-tail’s behind and I quickly jumped away. I just got peed on. I had heard this happens and it had almost happened on two-three separate ocassions but….ah well, at least it wasnt a full shower onmy face I thought. But I now had a good view of the perpetrator-of-pee. It was my new nemesis Tiga, the soon-to-be sub-adult who has been skittish and puckering a lot at me off-late. However, I saw what he was doing. He was actually scooping out and drinking the water that had filled up in a stump on the tree. SO it was water, that explains why it wasn’t warm and continuous. Close call but I’m guessing my initiation into getting peed on will happen one day or another.

I didn’t have to wait long before AMY began moving once again. This time in the direction of checkpoint 2, I hoped. I was not ready to deal with the swamp at checkpoint 1 by myself. The thunder was louder and the wind was strong enough to shake the trees inside the forest as well. Plus, this was the same hill where Michele and I had become confused thanks to the longtails, yesterday and I knew they regularly hang out there. And right I was. AMY was currently sprinkled with long-tails. Tiga bullied Curli into giving up his nice tree-bark with a lot of potential insects while a juvenile I couldn’t identify, played with a juvenile long-tail….for quite a while. And the long-tail, after giving an alarm-call and realising that his playmate and playmates troop didn’t care, realised that I probably wasn’t a threat and guessed that I probably couldn’t climb up a tree anyway. They mock-bit each othe, swiped at each others tails and swung aboutwhile holding the other in a tight embrace. It was adorable. I moved a bit ahead thinking that soon we would be in the plantation. We were so close after all.

But I waited and waited. Pippi groomed Putih for a solid half hour and the huveniles were playing and calling. Putig groomed a female for quite some time and I realised it was Pamkin, who we recently hypothesised is probably one of the three highest ranking sisters’ trio, and quite aggressive too. Norbert had returned again and fulfilled his seemingly minimal and obligatory duty of grunting in return to all juveniles’ hmmms and getting a hoooo…back. Maybe that’s how they also keep check to see if all the individuals are present, though the males don’t usually care I would think (Males leave the group, females form the core permanent group- google Female Philopatry in primates). I was really getting worried about being rained on. Luckily I had reception and was able to tell people at camp to come pick me up slightly early.

It was surprising how close they were too the plantation, but how difficult this place was to access, thanks to the water I would have to cross, and the horribly tangled mass of lianas interspersed with clumps of Bertum. I finally got out though. Anna had just arrived and eveerything looked bone-dry. I felt silly but Anna was understanding. She said she wouldn’t have taken the risk either. Plus, AMY hadn’t moved for an hour and had gone through the sleep-time ritual already so we felt more confident. We went to the city, earlier than we had ever gone before. It was weird! Anna ‘s standing fan had breathed its last, we attribute it to one most terrifying thunder strike the other day. I also needed to run some errands before my next trip to Indonesia so we spent a precious couple of hours in the city and got back at a somewhat decent hour. Ok I’m lying, it was 12 when we reached home. But, we tried.

5th March 2017, Sunday : The sun’ll come out tomorrow

I woke up to the sound of thunder, but the air smelt dry. Anna and I headed out, me hoping that AMY had indeed stayed at what I had marked as the sleeping site, considering how early they had seemed to be done for the day yesterday. We were on the tarred road when we felt the drops turning into an ominous drizzle. “Do you want to stop so we can put our rain jackets on?” Anna asked. “I don’t care as much, but the tablet in my bag needs to be protected” I replied. We quickly covered all the equipment and protected ourselves as best we could. But when the real rain hit, it didn’t matter. It was pouring so hard and the wind was blowing. It was still dark and the rain meant Anna couldn’t see where we were going “We can get to Nadine’s house, I think it’s not too far” Anna suggested. Atleast we’ll know where it is because there will be light. Since their house is built in the traditional Malay architecture, it’s on the modern version of stilts, so there’s the space underneath that doubles up as garage, workspace and bike shed. We got there at around 6:55, already wet thanks to the storm. We sat at the kids’ arts and crafts table and talked to while away our time. In order to allay any fears of thieves that Nadine’s family might have, we sent her a message explaining that we were under their house perse and not home invaders.

Half an hour later, the rain seemed in no hurry to stop or slow down. Nadine was up and offered us some warm tea and coconut bread. Might as well we thought. And then she warmed our damp spirits when she asked us “Did you see the cats, the babies I mean?”. And then she brought them out. 5 little itsy-bitsy kittens in our laps and we were almost glad for the rain. Their mother, a silky ginger cat was hanging around with another female ginger who is also pregnant. “So many kittens”, I breathed into the ear of one who was trying to snooze on my thigh while her 2 siblings clambered over her to investigate their surroundings. Anna and I reluctantly got up to leave. the rain had definitely slowed down to a drizzle and we anticipated the monkeys to have moved. When it rains for too long, even if it’s heavy, AMY moves sometimes, as if they get bored of waiting or they look for better shelter. We reached the plantation at 9:15 am, expecting to have to look for AMY, a laborious task but I thought might as well try the sleeping site first. Yes it took time to get there. It’s a weird place though quite close to the plantation. We were pleasantly surprised to find that AMY was still there, waiting for us. “Aww, you guys”, I exclaimed as if hoping for some response from them. But it was Anna who spoke- “They are going to the plantation, we have to go there really fast, we will lose them otherwise”. What, to me it seemed like they would take some time, but Anna seems to correctly guess a lot of things about AMY so we got out as quickly as possibly. They were nowehere near the buffer zone. Anna ran further into the plantation while I wondered why AMY would so deep into the plantation so fast. But there they were, moving from one plot to another. We ran crossing the moat with some difficulty. Soon enough we were amongst them.

Anna began her focal, again starting with Putih and her babay Pummeluff, while she could and I started with the ID check and entering ad-libitum events. These behaviurs, usually interactions between individuals-aggressive, affiliative or sexual help us form ethograms and matrices to establish the heirarchy and social relations. After watching Phoenix chase the little independent infant Reggie, I wandered towards Scarlet. She is my favourite female, always calm, mostly grooming her juveniles Tiga and Schatz. Off-late, Tiga-probably on the cusp of sub-adulthood is acting like a human teenage brat and starting to be skittish and invade our personal space. Scarlet, thanks to her pregnancy which is great, is unfortunately also becoming very squirmish though Anna swears it wasn’t like this when she was pregnant with Schatz. And thus, when I went close to her to see if I could get Phoenix’s faeces, she alarm called and screamed till I went away. A little deflated, I decided to hang out with the swelling females, who become a little more bold- you have to be to get non-alphas to mount you without running helter-skelter. A lesson Pippi and Jane still haven’t learned, they run too quickly away after a male mounts them sometimes.

I came across Emma and at a good time too- Anna was looking for her to do a focal. She suggested I look out for Anakin, so i did and then she said I should look out for and keep an eye on Mina-next on the focalling list. We didn’t have to try too hard. Anakin was following Mina, who is sweling again. He puckered and mounted, puckered and mounted again and then they separated. So I foloowed Mina, watched her sexual trysts and recorded them. Passed both Norbert and Oliver on the ground, looking up expectantly at other individuals foraging. There are I think many reasons the big males, who ususallly tend to be higher ranking, don’t climb trees often:
1) They have a great view of the females swells from underneath and can also spot any sneaking around if they decide to stick to and guard one female.
2) They are usually too big and it might be difficult to get their humongous lumbering forms up and across most trees plus their callosites seems pretty small in proportion and the handicap (google Zahavi’s handicap principle) that is the ball-sack is not a great thing to have to sit upon.
3) Most importantly and probably to put in anthropomorphic terms- they sustain themselves by mooching off the food that fell down when others- females, smaller males and juveniles dropped things, usually while stepping on a weak part of the bark, they also can use their superiority and physical strength to snatch food.

Just as I was thinking this, I saw evidence of the last point. Phoenix was looking for insects or other creatures, moving around prying the bark open when we heard a squeal. A rat had fallen down. Before anyone could react, Oliver had already expertly gripped the rat and beheaded it with his canine. I forgot about Mina, and so did he – he was just puckering at her a moment ago (refer to point 1). This is yet another thing we put in ad-libitum. It helps establish whether the pig-tails are actually controlling the population of rodents, a big pest of oil-palm plantations, rather than the pig-tails that are considered to be. Anna decided that she would rather do a focal on Oliver- she needed to do him next anyway. We saw him expertly turn the rat inside out to get to the flesh without bothering with the fur and skin. After being grossed out by the goriness, I decided to get back to Mina, and let Anna deal with Oliver. I realised we had been in the plantation for quite a while. I didn’t want to leave Anna alone- especially because we feared another rain- the sun still wasn’t out. But I was exhausted somehow and Anna said she’d manage. Additionally, she wanted me to leave asap so i didn’t have to drive in the rain, if it did rain. So I wished her all the best, hoped for good weather and non-swampy terrain. Not that it mattered, the moat crossing today had already filled her boot with water. She is looking forward to her day off tomorrow to hopefully dry her things.

6th March 2017, Monday: It’s lonely at the top

We were still functioning with one bike which means, since Anna had her day off I had to go with Michele in the morning, just to bring the bike back, so I could go in the afternoon shift. The logistics management is a skill I wish was something I could formally put in my CV. I came back, almost got creeped out by a turkey, near the house that didn’t seem to know it’s boundaries (Check out my instagram for proof). You’d know if you know how weird Geese, swan and even chickens can get sometimes- especially if they decide to mob and/or chase you. Had a good breakfast and read a book. The weather seemed okay, much better than yesterday.

I reached the reserve at around 1:30, AMY had just reached the plantation. They were still hanging out in the buffer zone. We swiftly made the exchange of GPSs, i collected the tablet and Michele was on her way, I watched as some Scarlet and Schatz foraged a little distance away from me. I sat down to record any interesting exchange. I didn’t have to wait long. I heard a tussle rght above me. Pippi, who is starting to swell was minding her own business around 5 m away from Norbert (Who was on the tree today), was suddenly viciously chaed and bitten by Goldie-the female we believe is the alpha. Pippi almost fell off the last bit off the palm and ran to another tree nearby. Goldie calmly started grooming Norbert, weird as her swell is definitely going down. But we have seen even Pamkin and Scarlet grooming him, when they are not swelling, and he lets them- probably has something to do with their social standing (They are possibly the highest ranking females-probably sisters). A while later, Norbert had moved to the other tree and so Pippi got chased by Goldie again. Poor thing can’t catch a break.

Surprisingly, AMY decided that they had had enough and were goig back into the forest, after spending only an hour in the border of the plantation. Well, AMY is full of surprises. Better not question it- no time to anyway, considering how fast they were moving. Not even hanging out at the forest border like they usually do after their plantation visits. I waited in the plantation for a bit and I’m glad I did. I got to witness Mina get mounted by Phoenix twice. I turned around to see if Putih had finally gone in and when I turned back- holy hell- PHOENIX WAS GROOMING MINA. A male grooming a female is a rare occurance and I was sad I couldn’t record it on my phone. Best ad-libitum recording ever- although probably an outlier of male to female affiliative acts. I finally reached inside, watched as the last of the males came trickling in. Casimodo and Anakin sat almost huddled together as they each got presented to by Pippi and Mina, neither of whose offers they seemed to want to take. I watched as Febe followed Putih in the hopes to groom her only to have those hopes dashed when mina lunged her into running away and up a tree near me. We were quickly climbing up now. I was a little surprised at the steady movements with little time for breaks but Anna said they did the same yesterday after their day at the plantation.

We were reaching a part of the hill I detested all the spiny Bertums, clumps of them as far as the eye can see. Mostly because the eyes can’t see too far BECAUSE of the Bertums. I remembered that I had forgotten to take the Machete from Michele. Too late now! Well, AMY was still moving and it was becoming more difficult to see them. And unlike the last time, they didn’t seem too interested in feeding on Bertum fruits. They climbed up and down, up and down. I tried to keep up and was successful except for a few scares here and there. Once, i was with just a juvenile in sight whigh was Lori as I figured out and it was just Lori, Pippi and Pie. not a good combo as they are closely related, and Pippi seems to get lost quite a bit. Her lost call wsn’t filling me with confidence. But then the others came over and I was relieved.

We were heading to an area I wasn’t familiar with and I reckoned we were quite high up already. I thought we might be near the vantage point that boasts great views of the ocean when the sun sets- according to Anna. Well, maybe I’d finally get to see this amazing sunset over the ocean. We were climbing quite high now and the Bertums were making things really difficult. It was like in the swamp-I could only hear the pig-tails from time to time. And then we reached a place with less of an incline and fewer Bertums. Finally I can sit and drink some water I thought. Having a snack was out of the question at the rate AMY was moving. And then I realised why there were fewer Bertum- It was filled with huge boulders and mossy rocks. I saw Mina and Brienne disappear to a much clearer are to my left. All the males were hanging out to my right and juveniles had already climbed up via the spiny bertums that were around. I went left after where I’s seen Brienne and Mina disappear to. I’d just go up and wait for all of AMY to get up there.

I followed the clear path. It turns out, after the first bend, there was a rather steep climb and ofcourse I fell on my face, onto Bertums. But I got up there eventually, with scratches and spines sticking out; I’d had to go through some more clumps of Bertum and was really regeretting not getting the machete. I was sweating and hungry but a small breeze blew and I relaxed a bit. I still couldn’t hear AMY. Seeing them was out of the question. After waiting for close to 5 minutes I started moving about, AMY wasn’t coming, I realsed in horror and I was filled with dread. I went up further, I was almsot at the top. Some more Bertum, there was a sense of urgency now that I needed to desperately find them. They would have had to have gone up- why would they turn back and go down? Why were there so many Bertum- what was that sound? THEM? Nope. The wind here was stronger and I could hear eagles at close range. There was a nest up here. The GPS showed that I had reached the pinacle. I could see the ocean. It was difficult because of all the bertum but yes it looked nice. It was only only 4:55. And I was here, in a part of the forest I wasn’t familiar with and AMY wasn’t here with me. When you are with the pig-tails, it doesn’t matter if you are the only person around. It is safe. But right now and here, it was a little unnerving. I breathed a bit, drank some water, realised I was sweating like a pig and that the GPS had lost satelite reception. Luckily my phone hadn’t and so I made the call I really didn’t want to make.

I called Michele, explained things to her and then to Anna. Michele said she’d come pick me up. I wanted an hour, one because I didn’t really know the way back down and two, I hoped I would find AMY on the way. It was difficult, going down. Luckily at least the GPS was working. But I spent some time always chasing every sound I thought I heard only to realise my way was blocked by huge cumps of bertum and that I was afraid of veering of the already dis-used trail which was probably relatively better than other areas. It was 5:45 and I was still in an area I wasn’t too sure I had been in. I wasn’t sure if the GPS was showing me the right direction. I was disoriented. I sat down, breathed deeply and opened my eyes after a few moments. I knew this rock. I’ve been here before. I’m definitely on the right track, it’s just from a different angle. After some confusion, I finally got out after a bit of back and forth with Michele over walkie-talkie abbout how far I was.

I got back feeling quite dejected. It’s really sad when you lose AMY because looking for them means spending time you could have been observing and collecting data. Anna asked to see my track. “At least I saw the beautiful view” I said. She looked at my track intently, saw where I’d marked “AMY LOST”. “Wait, you actually went all the way up the hill looking for them?, It’s so high. The beautiful viewing point is far below this” she gasped. Seriously, so I’d gone and lost them and didn’t even see the beautiful viewing point? What a pathetic tragedy. But Anna was appreciative of my resillience and saw my anguish. I just wanted to curl up in bed after taking a shower. But we had to go into town run errands and pick up Vino who comes back from KL. I decided that I needed to splurge and feel good about myself. And thus today, I had some good Chicken claypot Biryani. Anna insisted I take my day off tomorrow even though I volunteered to help her, Michele and vino look for AMY. I think I need the break. But AMY will be there tomorrow and so will we.

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