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.
1st March- The bliss
So it turns out that the thieves came back when we went to the city for emergency internet and finished the job-raiding the fridge. Now that we have little food left, we doubt we will be hit thrice in a row. And that is exactly why I spent a large portion of my day trying to sleep. It was my day off and i intended to make the most of it. But sleep eluded me no matter how hard I tried. So I gave up and decided to have an early breakfast of cramelised banana and cereal while reading up on some pig-tail macaque literature. That is after I had a run in with a particularly bold long-tail who has been hanging about our kitchen for the past few days. He is fearless in manner and unwavering in spirit (yes I tried saying “shooo shoo” while moving toward him menacingly)
Though the day wasn’t sunny, it was sultry and I did get an hour of siesta time before Michele returned after her shift. We are still running on a single bike which like yesterday, meant Michele would have to go pick Anna up at Checkpoint 2 at 7 pm. Michele quickly got busy working on her research proposal while I read a few more papers. It’s been quite a few months since I’ve read science-y things continuously for more than an hour and anyone who has been out of touch will tell you how difficult it can be to get back into the reading. So I was happy I’ve still got the ability to read, understand and critique papers without falling asleep or getting too distracted all the time (Facebook and instagram being too slow are probably a contributing factor).
By 6, the temperature had dropped considerably and it had started to drizzle. Michele had just fed the cats when she received a message from Anna “If you guys get this, can you please come pick me up earlier. It will not stop raining and I am in the swamp”. Oh no! So the rain was worse there than it was here. Michele left as soon as she had adequately covered herself against the rain. I sat at the table outside sipping warm tea and petting Mieza, the cat who had decided to shelter himself against the rain and sit on my non-drenched, relatively warm thighs (Yes, he is sort of spoilt by us). But soon, the storm hit. The wind picked up and the rain was lashing against every surface, dripping or spraying through eveerywhere. I had to run with the folder of papers, my phone and the notebook. Miezer soon followed- my room was better sanctuary, and he was soon curled up against the curtains near the desk. Michele and Anna got back without me even realising, because I couldnt hear the bike through the raging storm.
After getting the low-down from Anna, we realised we would have to buy basic provisions to last us through the week. So after the rain had eased up a bit and Anna had treated yet another faeces sample, we went to the supermarket, discussing possible security measures to enforce around the kitchen. And people say you don’t learn any skills when you volunteer as a field assistant on a biology research project!!
2nd March 2017,Thursday: Loss
Anna and I took the logging road to get to the swamp. Turns out AMY was at the swamp at checkpoint 1 and not ‘The Swamp’ at checkpoint 3. Still, it wasn’t easy to get there, what with all the swampiness, now increased thanks to last night’s mini-storm. We could hear AMY long before we could ctually get to them and I had spines in my palm while Anna had water in her boots before we even got there. We really hoped they went immediately into the plantation, me more than anyone. Apparently AMY had spent a better part of yesterday, deep in the plantation, that is before they suddenly realised the rain was about to hit and sought refuge in the swamp, strengthening my confidence inAnna’s hypothesis that they spend the night in the swamp when the rain is going to be particularly harsh.
So there we were, removing leeches left and right. I had one in my hair and when Anna spotted and removed it, there was blood on her hand. Mine. And here we were, thinking hair would protect us. Such naivete. Emma was the only one on the ground….foraging. Big surprise! Jisuaf was here and I saw Norbert chase the swelling probably-alpha female Goldie and her probable sister, close in rank- Pamkin. We decided to follow Emma on her foraging trail, at least we know she won’t forage on the ground in areas that are too wet and swampy. We saw that she had found a fruit, opened it to reveal a transluscent-white flesh and was enjoying her loot. After photographing the fruit and debating which tree it might have come from Anna said she must look for Febe to do a mother-infant focal on her and Fefe, her daughter. And if Emma is around, Febe should be nearby. And then Anna spotted her monitoring the area, from a tree near us. “Wait, where’s her baby?” Anna exclaimed. “What, do you mean, are you sure it’s her?”. ANd then she gave out this loud wail. We had been hearing the lost call for close to 10 minutes now. This was not a godd sign. Anna looked worried. She had seen this many times before. The infant mortality rate was very high, especially considering the rain, the deep water. And considering Fefe was too small to go anywhere on her own, the only possibility is drowning. I considered the possibility that she was with Emily, but Febe’s cries were desperate and Emily wasn’t around. She would come if she heard Febe. The sound of Febe’s call was haunting and deep-well scientifically it makes sense- a low pitch sound probably carries really far. At that moment, in the stillness after the rain, it was disturbing and sad. And, no one else seemed to be visibly upset by it. Not even Febe’s moher Emma.
Febe stopped after a while of calling from different directions. It is possible her baby was gone last night during the rain, she just was resting her chords before calling again at regular intervals. Anna decided to do a focal on the only visible individual easy enough to track in the swamp- Emma. She was foraging for a bit before climbing on a low hanging branch. I sat down on a relatively dry trunk to remove my 4th leech for the day- I had 12 the last time I was in this swamp, we were just getting started. Emma was getting groomed by her 1 year old Emanuel, who was only trying to get to her nipples so he could drink milk.
But Emma was having none of it. She turned away and then after he kept pestering her she seemed aggressive, holding him and pulling his ear. Finally, when none of the tactics worked, she just climbed down and went away. Febe had started calling again. AMY seemed to be in no mood to move. We realised it was 11 already and they weren’t going anywhere. So we whiled away our time by talking-shop, discussing experimental designs peratining to Anna’s project and if research needs to necessarily have a purpose that is not “satiating need for knowledge”. Yeah, we were bored and couldn’t even do Inter-Observer Reliability tests because the individuals were so hard to see amongst the canopy anyway. I waited till 12:30 while Anna sat drying her socks and feet, before I got out after a bit of a struggle and got back home. Michele had Anna’s co-ordinates and went to the forest.
I decided that I should do something productive after having spent some hours trying to take a nap after lunch. So I finally decided that it was getting un-sunny and cool enough to sit outside. After feeding the cat and making myself some ginger tea, I decided that it was time to type out yesterday and today’s events. The rain started soon, as you may have guessed and I worried about making the journey with the tablet to my hut. I heard the gate open. Michele and Anna were back at…6:30 pm- just like the good old days when I first arrived and it rained all the time. Through the crashing rain and thunder, we screamed out the basics. AMY had finally come out into the plantation and stayed till 4 before going back to the swamp. Then, I got to the desk, opened my window and sit here, typing this as a mighty thunder strikes and the winds rage. I am watching the same sugar-canes in the unused field outside my window but I don’t know how long even their sturdy looking stem can withstand the storm’s strength.
3rd March: Recovering
Michele and I left early in the morning, reaching the sleeping site after some confusion (the forest does look very different early in the morning as Michele realised). Last evening’s rain meant Michele and Anna had left earlier than usual but we didn’t expect AMY to have moved much. The long-tails were around and so were the duskies. And bless-my-heart I could hear the Gibbons…well GIBBON! This male had quite a voice, it echoed through the forest and I forgot for a moment to be sad that he was looking for a female who wasn’t responding. The gibbons’ duets are apparently a treat to the ears. We sat there silently, listening to the booming melody. We climbed up a little higher because the ruckus being made by the climbing long-tails was making it hard to heard the muffled sounds by the juveniles. And then a lost call. “Must be Febe”, I said, still in mourning about her lost baby although apparently she didn’r cry after her morning session. But maybe, she remembered again that she used to have a baby.
We waited for a half an hour, but AMY didn’t seem to have any plans to move. And they didn’t go to their morning male-bark ritual or the female-juvenile contact calls. But then it hit us- we needed to have visual confirmation immediately that wasn’t the one male on the tree far below that we could see or the juvenile we thought we saw in th tree nearby. And we went up a little further to have a better view from the hill. By the time we had begun moving a little bit, we had both silently begun to think “AMY lost” without wanting to say it out loud. ANd they were so close to the plantation too. How come I never get a day when AMY just spends all their time in the plantation?
And since we were growing weary without a clue where AMY could be- we went home. Sometimes it good to quit so you don’t feel too mentally exhausted. And the funny thing is that we definitel feel more tired when we are not following AMY even though we don’t necessarily walk through difficult terrain. Since we are functioning on 1 bike since the other one has a flat wheel, Anna and I decided that the two of us would go. They probably went uphill really fast and without much warning or contact-calling according to Anna. Apparently, they have a tendency to do that. Sneak off up a hill, or even down without so much as a peep. Which means they would have to be in the plantation sometime in the early afternoon.
We got there around 2:15 and separated to find the pig-tails. We knew they would have to be close to checkpoint 1-2.5. So I was walking at the edge of the plantation, the buffer zone to the forest when I heard and saw some pig-tails. Some juveniles were going in and a male looked at me without puckering. “Found them Anna”, I said through the walkie-talkie. Anna was on her way when, another male- Oh Norbert…yay. Wait no. His arms are fuzzy and fair and a dark head but his tail was differen, Norbert’s amazing bushy , frayed tail. And then someone else came out to the edge of the forest. And all doubt rushed out along with all coherent thought. “Anna, it was the group VOLDEMORT, I just saw him- Voldemort. I’ll keep searching for AMY”. Well that was a premature celebration I thought walking into an area I normally wouldn’t go to. A little way into the plantation. And then I saw some movement on the ground. Surprsingly, it was a female pig-tail with a pig-tail running away as soon as she saw me. It does look like Chewbacca with her infant Chocolate and she DOES still run away from us. I followed in her direction, crossing a moat on the way. There was Scarlet, my saviour on many an ocassion, climbing up a palm while Tim followed. I heard noises, characteristically pig-tail, coming from the plot on the other side. “This time it is definitely AMY”, I told Anna.
She reached me soon enough and decided to focal Norbert without further ado. I went around doing an id-check. Febe, seemed okay, just sad to see her without her baby. Felicia, her other juvenile was nearby. Emma, as usual was on the ground. It was only 3 when AMY decided to finally respond to the looming thunder in the sky and start moving in though the rain was not too strong. Anna and I followed. She had just finished with Norbert who spent the whole time sitting around feeding from something he had stored in his cheek-pouch which I happened to see was pink when he happened to take it out. It was definitely flesh. We had later heard the bones crunch as he chewed them with his powerful jaws.
We started going up one hill, then crossed to another, through some Bertums till we reached a patch exclusively filled with them. Anna was doing a focal on Biru while I was stalking Tiga to see what he was eating and if I could photograph it. obviously he wasnt letting it go so easily. But I had enough and more time because AMY had found the Bertum fruit jackpot. Half an hour later, Anna seemed very happy. Biru had stayed in her line of sight eating the whole time after an initial hiccup when I had to stand on the other side and give her a running commentary of what Biru was up to. Unsurprising because all the individuals of AMY were bust partaking the very same fruits that grow on a stalk surrounded by spiny Bertum stems. AMY slowly began to move to the left, an area which we thought had taller, non-spiny trees. More approporiate for sleeping. And thus, after waiting for around 40 minutes and realising we were pretty far uphill and that I had worked almost 10 hours today, we climbed down, evading a more rainy time that the camp had evidently seen.