Primate Diaries: On conquering heights, depths and fears (Days 52-54)

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.

7th March 2017, Tuesday: Where do they come from, where do they go?

To bring everyone up to speed- I had lost AMY yesterday. That is the gist of it and it bothered me that I was solely responsible for this loss. I was still relieved to not be working today though. I could nurse my bruised ego and aching head while Anna and Michele left at 9 am to try to find them. At 11 am-still no AMY, so I went to drop Vino; another set of eyes, ears and legs is always welcome. It’s just too bad she has to do THIS on her first day back.’Searching for AMY’ involves walking to and fro in the plantation, usually between checkpoints on the edge of the forest. The second avenue is usually to go deeper into the plantation, walking along paths or inside the forest in common haunts of the pig-tails that are easier to access (needless to say-there aren’t too many such places). Of course, it can be incredibly boring and quite exhausting because you are constantly moving and searching, excited by every noise only to be disappointed mostof the time.

I did my laundry, caught up with a dear friend, wrote a bit, made some Roti and long beans curry for the landlord and landlady, and squeezed out at least 3 spines embedded in my thigh from my adventure yesterday (Yep it was gross and painful). At 2 AMY was still nowhere to be ‘found’. Anna was getting desperate. “Could they be in the swamp”. “No, definitely not” I typed and sent without hesitation but then I considered my luck with them recently and suddenlyI wasn’t too sure. Michele had meanwhile found the other pig-tail group- VOLDEMORT on the logging road and been puckered at by a Norbert look-alike.

I wanted to take a nap. The heat and buzzing flies and physical and mental strain from yesterday demanded it from my body but I was too anxious. It was around 5 when I felt my eyelids droop and lift back up with difficulty. I heard the bike and was up in a flash. Michele and Vino were back. “we found them at last. Anna is with them. They finally came out to the plantation”. “Douchebags” I murmurred and the others nodded in agreement. It can be difficult to ‘keep calm and science on’ but we are weirdos who keep at it day in and day out.

8th March 2017, Wednesday- The trail not taken

AMY had arrived in the ‘clearing’ only half an hour ago when Vino and I got there. This area is the buffer zone between the forest and the plantation and I hoped they would move further in. But after spending a total of one hour in the clearing, they were heading in. I was reminded of the day before yesterday, when it was a similar hour in the clearing that started my adventure to the pinacle. But I was feeling better on realising that at least they weren’t moving as if their pig like tails were on fire. Norbert was sitting, chillig as usual, cleaning his nails. Putih and her baby Pummeluff creeped by slowly, sinking away when she saw us looking. I helped vino get reacquainted with the monkeys after her 3-week absence. Emma was again on the ground with her characteristic haggard-looking eyes while Reggie tried to be brave but puckered when she realised she had gotten a bit too close to us.

Swelling females were sneaking off towards the periphery as that is usually where the non-alpha males hang out. We saw Brienne approaching Anakin and presenting. But Norbert was only around 0 m away from her. “Anakin won’t do it- he must know Norbert’s right there” I said. Anakin saw us and puckered as if ensuring we were his confidants and then mounted Brienne. Norbert was looking for some mushrooms in the opposite direction

The group had started moving higher and higher but not as fast or as high as that fateful day (it’s hard to realise it was only the day before yesterday). By 5:30, we had reached a place where there was no way we could sit that was not on at least a 45 degree incline. And to top it off, when we did find and gingerly try to sit on a tree branch, we alarmed Jane who happened to be sitting on the other end and looked annoyed by our interruption of her alone time. When by 6:20, there was still no movement I thought my luck was finally improving because it was still early and we could spend more time in the city. We’d be out by 6:50 at the most since we were higher up. But I was glad that we had so much time to climb uphill and going downhill is easy. I’m mostly glad Anna has the morning shift tomorrow. She’s the only one who can get to this place in the relatively early and dark hours of the morning without breaking into a sweat.

So, I decided that we should take one of the trails since there was quite a lot of Bertum and thick vegetation around us. The closest trail was only 80m away from us. But SAYING “Only 80 m” when in a forest or swamp is ludicrous and I should know better. It was so fraught with obstacles only fit for a jewel-heist movie, we decided to use the other trail- “This one goes to the logging road so we can get out at checkpoint 1” I said.

We fought a lot of spiny plants and entangled climbers, I tore the skin on my arm while simultaneously fighting Bertum and swore and yellled in frustration. It didn’t help that the day had been sulry and humid and both our glasses kept slipping off our faces thanks to the sweat while spider-webs we inadvertantly destroyed kept sticking to them like….flies (see what I did there?). I’ve never apologised to spiders with such genuine emotion. Actually, I’ve never HAD TO APOLOGISE to ANYONE with that genuine an emotion.

It always grows darker in the forest earlier because of the thick canopy and it was happening now. We were in an unfamiliar area at 7 pm, kind of lost and slightly worried though I still had my prioirities right “at least we didn’t lose AMY and they went to sleep early”. We passed a brook we couldn’t really appreciate given our hurry, many trees we were sure looked familiar- classic reaction when one is lost. Finally we found this trail we had been hoping to reach all this time and….it was no better than the ‘non-trail’. It had probably been a long time since this ‘trail’ had been used. And the vegetation that had been cleared had returned with a vengeance; we were bearing its consequences. It was growing draker and we were getting desperate.

“You know what, screw the trail”, we both said almost in unison. We knew the direction in which the logging road lay. we’d be pioneers and make our own trails. the GPS showed the logging road to be only 50 m away. Again, I sould have realised that “ONLY” is always an understatement. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We saw it soon enough. We were about 10 feet above the surface. There was a tree branch in the middle but otherwise, it was a drop. There seemed to be nothing to hold on to from here to the tree branch even if we did slide down. And we were surrounded by wild Pandanus trees. It is a monocot, each leaf has serrated margins and the underside is also raised and serrated. “Bloody brilliant!” as Ron weasley would say . But, there was no other way and how bad could it be. We could figure this out. To make a long story short- I fell most of the way down to the tree, got entangled amongst sharp pandan leaves and other twigs. But i somehow let myself out. Vino followed shortly after. With mud caked in many places, twigs in our hair and aware of the darkness- we were growing tired of being pioneers. And we still had 35 m to go. Soon, there was another drop. This time it was 90 degress- a straight fall though not as high and I desperately dug my fingers and found some tree roots to hold. I could step on another so as to help break my not-so-gracefull decent.

And suddenly, just like that- flat land. Actual flat land. the lowest surface we were sure. I could senese the presence of the logging road. My strides were more confident. We would get out. And then we burst out. The logging road- Valhalla. It was 7:30 when we finally got out. We ran to the bike as the light- even in the plantation was fading fast.We got home, extremely crabby, grimy and exhausted yet proud for some reason. Anna told us we aren’t supposed to take the trail we took since it was so rarely used and in a terrible state. “I should delete that track from the GPSs”, “yes” Vino and I said.

But, all’s well that ends well. We made it to Starbucks. While Vino and I used up Starbucks’ resources, Anna picked up an ex-student (also called Anna) who did her Masters thesis here working with AMY around 4 years ago. She wanted to come back to see the monkeys and relive her memories. I think EVEN after today, I completely understand that.

9th March 2017, Thursday: The Dark Lord approaches

Vino and I were glad we had got the morning today to unwind afetr our adventures yesterday. And today we were sure we would have soemr. We were going to be looking for the other group – VOLDEMORT (Named after their nose-less alpha male Voldemort) in hopes of habituating them. More the data points, stronger your tests and evidence as they say.

We left after Michele got back in the afternoon. This meant Vino and I each had a GPS and walkie-talkie so we could split up. And since we didn’t know VOLDEMORT’s favourite haunts, we were going to just be walking all over the plantation and checkpoints waiting for them to show. We got there by 2:10 and split up. I decided to check out the plantation close to cehckpoint 1 while Vino was at the buffer zone between checkpoints 2 and 2.5. That is where I rmember seeing them when I was looking for AMY last. I was returning after having only found skinks and squirrels in the plantation when I saw somthing big, seemed to be oving on all fours. Dogs or pig-tails? I didn’t know. I saw their silhouettes better as I got closer. A male and female pig-tail. I moved cautiously. Startling them would be a bad start when the aim was to get them to know that we weren’t a threat (That is why we always wear orange- they learn to associate the colour with us: non-threatening peeps). But it turns out my tip-toeing wasn’t necessary. This was AMY, Anna was in the distance with her notebook. And she hadn’t encounteered VOLDEMORT. Somehow AMY and VOLDEMORT rarely cross paths though we know that when they do, VOLDEMORT displaces AMY.

Vino and I soon looked in other places and after exhausting all possibilities, went to the other side of the forest. AMY never goes there but another student had marked a trail there when he encountered and followed VOLDEMORT in the plantation on that side- albeit that plantation is wilder and more unkempt. We drove there and walked the paths we thought looked clear. Nothing. We got back. It was 4:50 already when we parked and started to decide on doing another sweep before we quit for the day. Looking without finding is always more exhausting than following. I was near checkpoint 2.5 this time while Vino had gone to check the logging road. I heard them, sounds that were definitely pig-tail females and juveniles. They were jumping en-masse from the plantation into the forest. Vino had spoted 2 males here but that was hours ago, which is why we hadn’t investigated. I called Vino on the walkie-talkie and asked her to rush. The group wouldn’t wait. She was on her way-the logging road was quite a distance away.

But I had HIM to keep me company. Voldemort himself had arrived and was puckering incessantly. This time, I kept my distance. I didn’t want him lunging at me again when I was alone (Read “the summoning”). But I felt braver because I was in the plantation and couldn’t trip over or get caught in things although lets be honest- I sometimes tripped over my own feet. As long as I stood my ground and didn’t get too close, we were fine. Soon, he eased up. i really hoped he wouldn’t go in making me lose the group. He didn’t. I could take a lot of pictures tilll Vino arrived. But as soon as she came, Voldemort had started moving. It was frustrating because he went up a small hill-obviously filled with Bertum and I could only see parts of him. Vino had been dying to see his face- it really does take your breath away and she wanted to experience it first-hand. But he seemed to know that. Finally we reached a landing with Bertum on all sides and could hear a lot of individuals but see no one. We were about to go forward when we spotted him coming toward us- puckering. Was this an ambush? Can pig-tails strategise? We know chimpanzees are capable of co-ordinated hunting of colobus monkeys.

Vino and I had just picked up the closest sticks without spines (Vino insisted her fan would make a great weapon) we could find when we saw another male coming toward us puckering. then suddenly he laid eyes on Voldemort and they both just kept puckering at each other. However they seemed to be having a heated stare-down and every few moments, Voldemort would keep moving closer- though sideways, moving like a crab. As if he didn’t want to look at us. “Megha, Megha, Megha, no”, I could hear Vino saying. But I couldn’t stop the adrenaline. This was a weird rush. Suddenly, we both saw it- Voldemort was about to lunge. I was in front. I waved my stick and growled “No”. I din’t realise that the stick broke in half when I waved it and one part went flying,missing him by an earshot (he already doesn’t have much of a nose, what if I maimed his ear?). I think both Vino and I discovered that our fear response was laughter- which can be misconstrued in polite civil human settings I am sure but the noise made both the males hesitate. And so we went back to the terse situation and alert immobility as before. This meant we anticipated it when he lunged a second time. I stomped on the ground and we both held up our weapons. This again arrested his movements. Eventually, the other male started grooming himself and left soon after. It was 6:10, the juveniles-wherever they were hiding had already begun humming and hooing while females started their nightly ritual. They would sleep here, or nearby. Voldemort soon grew bored with our little game and left. We didn’t feel particularly inclined to follow him into the bush he had disappeared into lest he be waiting for us. It was 6:30. We had managed to follow them to the sleeping site however and felt incredibly lucky, especially after yesterday.



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