Primate Diaries: On reunions, secrets and rewards (Days 59-61)

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

14th March 2017, Tuesday: The return to AMY

Anna was kind enough to give me the afternoon shift. Michele had her day off today and Vino accompanied Anna in the morning. We are down to one bike again, this time the other bike’s tyre is flat and we are running on low ration of petrol which we hoped would make us through the day. Vino arrived pretty late than we were expecting her. She had had a big adventure in the plantation which then needed the involvement of plantation workers in tractors and ended up with her having a gigantic bruise on her thigh and a kind of exhaustion one associates with these kind of things.

I realised on the way that I have never needed to drive this bike ever before. And when I reached the forest I realised I hadn’t seen AMY in almost 5 days. And that made me so excites, I overshot their location by almost 100 m to climb up and realised they were actually pretty low and close to the plantation. My second bae Franzi, the Heimdall of AMY hasn’t been around and Anna suspects that he has left the group, along with Tim, the peaceful lord of slumber. Goldie had suffered major injuries a few days ago and is still limping. And I saw that the pregnant sister Scarlet too has a gash on her back. Brienne’s swelling has grown to its full size and looks bright red. It would draw attention from afar and it does. She is quite popular at this time while Biru, who has just begun swelling is parading in front of many males without success.

They went out into the plantation soon after Anna had just finished her focal on Goldie’s kid- Gollum. If I were an old man in England from the 1800s-the word I’d use to describe her antics, would be “rapscallion” (also I would regularly use words such as blaggard and urchin to insult people- and I’d be ‘Lord’ something or another-with a big belly, a monocle and a fancy pocket-watch). While at the plantation, Anna decided to do a focal on the now-swelling Pamkin, the other sister of the highest ranking females trio (Goldie>Scarlet>?Pamkin- we think). This gave me the opportunity to watch and get used to AMY and macaques that don’t run away and pucker at me from a distance. I was watching Tiga accidentally unearth a rat from a bark, drawing the attention of his mother-Scarlet, Norbert and Oliver who all came running. But the rat had escaped, and so had Tiga- the confrontation between Scarlet, Norbert and Oliver could get fierce….but they dispersed when they realised there was no rat to be found.

I was watching the juveniles. It is always funny to see them because they are so small that they have to adopt bipedalism when they are on the ground, to be able to look over the grass and go anywhere. I saw Dani leap at something near a smal water stream. They love grasshoppers. He brought it to his mouth and almost bit it. Well, tried to. It was a toad- a small one. And it didn’t seem to be struggling so it probably tasted terrible. Dani let it go and it hopped a bit before he picked it up again. Looked at it (commiting it to memmory so as to not repeat the same mistake?) and let it go. He saw me looking and skipped to a tree. Oil-palm fruits are less risky. I watched as AMY seemed to be making a move to go in. Some juveniles had begun playing with the long-tails on the forest edge. Anna had just completed her focal on Phoenix and decided that it was time for he to return. She had to go drop the other Anna and her friend Tim to Sitiwan so they could return to KL.

And this meant that I had to make sure AMY was not to be let out of my sight for the next 2 hours. Considering AMY had been getting ‘lost’ thanks to them going into areas difficult to access, I was a bit intimidated. But, I realised I needed to get over this fear. AMY wouldn’t wait in one area for more than 5 minutes and were soon climbing up at a steady pace. Norbert is becoming more disruptive and mean. He chased Brienne and Pamkin and every other juvenile in the vicinity. He is fast making me disillusioned with his behaviour, and despite his earlier his furry charms, he is no longer my bae.

We had reached pretty high up at this point. The only respite was the scarcity of the spiny Bertam. The area had smooth boulders and large mossy rocks. It was difficult to climb and there was no place to sit without being precariously perched on some fallen tree branch, overlooking an abyss. Okay, I was trying to be dramatic- it wasn’t too bad. If they climbed anymore, they’d be right at the top of this hill. And at this stage-it seemed like they might. We climbed a bit more and then I saw he classic signs of sleep-site arrival. Grooming, juveniles playing, low hoots and hmmms. The light was fading fast and I didn’t know how long it would take for me to get out considering how high up I was.

By the time I got out at 7:10, it was already pretty dark in the forest though still not too bad in the plantation. I walked till checkpoint 0. Michele was here with the bike but wanted to conserve the little petrol we did have. Luckily, it turns out- we had enough to get home.

15th March

Due to unforeseen circumstances, Vino and both had the day off. We still spent the afternoon in the reserve and plantation though. But the problem was sorted and we were ready to give Michele a break after her almost 10 hour day (Anna is used to 12 hour shifts). Plus it would make Vino and I (especially me) like we too were doing something useful.

16th March 2017, Thursday: No sweat

I slept in a little bit- Vino had volunteered to do the morning shift. The skies were still dark although it was around 8:15. I went out to the kitchen and saw how overcast the sky was. A strong wind had picked up. This was ominous. And even though I’d love a respite from the sweltering, sticky heat from the past few days, it usually puts a dampener (get it?-‘damp’ener) in Anna and Vino’s and the monkeys’ movements. The rain hit not soon after. It was quite heavy and Miezer-one of our cats shot into our hut as soon as I was about to close it. While he made himself comfortable, I too decided to enjoy my warm dry nook.

We are still operating with a single bike. Vino got back quite early so we could pump some air in the tyres. Don’t want our sole bike dying out on us. I wolfed down some Nasi-Goreng I had made and left asap. I got to the plantation after having answered some questions of curious villagers about myself along the way (mainly because they assume I’m Indian-Malaysian and talk to me in Malay, to be met with confusion and “ummm, sorry-do you speak English?”). AMY was at least a little farther inside the plantation. Anna and Vino had had around 2 hours of idly sitting around thanks to the rain so Anna was desperately trying to make up for it with her focals. The urgency is evident, especially with Putih, whose infant Pummelluff might soon be independent and then Anna won’t be able to do her ‘mother-infant’ focals, a behavioural assay to test how protective and physically connected the mother and infant are, depending on the age of the infant and whether they are in the forest or the plantation.

After having been missing for almost 10 day, the Heimdall-Franzi is back, though Tim is still gone. Anna said she also saw him catch and eat a rat just yesterday. As we were speaking, we saw the long-tails arrive. They too are mostly habituated to us by now. And the ones who do screech and alarm call seem confused by the fact that the pig-tails, after realising that the ‘threat’ is us, come back down and calmy resume their activities. AMY had had their fill at the plantation and was gearing up to head inside. I spotted Norbert. He is following Brienne around like a love-sick puppy,though that is hardly how innocent his motives are. She is in full-swell, her behind is red and glistening. His closeness means no sneaky-mating and he gets all the matings- increasing his chances of fathering her baby. Anna had already entered the forest, I followed soon after and decided to hang out with Jane and Biru- who are both swelling, and watch their adventures with the other males- Casimodo, Phoenix and Anakin. After being right in the middle of a brawl involving Anakin, Casimodo and Phoenix, I finally decided that I might as well watch from a safe distance. Anna was doing a focal on Brienne who was grooming her juvenile Brandi while Norbert waited patiently underneath. He seemed so forlorn and bored, turns out he was just sleepy. It cannot be easy being the alpha male and ensuring no one mates with the female in full-swell and you yourself can’t mate with her all the time anyway (high energy-costs, ejaculation is especially costly).

Anna had finished with Brienne and decided to do Curli now after I pointed him out, grooming Mina. They were calmly grooming until the long-tails decided to fight close to them. Their ‘groming-reverie’ was broken and they left, Anna at their heels. I was at the back of the group, usually a great place to spot sneaky copulations. We were soon going uphill. There weren’t a lot of rest stops, AMY had had two hours of idle morning time too andwere pumped up with all just oil-palm juice I guess. Higher and higher we went. The only good thing was that it was much cooler today and the sun was still hidden behind clouds. We reached an area where I haven’t been before, after having climbed a whole bunch of moss-covered and now slippery rocks and clearing away some Bertam. I realised that AMY was now going down on the other side. Anna was looking for her focal Casimodo who had suddenly disappeared and I was about to follow her when I looked to my right and halted. It was a clearing through all the canopy, and we were at a height. And what lay in front of me was a beautiful, unobscured view…of the ocean. Could this be? Were we at Anna’s “Beautiful viewing point”? Turns out we were, or at least I was. Right about now, I wished for the sun to be out, but meh! I was finally here, so it didn’t matter- it was still quite pretty. I went further down and found Anna. Sadly Casimodo had not taken the scenic route so Anna wasn’t able to see her “beautiful view”. She;s here doing a PhD. She’ll have more opportunities.

It was about 5:20 when the hoos and hmms started. A sign that the macacques were ready for bed. “So early?”, Anna and I wondered out loud. At about 6, Anna saw Goldie and decided to do a focal on her before she climbed up a tree to sleep. Anna climbed down with Goldie and I decided to wait to see whther I too would need to climb down. When Anna didn’t come up by 6:40 I went down, the trail to go back was closer from her location anyway. It turns out they had climbed quite a long way back down. I recorded one last mounting and one event of harassment (Pamkin attacked and chased Brienne) at 6:52. I was close to 7 when we left but thanks to Anna, we were back in the plantation by 7:05- a feat that I still can’t possibly achieve on my own.


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